New York City is dramatically expanding its storm drainage and early warning system for severe weather following the unexpected failure of existing infrastructure to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which caused 13 deaths.
“We learned from Ida that we have to do some very very different things,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced during a news conference on Monday, calling the situation “a brand new world” as he vowed to hire a private weather service that would supply a “second opinion” along with neighborhood-specific storm forecasts.
As de Blasio obliquely blames federal weather forecasters for Ida deaths in his city, note this, from @DrShepherd2013:”From a forecast perspective, the flooding event was spot on. The National Weather Service was sounding the alarm days in advance.” https://t.co/EgDVHqcj2T
— John Upton (@johnupton) September 27, 2021
Flash flooding and torrential rainfall engulfed New York City earlier this month as Hurricane Ida dropped the last of its precipitation over the northeastern US, overwhelming the city’s existing drainage system. At its most intense, the storm was dumping 3.15 inches (8 cm) of rain per hour on a sewer system designed to deal with half that amount of water.
Commuters were left stranded in waist-deep water in some subway stations as sewage and stormwater mixed into a foul stew, while abandoned cars floated along flooded highways and a handful of basement apartments transformed into watery tombs for their unfortunate residents.
While de Blasio praised the National Weather Service for its “good and important work,” he blamed their reports for being “too vague or too late” and insisted “we need something more urgent.” The mayor claimed he’d been provided with a forecast of between three to six inches of rain for the entire day, not three inches per hour.
The city has not shared details on the private weather service it plans to hire, including how much of the cost will be passed on to the taxpayer. The mayor’s plan also includes “preemptively” declaring a state of emergency and mandatory evacuations for basement apartments in the hours before heavy rain is forecast, as well as travel bans to keep people off roads and subways.
De Blasio, who had already promised to crack down on “illegal basement apartments” before the storm, noted that 11 of the 13 people who died during the downpour were trapped in flooded basements. He entered office promising to address income inequality, denouncing the “tale of two cities” represented by the extremes of poverty and wealth in New York, but will leave office at the end of the year having done little by way of bridging that gap.
Many of the poorest New Yorkers still live in illegal basement conversions, often packed several to a room in spaces with a single exit and poor ventilation.
The city apparently plans to work with “community groups” to knock on individual doors of basement apartments to inform the inhabitants of safe evacuation spaces in their neighborhoods ahead of storms. It’s unclear how they plan to identify which basements are inhabited, particularly as the flooding issue with Ida was most severe in illegal basement conversions lacking a second exit. Such apartments are unlikely to be listed on any census, though the city estimates some 100,000 people live in about 50,000 illegal basement apartments, mostly located in the outer boroughs.
There are plans for a “working group” to further study the basement apartment problem and a pilot program aimed at converting the dwellings to safer, legal spaces, but the report presented on Monday notes that the city’s drainage system will ultimately require a $100 billion upgrade, money that would have to come from Washington.
Other storm-mediation measures include expanding the installation of porous concrete pavement that will let water drain directly downward instead of flowing into storm drains and subway stations, adding green space and drainage structures to playgrounds, and installing signs along roadways warning of flooding possibilities.