"Storm of historic proportions" drenches New York towns

Last Updated Aug 13, 2014 11:30 PM EDT

NORTH BABYLON, N.Y. -- A storm dumped an entire summer's worth of rain on parts of Long Island, leading to a fatal crash Wednesday and stranding drivers on roads flooded with door-handle-high water.

A person died when an SUV was hit by a tractor-trailer at 4:40 a.m. on the Long Island Expressway near Dix Hills, during the height of the storm, according to Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. He said it appeared the SUV was driving slowly when it was hit by the larger vehicle.

The person who died was in the SUV; the body was burned beyond recognition, said Burke.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called it a "storm of historic proportions," CBS New York reported.

"It was unprecedented and unpredicted -- the size, the extent, the scale," Bellone said at a news conference Wednesday.

The staggering rain total, over 13 inches, was recorded from Tuesday evening until Wednesday morning at an airport in the hamlet of Ronkonkoma in Islip. That was more than the area's normal total for June, July and August of 11.75 inches, said Joe Pollina of the National Weather Service. More than 5 inches of it fell in just a one-hour period, from 5 to 6 a.m. Wednesday, Pollina said.

Volunteer firefighters used rafts to rescue drivers, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

The flooding wreaked havoc on the morning commute, and parts of the Southern State Parkway, a key route, were closed.

"That little Miata over there was floating in the middle lane, literally floating," said James Piano of Islip Terrace, who was rescued by firefighters in North Babylon after his truck was swamped with waist-high water.

By midmorning, the water subsided there and traffic began moving again along a road surface coated with a slippery-looking film of oil, dirt and grass.

For many, though, the headaches remained. Several dozen abandoned cars were strewn along the grassy shoulder.

Juan Ortiz, of Brentwood, was standing on an overpass next to his disabled vehicle waiting for a friend, six hours after he became stranded.

At first, he had navigated puddles on the parkway "with no problem." But then, "out of nowhere, I passed underneath this overpass. ... I just ran into a lake" about 3 to 4 feet deep.

He said he thought, "What the hell's goin' on?" and then got out of his car and pushed it up a ramp and onto the overpass. He saw other people in similar straits and helped out as much as he could.

"It was ridiculous," said Ortiz, adding that he hadn't heard warnings about flooding.

"My car shut off, the water was just piling up. I started opening my windows in panic," driver Laura Cutuli from East Meadow told CBS 2's Weijia Jiang. "There was no way to get out. It was just, you were there and that was it. You couldn't get off -- the cars couldn't move."

The storm that passed over the Northeast dumped varying amounts of rain.

New York City ranged from under an inch in Central Park to over 3 inches at Kennedy Airport.

But parts of New Jersey also got more than 7 inches. Several homes were evacuated in Millville, New Jersey, because of flooding.

Baltimore got 6.3 inches, its highest rain total since 1933 and the second-highest since measurements were first taken in 1871.

The same system dumped rain on Michigan earlier in the week. Portions of several Detroit-area freeways remained closed Wednesday morning as crews worked to remove mud, trash, abandoned vehicles and other debris.

Laura Cutuli, a nurse, never made it to her job Wednesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Her stranded car was filling with water, so she had rolled down her windows to "rescue myself if I had to." Instead, firefighters aided her and other motorists.

"We were standing in the water," Cutuli said. She said it was cold, dark and "just surreal."

Her sense of humor was still intact, though.

"It's Shark Week," she said, seizing on the cable television promotion. "Thank God we weren't near the ocean."

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