Isaias whips up flash floods, tornadoes for Philadelphia region, South Jersey

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By KYW Newsradio 1060

UPDATED 9:45 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Tropical Storm Isaias packed a gut punch to the Philadelphia region and South Jersey on Tuesday with heavy rain and strong winds. The early parts of the day were marked with flash floods, evacuations, a relentless litany of watches and warnings from the National Weather Service — and even some overturned cars. 

The weather service is working to confirm reports of at least six tornadoes in the area. One was confirmed in in Strathmere, New Jersey, as were a couple more in Delaware. 

A flood warning has been issued for Montgomery County until 4 a.m. 

New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency for the day. All state offices were closed, and only essential state employees were required to report to work. The governor urged residents to stay home or to at least avoid driving through standing water. Murphy advised residents to check with the state's Office of Emergency Management for updates.

At a briefing in Woodbridge, Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Joe Fiordaliso said he expected many to be left without power, as the sustained high winds tore down tree limbs and power lines.

"One provider, at least, said it could take as much as a week to get all of those houses and locations back up to full power," he said.

The governor said the fast-moving storm tracked a little farther west than expected, dumping 4 to 5 inches of rain on the New Jersey. 

New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Pat Callahan said crews were standing by for water rescues, and that chainsaw teams from the state forest service were prepared to remove downed trees blocking roadways.

People having trouble walking facing the wind it’s so bad. Sand from the beach is also blowing onto the boardwalk #Isaias @KYWNewsradio pic.twitter.com/AYLgR7xDku

— Andrew Kramer (@Philly_Kramer) August 4, 2020

Eric Weeks was by the inlet bridge connecting Ocean City and Strathmere when he saw the tornado.

In Ocean City, rain started out light around 8 a.m. and picked up through the morning. Heavy winds ripped through the Shore town. Beach patrol lifeguards were on duty to keep people out of the ocean. 

The Boardwalk, full of bicyclists and runners earlier when the sky was clear, cleared out completely when tornado warnings started rolling in.

Steve from Baltimore ran for cover.

"It’s really crazy out here. I just came out for a cup of coffee," he said. "Wasn’t blowing too hard, and within about one minute it went from being next to nothing to can’t even keep your eyes open. Sand blowing in my face and everything. Ouch."

Most stores have stayed closed. One exception was Ocean City Coffee Co., which let this KYW reporter take shelter for a while. A T-shirt shop tried to open but closed 20 minutes later.

“My wife said there’s some activity up on Covered Bridge Road by the covered bridge,” said Don Alfano, who lives nearby. “She didn’t know what it was. But we know now.”

Jason Gibson, who lives on the other side of the bridge, said he was awakened by the sound of the arcing electrical lines.

“I heard the power lines, ‘zzzzzzzzzhht,’ real loud,” Gibson said. “I’m like, what the hell’s going on? I came out and I see the tree down and then both those lines were on fire.”

The 61-year-old bridge was undamaged by the arcing wires. 

Power was out in the Barclay Farm neighborhood, but residents say they’re glad no one was hurt.

Delaware County 

Officials throughout the region warned drivers to turn around when encountering flooded roads and to keep speeds down. There were several spin-out accidents reported throughout the region Tuesday morning, including on the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route.

Schuylkill drivers were crawling along at 30 mph late Tuesday morning. With the relentless rain and extremely poor visibility, it was difficult for drivers to judge the depth of the water in front of them.

Yet all the warnings weren't enough to stop some drivers from trying their luck on the roads. 

Eagle Road and Brierwood Road close to the Manoa Shopping Center in Havertown. @KYWNewsradio pic.twitter.com/deJAoj6Kia

— Tim Jimenez (@TimJRadio) August 4, 2020

There was some serious flooding near the Manoa Shopping Center in Havertown, with depths of at least one foot. Still, car after car drove on through, going around barriers meant to keep people away from flooded areas.

Officials say dozens of vehicles have been flooded or submerged after trying to maneuver through deep waters on area roadways, and that’s causing problems for emergency personnel. 

Delaware County Emergency Management Director Tim Boyce said they're getting slammed with phone calls, saying first responders are at their breaking point.

"We do not need extra calls for people who just disregard safety rules," hs said. "If there’s a barricade, that means a first responder has been there, checked the area and moved on. So, it really amplifies the problem when people just don’t listen."

He said first responders were delayed in the storm's aftermath.

"Roadways are blocked, and often first responders are coming across other vehicles that are floating in water. So, this is a dangerous time. People need to stay off the roads," he said.

