Hurricane Ida victims receive sandbags for hurricane season

William Swepson swears he’ll be ready for the next storm 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 took him by surprise.

The 63-year-old writing tutor had lived in his two-story East Flatbush home since 1967, but until the night of September 1, 2021, he had never seen his street flooded as it did. About six inches of water accumulated on its first floor.

For this hurricane season, he bought rubber boots, and on Saturday at a supplies distribution event hosted by the city’s Environmental Protection Department at a sewage treatment plant in the east of New York, he threw inflatable dams and lumpy sandbags into the back of a U-Haul he rented for the occasion.

“I was begging these guys for as much as possible,” Swepson said. “With this, I don’t know how it’s going to work, but it’s better than nothing.”

Swepson received one of 18,732 letters DEP sent to households this summer in areas at risk of at least a foot of stormwater flooding, advising them of their eligibility to receive free tools to limit water incursion.

It’s a city effort to provide some protection for 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 capacity of the system and prevent water from entering it in the first place. .

The Robinson family collected flood barriers and sandbags for their home at a Department of Environmental Protection event in East New York on August 27, 2022.

Samantha Maldonado/THE CITY

Ida offered a taste of what climate scientists expect to be a new normal. The storm highlighted the need to “protect New York from the rain”, as Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, told THE CITY a year ago, by improving the ability of surfaces 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 reassessing, according to Climate Director and DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala. Prior to the 1970s, borough presidents set sewer standards, which is why system capacity is still uneven from neighborhood to neighborhood. Revamping the system to weather storms like Ida would cost around $100 billion, according to DEP estimates.

While sewer and pipe upgrade projects are underway, DEP is focusing on green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, permeable paved playgrounds, green roofs, and natural watershed enhancements. The department has completed approximately 11,000 projects to date.

“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 putting in place right now is mostly focused on keeping pollution out of the waterway. I think it will be a while before we see more things happening in flooded places.

Last Friday, the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget proposed spending $30 million of $188 million in federal disaster relief funds for 25 to 30 nature-based projects in the worst-affected areas. by Ida.

In total, the Adams administration has promised to install 1,300 green infrastructure projects by June 2023 as part of its Rainfall Ready NYC plan — unveiled in July with maps showing block-by-block flood risk.

The flood barrier giveaway was part of Rainfall Ready, though resiliency experts wondered if people could deploy the barriers quickly and efficiently enough to make a difference.

In East Elmhurst, Yurly Olivares saw the limits of the flood barriers. She’s had sandbags in front of her house for several years, but they haven’t stopped rainwater seeping in.

“It’s hurricane season, so we’re all paranoid right now. ‘It’s traumatic,’ said Olivares, 34. “We all had to fend for ourselves.”

The city’s environmental protection department donated inflatable dams like this on August 27, 2022.

Samantha Maldonado/THE CITY

At the corner of the Olivares block, the city has installed catch basins, which neighbors say have so far been effective in capturing rainwater. Now she’s organizing a petition for the city to install drains in her block’s alley, where she says water pools every time it rains and sometimes gushes out of toilets and shower drains.

DEP is upgrading drainage systems in southeast Queens to the tune of $2.5 billion and has pledged to complete nine sewer projects by next June, but did not say what or where they find themselves.

The DEP and the Department of Sanitation promised in July to clean sumps before storms in at-risk areas, but so far that plan has not been tested.

feeling of sinking

The city’s repeated acknowledgment that the system is inadequate is frustrating to many of the 4,703 New Yorkers who have filed sewer overflow damage claims with the city comptroller’s office, who have all rejected in mid-August.

Those filing the claims argued that the city’s negligence in sewer maintenance resulted in flood damage, but Comptroller Brad Lander cited precedent from 1907 that city governments are not responsible for damage caused by “extraordinary and excessive rainfall” – even though the city’s sewage system was under capacity.

“In 1907, my street was a pond! It makes no sense,” said Amit Shivprasad, who received a rejection letter and whose family owns a home in Hollis that the Ida floods destroyed. “It’s not our fault that the city has weak infrastructure.”

Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), who represents Ida’s flooded neighborhoods including East Elmhurst, sent a letter to Lander last week, arguing that the city should accept responsibility for its “inability to adapt, maintaining and preparing storm infrastructure for constant extreme conditions.” Weather report.”

“Our neighbors deserve relief from the city,” Ramos told THE CITY. “The lack of planning, of providing them with resources and of preparing them for the storm is also the fault of the city.”

Queens resident Yurly Olivares documented the flooding of an exterior of her East Elmhurst home during Hurricane Ida.

Andrew MacDowell, who runs a podcast company and lives in a first-floor apartment in Stuyvesant Heights in Brooklyn, said no one checked his local sumps before Ida hit and flooded his street.

The water seeped into the basement of his apartment building, destroying a computer and monitors he kept there, as well as family keepsakes. The owner also had to replace the boiler.

MacDowell said the comptroller’s blanket denials do not reassure him that the city is prepared or responsible for the safety of New Yorkers in future storms that will only get worse over time.

“If it’s the city’s responsibility to make sure its infrastructure is up to the job of enabling the people in it to survive major weather events, then it doesn’t really pass the sniff test,” that the city denied responsibility, 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 feels heavy,” he said, “I poke my head out a few times during the rain just to see if the drain is running properly.”

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