The remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New York City a year ago Thursday, killing 13 New Yorkers and sending shockwaves through the city about the reality of climate change.
Now, homeowners are still struggling to rebuild their homes, while 109 families remain in hotels as they search for more permanent housing. Basement apartments are no safer than they were, and the city is not remotely prepared to withstand another deluge like Ida’s, which dumped over three inches of rain in under an hour on parts of the city.
On the anniversary of the city’s deadliest storm since 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, elected officials honored Ida’s victims while emphasizing a commitment to making the city more resilient over the long term. They acknowledged that much work lies ahead.
“We are taking action to protect our city and prevent future tragedies, and that includes ramping up flood protections across the city whether it’s from heavy rains or storm surge,” said Mayor Eric Adams at a morning event in South Ozone Park, Queens. “We’re adapting in real time to the realities of climate change and doing what we can to keep New Yorkers safe.”
“This is not a one-year change. This is a sustained change we have to do,” Adams later added.
Later Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul also spoke about the need for greater resiliency as she honored the “Ida heroes” at a ceremony at Elmcor, a senior and community center on the border of East Elmhurst and Corona. It was closed for 10 months due to flooding from the storm, which hit New York just as Hochul had taken over from the disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“A lot of it is the predictability issue, which is somewhat out of our hands,” Hochul said after the press conference. “We didn’t have the opportunity, we didn’t have the chance to prepare for this.”
Standing with Hochul, Commissioner Jackie Bray of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services said the administration now has a “tighter relationship with our partners at National Weather Service,” and the University of Albany is helping with weather forecasting.
Many inside and outside of government say the city and state could be doing more for New Yorkers affected by Ida and to protect against future flooding. But experts say there’s movement in the right direction.
“I’m really happy that the city is taking this seriously and understands the complexity of this challenge,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design. “We have a long way to go and we’re only going to get there if we start today.”
‘It Could Be Worse the Next Time’
Jai Patel, managing principal at Pride Hospitality Group, filed a claim for $2 million with the comptroller’s office for flooding damages at a hotel on Archer Avenue in Jamaica.
The claim, obtained by THE CITY through a Freedom of Information request to the city comptroller, included several emails Patel had sent the Department of Environmental Protection as far back as 2016 reporting flooding and asking for more stormwater drains in his area.
A bit past 7 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2021 — the night the remnants of Hurricane Ida descended upon New York — he emailed again.
“I have taken all necessary actions on my part. The problem exists due to NYC negligence to fix the water sewer,” Patel wrote. “I have been asking since 2016/2017 and so on. 2021 and still nothing.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Patel said he made repairs without government help, but is worried about worse damage in the future.
“The city is supposed to fix the sewer so it doesn’t happen again. It keeps happening,” he said. “It could be worse the next time.”
Patel is among the 4,703 people who filed a claim for sewer overflow damage with the city comptroller’s office, contending the flooding was the city’s fault. All of them received claim denials last month from Comptroller Brad Lander last month, who cited a 115-year-old court ruling that municipal governments are not liable for damage from “extraordinary and excessive rainfalls.”
Lander on Wednesday addressed the blanket denials in a letter responding to a missive sent last week by state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and other elected officials.
“The claims process is not a disaster relief program,” he wrote. “It is not within the power of the Comptroller to set new legal standards for liability, but to evaluate claims against existing ones.”
He suggested the legislature could grant New Yorkers rights to protection from the impacts of climate change or create “specific obligations for the state or municipalities.”
Lander also noted that homeowners who received insufficient funds from FEMA or were not eligible for FEMA assistance have until Sept. 12 to apply for up to $72,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations’ supplemental funding program.
Francisco Carrillo’s basement apartment in East Elmhurst was destroyed by floodwaters during Hurricane Ida. Since then, he’s stayed at a hotel by John F. Kennedy Airport and one in Williamsburg.
Carrillo’s in the United States on a student visa, which put him in a “frustrating” limbo: He couldn’t access FEMA money or tap into the state’s undocumented worker fund, he told THE CITY. While he received some donations from nonprofit organizations, he hasn’t received any help from the city or the state.
Carrillo’s next move is to a Manhattan hotel for two months.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, because I can only stay until November,” Carillo said.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who last year called for the city to create a program to help rebuild storm-damaged homes, said all levels of government need to do more to help storm-affected residents rebound.
“The city needs to create some permanent infrastructure around rebuilding homes, it’s not going to be the last time we see a crisis of this magnitude,” Richards said. “It’s going to cost the city more in the long run if we don’t figure out a way to assist these homeowners.”
Though the Department of Environmental Protection is constructing some upgrades, Chief Climate Officer and DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala concedes that the sewer system will never be able to accommodate Ida-level amounts of rain. Sewers that large would require us to tear down homes and businesses, he said in South Ozone with the mayor Thursday.
“Our path to resilience requires us to look to nature to augment our sewer system to build green infrastructure that will complement our gray concrete infrastructure,” Aggarwala said.
The idea behind the nature-based projects is to create street and building surfaces that can absorb water and prevent it from reaching the city’s sewer system in the first place.
Largely reiterating the elements of existing city plans, Aggarwala and Adams said the DEP would install 2,300 new rain gardens around the city, including 1,000 by the year’s end. Each garden can absorb about 2,500 gallons of water.
Other efforts include installing 500 flood sensors in various neighborhoods over the next five years and creating so-called cloudburst projects that can store sudden, large amounts of rainwater. Nearly 30 sensors have already been installed and another 50 are set to go up by the end of the year.
The first large cloudburst rain collector is set to be installed at NYCHA’s South Jamaica Houses, where a basketball court will be able to capture water, according to a plan that’s been on the books since at least 2018.
Aggarwala said the city is also determining how to create a citywide network of “bluebelts” — projects that enhance natural watersheds to manage stormwater — with the help of Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
On Thursday evening, the nonprofit organization Chhaya, which works with South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities primarily in Queens, held a candlelight vigil in Jackson Heights for those who lost their lives in the storm; neighbors in East Elmhurst will do the same.
“When we remember and mourn the victims of extreme weather,” said Kizzy Charles-Guzman, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, “we’re here committed to transform, adapt and prepare our city, investing to not only protect New Yorkers from climate hazards, but also to make our city cleaner, greener and a more equitable place to live.”