Ida Flood Victims Face Another Storm Season With Sandbags and Bad Sewers
While officials work toward sewer and drain upgrades and ‘green infrastructure’ to absorb water, people in at-risk neighborhoods know they are vulnerable.
William Swepson vows he’ll be ready for the next storm that’s as bad as last year’s Hurricane Ida — or worse.
The deluge dumped more than three inches of rain in less than an hour on parts of the city and caught him by surprise.
The 63-year-old writing tutor had been living in his two-story East Flatbush house since 1967, but until the night of Sept. 1, 2021, he’d never seen his street flood like it did. About six inches of water pooled on his first floor.
For this hurricane season, he bought rubber boots, and on Saturday, at a supply giveaway event hosted by the city Department of Environmental Protection at a wastewater treatment plant in East New York, he tossed inflatable dams and lumpy sandbags into the back of a U-Haul he rented for the occasion.
“I was begging these guys for as many as possible,” Swepson said. “With this, I’m not sure how it’s gonna work, but it’s better than nothing.”
Swepson received one of the 18,732 letters the DEP sent to households this summer in areas at risk of at least one foot of stormwater flooding, informing them of their eligibility to receive free tools to limit the incursion of water.
It’s an effort by the city to offer some protection to New Yorkers even as the sewer system remains inadequate to handle the intensity of modern storms like Ida, while ramping up projects that both increase the system’s capacity and prevent water from entering it in the first place.
Ida offered a taste of what climate scientists expect to be a new normal. The storm highlighted the need to “rainproof New York City,” as Rebuild by Design Managing Director Amy Chester told THE CITY a year ago, by making surfaces better able to absorb and redirect water.
Old Standards, New Projects
The city’s sewer system was built to handle about 1.75 inches of rain per hour, a standard the city is re-evaluating, according to Chief Climate Officer and DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala. Before the 1970s, borough presidents set the sewer standards, which is why the capacity of the system is still uneven across neighborhoods. Revamping the system to withstand storms like Ida would cost about $100 billion, according to DEP estimates.
While projects to modernize sewers and pipes are in the works, the DEP is turning its focus to green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, permeable paved playgrounds, green roofs and natural watershed enhancements. The department has completed about 11,000 projects so far.
“They’re really at the beginning of this,” said Rob Freudenberg, vice president of the energy and environment program at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association. “A lot of the green infrastructure they’re doing now is primarily focused on keeping pollution out of the waterway. I think it’ll take a little while before we see more things happening in places that flood.”
Do You Live in a Flood Zone?
There are several ways to figure out the risk of flooding in your neighborhood:
- Check this map released in summer 2022 to see if your building has a high risk of flooding from stormwater, i.e. heavy rainfall.
- Use this look-up tool from FloodHelpNY by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which shows storm surge-related flood risk based on federal projections.
- Consult the “Know Your Zone” page from the Office of Emergency Management. Use its address search to see if your home fits into one of the city’s six hurricane evacuation zones.
- Remember: Each of the above tools measure different types of flooding and risk. Your building may be at risk for flooding from rain, even if it is far from the waterfront.
— Rachel Holliday Smith
The Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget last Friday proposed spending $30 million of $188 million in federal disaster relief funding on 25 to 30 nature-based projects in areas most impacted by Ida.
In all, the Adams administration promised to install 1,300 green infrastructure projects by June 2023 as part of its Rainfall Ready NYC plan — unveiled in July along with maps that show block-by-block flood risk.
The flood barrier giveaway was part of Rainfall Ready, though resilency experts have questioned whether people can deploy the barriers in a timely and effective enough manner to make a difference.
In East Elmhurst, Yurly Olivares has seen the limits of flood barriers. She’s had sandbags sitting outside her home for the past several years, but they haven’t stopped rainwater from seeping in.
“It’s hurricane season, so we’re all paranoid right now. It’s traumatizing,” said Olivares, 34. “We’ve all had to fend for ourselves.”
Around the corner from Olivares’ block, the city installed catch basins, which neighbors have said have so far been effective in catching rainwater. Now, she’s organizing a petition for the city to install drains in the alley on her block, where she said water pools every time it rains and sometimes gushes up through toilets and shower drains.
The DEP is upgrading drainage systems in Southeast Queens to the tune of $2.5 billion and committed to completing nine sewer projects by next June, but did not specify what or where they are.
DEP and the Sanitation Department in July promised to clear catch basins before storms in at-risk locations, but so far that plan remains untested.
That the city has repeatedly acknowledged the system is inadequate is frustrating to many of the 4,703 New Yorkers who filed a claim for sewer overflow damage with the city comptroller’s office, which denied them all in mid-August.
The people who filed the claims contended that the city’s negligence in sewer maintenance led to flooding damage, but Comptroller Brad Lander cited a 1907 precedent that ruled municipal governments are not liable for damage from “extraordinary and excessive rainfalls” — even if the city’s sewer system was under capacity.
“In 1907 my street was a pond! It doesn’t make any sense,” said Amit Shivprasad, who received a denial letter and whose family owns a house in Hollis that Ida’s flooding wrecked. “It’s not our fault the city has weak infrastructure.”
Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), who represents Ida-flooded neighborhoods including East Elmhurst, last week sent a letter to Lander, arguing that the city should accept responsibility for its “failure to adapt, maintain and prepare storm infrastructure for consistently extreme weather.”
“Our neighbors are entitled to relief from the city,” Ramos told THE CITY. “The lack of planning, providing them with resources and preparing them for the storm is also the city’s fault.”
Andrew MacDowell, who runs a podcast company and lives in a first-floor apartment in Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Heights, said no one checked his local catch basins before Ida hit and flooded his street.
Water seeped into the basement of his apartment building, destroying a computer and monitors he kept there, plus family keepsakes. The landlord had to replace the boiler, too.
MacDowell said the comptroller’s blanket denials didn’t reassure him that the city was prepared or accountable for keeping New Yorkers safe in future storms that will only get worse with time.
“If it’s the city’s responsibility to ensure that its infrastructure is up to the task of allowing the people who comprise it to survive major weather events, then it doesn’t really pass the sniff test,” that the city denied its liability, he said.
In the meantime, MacDowell said there’s a group text with a handful of neighbors on it who are going to make sure the drains aren’t clogged before a storm.
“Whenever the rain just sort of feels heavy,” he said, “I stick my head out several times during the rainfall just to see if the drain is flowing properly.”