City Caught Flat-Footed on Flood as Deluge Dredges Up Past Lessons

City Caught Flat-Footed on Flood as Deluge Dredges Up Past Lessons

Streets were flooded in South Williamsburg as torrential downpours hit the city on Friday, Sept. 29. Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

By Katie Honan and Samantha Maldonaldo | September 29, 2023

Parents, public officials and climate advocates all say the mayor and his team were ill-prepared for the effects of a storm that was on the radar days before.

Record rainfall soaked New York on Friday, disrupting public transportation and schools while flooding streets and homes as officials struggled to cope with the deluge — and Mayor Eric Adams fended off waves of criticism for his administration’s handling of the storm.

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Parents, environmentalists and regular commuters alike were steamed for not being given more of a warning by city officials.

“Every time climate change events happen — and we’re seeing it happen in real time — we’re seeing less and less planning, and it’s the kids who have to suffer,” said Jennifer Salgado of The Bronx, who had to get a cab for her sister to come home early from high school in downtown Manhattan.

The mayor spoke to New Yorkers just before 12 p.m. — well after the horrific morning commute and hours into a storm that flooded 150 schools, countless homes, and miles of streets and highways, even the inside of a bus. The surging waters also shut down Terminal A at LaGuardia Airport.

In defending his handling of the chaos wrought by the rain, Adams said: “We have notifyNYC, we use the various social media channels, and [Emergency Management] Commissioner [Zach] Iscol has been speaking about this from afternoon yesterday, so all the necessary precautions were taken.”

He added, “We’ve gone through these flood-related and heavy rain conditions before and we followed the right protocol.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul for her part publicly declared a state of emergency at around 9:45 Friday morning due to flooding — although students were already in school by then.

Adams announced the same for the city during the noon media briefing but spokesperson Fabien Levy later said the administration had internally declared a state of emergency earlier in the day but just hadn’t announced it.

“Just because we’re having the briefing now around 11:30, 12, whatever it is right now, it doesn’t mean the decision wasn’t made earlier today,” he told reporters.

About four to six inches of rain fell by Friday afternoon, with another two to four inches expected through the day, according to the National Weather Service. Across the city, areas including Park Slope, Gowanus and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn, SoHo in Manhattan, as well as Southeastern Queens, experienced major flooding.

It was the wettest day in New York City since the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021, according to Iscol. It was also the wettest September day on record at John F. Kennedy Airport, surpassing the previous mark set by Hurricane Donna in 1960 — with more than six inches falling since midnight Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is not an ordinary rainfall. This is historic. We are on track to possibly create a new record of 10 inches of rain falling in literally 24 hours,” Hochul said Friday in a late afternoon press briefing. “The last time we even had this number was in 1955 and that was over a two-day period. This is Hurricane Ida-level waters.”

During Ida, the Weather Service measured more than three inches an hour at the storm’s peak, with more than seven inches in all in many parts of the city. At least 13 people died, including 11 who drowned in flooded basements.

Now, like then, the deluge overwhelmed the city’s sewer system, which is designed to hold just 1.75 inches of water per hour. While the city has been making progress with infrastructure projects that will help accommodate downpours, it’s nowhere near as prepared as it needs to be, resiliency experts told THE CITY.

In Queens, Woodside resident Samsul Chowdhury, whose basement flooded during Ida, was again dealing with a flooded basement on Friday.

“I got at least 3.5 inches of water,” by Friday morning, he said. “It’s not that bad, but similar to [Ida].”

‘It Doesn’t Get More Public Safety Than This’

As of 12 p.m. Friday, the FDNY had rescued an unknown number of people from six flooded basements across the city, Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said at the news briefing.

Emergency responders also made four rescues of flooded cars on the Belt Parkway, two on the FDR Drive, two on the Prospect Expressway and one on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, according to a fire department spokesperson.

Some local leaders criticized the mayor and governor’s handling of the event, saying that warnings weren’t communicated sufficiently and early enough.

“This storm is once again proving there is a glaring structural need for better interagency communication, as well as improved communication to the public about severe weather like this,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said in a statement.

Workers repair leaks in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens while a deluge blanketed the city Friday morning. Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that promotes environmental resilience, pointed out that despite the onslaught of NotifyNYC alerts that went out to about an eighth of the city’s population, many New Yorkers still did not know what to do this morning and lacked clear direction.

“The governor declared a state of emergency at 11 o’clock,” she said. “That feels late because a lot of the flooding that affected people was during the morning commute.”

Eddie Bautista, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, questioned why Adams did not appear before the public until well into the storm.

“I don’t understand how a mayor whose prime campaign narrative was public safety…is public safety only when it comes to street crime?” he said. “It doesn’t get more public safety than this.”

Official communications should not only come with warnings but also actionable advice, said Daniel Zarrilli, the former chief climate policy advisor in the de Blasio administration.

“It’s not enough to say there’s going to be a problem, but not tell people what to do about  it,” he said.

Though officials encouraged New Yorkers to avoid travel at the midday briefing, many schoolchildren and workers across the city had already commuted, not realizing the severity of the storm.

