Days after Hurricane Ida unleashed a torrent of rain across New Jersey, the state’s death toll rose to 25, with six people reported missing. 

Flood waters washed away cars, destroyed basement and ground-level apartments and even flooded schools, forcing some campuses to delay reopening. Governor Phil Murphy said most people died as a result of flooding and no deaths were attributed to the three tornadoes that touched down in the southern part of the state. On Wednesday, Murphy declared a state of emergency.

A tornado-damaged house in Mullica Hill, NJ on September 1, 2021

Some municipalities received as much as 11 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. 

“It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure folks realize that rain is increasingly the central element of these storms and water can kill you,” Murphy said after touring Millburn businesses damaged in the storm on Friday. “You have to treat that with the same amount of respect as a tornado.” 

According to Murphy’s office, six people died in Hunterdon County, five in Union County, four in Essex, four in Somerset, three in Middlesex, and one person each in Bergen, Mercer and Passaic counties. 

“Our thoughts and prayers are with every family and community mourning a loved one,” Murphy said. 

In Elizabeth, a family of three and their neighbor drowned inside a first-floor apartment at Oakwood Plaza, a low-income housing complex. Rosa Espinal, 72, and her husband Jose Torres, 71, died, along with their 38-year-old son, Jose Torres, and a neighbor, 33-year-old Shakia Garrett, according to the city. Spokesperson Kelly Martins said all complex residents were temporarily evacuated to the Elizabeth high school sports center until they’re relocated to hotels. 

Elizabeth’s schools also pushed back the start of classes by one week due to flooding on the district’s campuses. School will now resume for students on Sept. 14. 

In Bergen County, Cresskill Schools Superintendent Mike Burke said the town’s high school was flooded with three to four feet of water. While the rectangular building is next to a brook, Burke said he’s never seen it flood so severely.  During the storm, water surrounded the school, trapping its custodian and destroying classrooms, lockers, and the auditorium.

“I was waiting to see a hallway that was not filled with dirt, debris, sewage and I could not find one,” Burke said. “It overtook the school.”

The superintendent said it would take months to repair the school and he expects to have classes start remotely for the building’s 1,000 middle and high school students next week.

Homeowners removed items from their flooded damaged homes in Cranford, NJ, September 3, 2021

“This is an emergency,” he said. “We don’t have an option because the building is unusable.”

In the meantime, Burke is reaching out to other districts and private schools to try to find space to educate the students, but he needs to keep classes together and has to consider the transportation challenges. 

“There was already enough anxiety and nerves about COVID and about the pandemic and now this is another variable,” he said. “They were already nervous enough about coming back with masks so it’s really rough.”

Murphy has mandated all schools provide in-person instruction this school year. A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said schools cannot provide remote instruction unless there is a change in the law. It’s not clear if the state will work with Cresskill to find a temporary facility to avoid a remote opening. 

Statewide, more than 92,000 people lost power from the storm, though most had been restored by Friday.