He said another problem is people are calling 911 and, because the wait is so long, they are hanging up. He explained emergency dispatchers have to call back every hang up, so that caller is doubling the workload for those dispatchers, and it ties up two lines into the call center.

Emergency services and the Red Cross are now putting people displaced by the storm in hotels, not shelters, because of the pandemic. And this is the first time that part of the plan is going into effect.

Flooding in #DELCO @KYWNewsradio #DARBYCREEK https://t.co/fzXyXLd5Rc

— Justin Udo (@JustinUdo) August 4, 2020

Darby Creek has overflowed and forced many out of their homes, and rescue crews had to put boats in the water to help people out. 

Chris Sykes lives less than a block away from the Darby Creek, so he's used to it rising above its banks.

“It happens at least once a year, but it hasn't gotten this bad until now,” he said. 

Sykes said it was shortly before noon Tuesday when he and others in his apartment were forced to leave their building that was left partially under water.

“We didn't have any other time to grab anything else, any other clothes, or personal items or items or nothing, and it's just extremely unsettling,” he recalled.

Water from the creek came onto the intersection of Springfield Road and MacDade Boulevard, flooding stores and houses. Many had to evacuate their homes.

Berks County 

He said the main issue of concern was the wind — and resulting power outages. 

Hart said the ground was already saturated from Sunday’s big storm, which dropped as much as 7 inches in areas of the county, and he expected those outage numbers to climb as trees, with root systems loosened in the ground, toppling.

Hart said emergency personnel were also keeping an eye on the Schuylkill River, but they didn't expect it to hit near flood stage. The Blue Marsh Dam — a flood-containment area north of Reading — is at its summer capacity, but Hart said he didn't believe there would be any issues there.

He said police from several departments were patrolling roads and advising drivers to avoid any road covered by water. 

Montgomery County 

In Montgomery County, there were rescue calls to help people from cars stranded on flooded out roads, like in Lafayette Hill, where Bill O’Neill watched two cars get stuck on Germantown Pike near Joshua Road.

“Whole bunch of cars coming down the road, and two of them didn’t make it, but those guys didn’t so they had water rescue come out and get them,” he said. 

Or in a neighborhood along the Wissahickon Creek in Penllyn, where Enza Rocco said she watched rescue crews pull neighbors from their homes.

Crews searched the fast-moving and swollen river for hours but didn’t find anyone.

In Conshohocken, some homes and businesses along Plymouth Creek had to be evacuated, including Bob Moore’s auto shop.

In addition to the flooding, Montgomery County had tens of thousands of power outages, with trees and branches taking down wires.

Bucks County 

A possible tornado knocked down stop signs and flipped cars on top of each other in the parking lot of Doylestown Hospital.

An emergency management spokesperson said one-third of the power outages in Pennsylvania are in Bucks County.

Officials expect Neshaminy Creek and Perkiomen Creek to go over its banks sometime before midnight. Flood stage is expected to be 9 feet, and Neshaminy Creek could get to 12 feet over.

High winds also tore part of the roof off a day center and uprooted trees. ⁦@KYWNewsradiopic.twitter.com/HDsWeOfecE

— Paul Kurtz (@kurtzpaul) August 4, 2020

Philadelphia 

In the days to come, the Schuylkill River will continue to swell with water from other creeks in the area, and during the mayor’s press briefing Tuesday, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel warned people about the dangers of driving through such conditions.

At Philadelphia, the forecast is for 15.4 feet. When it hit 13.9 feet in 2013, streets and garages were flooded, and 15.4 feet in Philly would be the highest since 1869. 

Thiel said in a four-hour span, firefighters performed dozens of rescues in Southwest Philadelphia. He said about 200 homes were impacted by the flooding.

“I've heard people say it floods down here a lot, but this is different. This is much more severe flooding, I think, than folks have seen,” he said. 

He said the flooding forced them to use more than just their usual apparatus.

“We've been deploying boats and other rescue assets in here to basically access people, search houses and bring them out,” he explained. 

They’re working with the National Guard to get the job done, as well as with the Red Cross and other agencies to find housing for people who are displaced.

PECO is warning people in the Philadelphia area to stay away from fallen power lines and to report outages at PECO.com or call 800-841-4141.

As of 9:15 p.m., more than 212,358 PECO users across the Philadelphia region are reportedly affected by Tuesday's storms.

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KYW Newsradio's Mark Abrams, Mike DeNardo, Michelle Durham, Tim Jimenez, Andrew Kramer, Kristen Johanson, Justin Udo and Jim Melwert contributed to this report.