Schools Chancellor David Banks said 150 out of the system’s 1,400 schools took on some water but declared “nothing has impacted our ability to safely educate our students in any of our schools.”

Salgado, of Kingsbridge, put her younger sister in a $100 cab from the High School for Health Professions and Human Services on the Lower East Side to the Bronx on Friday once the school let them leave early.

The teen only went to school because she had three tests scheduled that were later canceled. Once the flooding caused subway shutdowns, Salgado was concerned about her sister getting home, she said.

“There were so many other things he could have done and [the mayor] did nothing, Meanwhile all these kids are now having to figure out how to get home,” Salgado said.

“It really should have been a top-down approach, the mayor really should have had better contingency plans.”

Siobhan Thomas, who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, sent her 13-year-old son Orion to school in Chelsea early Friday on the F train before major flooding happened.

“We thought there was going to be rain, but we had no idea this was going to be an event,” she said. Her husband, Pakorn Bupphavesa, who works from home, planned Friday afternoon to pick their son up as the subways were still affected by taking a bus to downtown Brooklyn, and then the A.

“He’s just going to trek into the city, because everything could be fine by 3 but everything can also be a mess, and he doesn’t want to leave Orion alone to figure out how to get home,” she said. They ended up taking the C train to the B103 bus, a departure from his usual commute.

The rain also collided with the New York’s ongoing migrant crisis, as people were kicked out of the Jefferson Street shelter in Bushwick Friday, despite the storm, as part of the city policy to evict those who’ve spent at least 60 days in the city’s care. That policy has recently been moved up to 30 days before eviction.

With the L train suspended, some walked about a mile on foot to the M train to return to the Roosevelt Hotel intake center in Midtown Manhattan to find another shelter bed.

Climate Change’s Recurring Themes

Similar to Ida, climate change was the main culprit behind the heavy downpour on Friday.

“The sad reality is our changing climate is changing faster than our infrastructure can respond,” said city Chief Climate Officer Rit Aggarwala.

He noted that the Department of Environmental Protection began preparing for the storm midday Thursday by clearing catch basins and encouraging residents to do the same, as well as set up flood barriers.

Janno Lieber, CEO of the MTA, on Friday said that after Ida, the agency worked to make flood-prone subway stations more resilient. Because of those efforts, he said, “There haven’t been any of those crazy washouts inside the stations.”

But buckets of water still poured into many stations, as seen in various social media posts. And transit officials said over half of the subway system was fully or partially suspended.

Citywide, the DEP is working to increase green infrastructure — natural systems like rain gardens, permeable playgrounds and organic roofs that can absorb and redirect water — in part through a $3.5 billion commitment, and expand the sewer infrastructure in some neighborhoods.

The DEP is also working on a series of cloudburst projects that can capture water during torrential rains. The projects will be located in St. Albans, East Harlem, Corona, Kissena Park, Parkchester, and East New York. The first project, which comprises a sunken basketball court located in South Jamaica, Queens, will break ground this fall, according to the DEP.

The work so far is on the right track, officials and observers say, but nowhere near close to the full extent that must be done to allow the city to accommodate heavy amounts of rainfall.

“We’re definitely understanding our risk more, but we haven’t done everything that needs to happen,” Chester said. “Two years sounds like an enormous amount of time for residents of New York City but in terms of planning time, it’s really quite short. It’s hard for the city to mobilize the enormous change that has to happen so fast.”

In the meantime, individuals clearing drains and setting up protections ahead of the storm was the best that could be done to stave off the worst effects of flooding.

In East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Julianna Robinson and her husband, Bernard, used brooms to push the water that had accumulated in the ground-level basement of their home down the drain. The couple, who are in their 70s, had picked up sandbags and inflatable flood barriers from a DEP giveaway in East New York last August, and those supplies helped to an extent.

“The inflatables didn’t work very well,” Robinson said. “But the sandbags helped us the most. We keep them outside the door all the time now…when they say there’s rain, we just push them up against the door. It’s a thing now, a regular thing. We live like this now.”

The Robinsons had a doctor’s appointment in the morning but it was canceled because the examination room had flooded.

At Elmhurst Hospital in Queens the rain caused several leaks in the 66-year-old building, from the emergency department to the nursery, according to staff.

“Every time one of these issues occurs, it’s like we have this setback to the operating budget: All the overtime occurs to repair things, the material that we have to purchase,” hospital Chief Operating Officer Milenko Milinic told THE CITY.  “That’s all money that could have gone to upgrades and patients and put towards the actual services that we’re providing.”

In East Elmhurst, Yurly Olivares and her neighbors have for years experienced rainwater filling up the alleyway behind their homes and seeping in, including during Ida. On Friday, she said sandbags and pumps kept the water out of her family’s home, but that wasn’t true for everyone on her street. She’s been petitioning the city for upgraded storm drains and sewers for over a year.

“Last house on the alleyway always gets it the worst because it all pools at the end for them,” she said in a text message. “Sewers can’t handle it and it comes back in [through the] tub and toilets and then through the backyard door and garage.”

This story was published by THE CITY on September 29, 2023.

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