After the Storm

Death toll rises after Ida’s remnants hit NYC - raising questions about the city’s climate preparedness

| 03 Sep 2021 | 11:42

The remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated large swaths of the northeastern U.S. with historic and unanticipated fury Wednesday night, killing at least 14 people in flooding in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as basement apartments suddenly filled with water, rivers and creeks swelled to record levels and roadways turned into car-swallowing canals.

Eight people died when they became trapped in flooded basements, New York City police said.

Water from record rainfall cascaded into New York City subway tunnels, trapping trains and forcing the cancelation of service throughout the night and early morning. Videos online showed riders standing on seats in cars filled with water. All riders were evacuated safely, officials said.

Thursday morning, the nation’s largest city was slow to recover from catastrophic flooding that was reminiscent of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The National Weather Service recorded 3.15 inches (8.91 centimeters) of rain in Central Park in one hour Wednesday night, far surpassing the previous recorded high of 1.94 inches (4.92 centimeters) that fell in one hour during Hurricane Henri on Aug. 21. Scientists have warned such weather extremes will be more common with man-made global warming.

The rain in the tri-state area ended by daybreak Thursday as rescuers searched for more stranded people and braced for potentially finding more bodies.

“We’re enduring an historic weather event tonight with record breaking rain across the city, brutal flooding and dangerous conditions on our roads,’’ New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said while declaring a state of emergency in New York City late Wednesday.

Among the other deaths reported in New York City, a 48-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man died after being found at separate residences, and a 43-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man both died after being found inside a home. Causes of death and identifications were pending.

“A Historic Event”

In New York City, officials banned travel for all but emergency vehicles until early Thursday and warned against unnecessary travel into the morning. Subway stations and tracks became so flooded that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority suspended all service.

“This was a historic event,” Janno Lieber, the acting chair and CEO of the MTA, said in an interview with NY1. “We were running a pretty normal commute, right up until that 9 to 10 p.m. hour when that historic one hour rainfall records took place. At that point, we started to lose individual trains and parts and sections of the system because, obviously, water and power don’t mix.”

Up to 17 trains got stranded in between stations during the flooding and had to be rescued, according to Lieber. He said the city’s bus drivers acted heroically in staying on the roads throughout the storm and getting people home.

On Thursday, full subway service had not yet been restored. Lieber said the MTA was working to pump water out of flooded locations and that service would be restored slowly throughout the day.

“It’s hard to predict actually full service because there’s still some areas we had 21 flooded locations, and we have a very limited service right now on the number lines ... but we’re getting service back, hour by hour, and we have service on the letter lines: the A train, the F train, the D train, we’re putting service back on. The L train is running the Q train is running from Coney Island into Manhattan, so we’re starting to see service come back and that’s going to continue.”

As of Friday, several of the subway lines – particularly the number lines – were running on delays or service was partially suspended. A notice appeared on the MTA’s website warning rides to “expect significant delays and services changes.” Work to repair damaged rails was expected to continue over the weekend.

The FDR Drive in Manhattan and the Bronx River Parkway were under water during the storm. Garbage bobbed in the water rushing down streets.

The National Weather Service office in New York issued its first-ever set of flash flood emergencies in the region Wednesday night, alerts only sent in the most dangerous conditions.

Climate Concerns

In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the connection between Ida’s deadly toll and the urgent threat of climate change.

“I think we have to acknowledge it’s a whole new paradigm now. You know, it’s – Sandy was horrible, the impact on this city, and we’ve been putting together $20 billion of infrastructure projects. They’ve been building out ever since Sandy. So, now that kind of storm, we’re much better protected from, but this was a whole different reality,” de Blasio told host Willie Geist. “The flooding actually didn’t happen – the lives weren’t lost in the coastal areas, which is where Sandy hit. Lives were lost in places far away from any seashore because of stunning amounts of water coming down so quickly, flooding basements, and catching people unaware. This is a different reality.”

The mayor added that the city needs to rethink its strategy in preparing for possibly dangerous storms.

“The way forward, we’re going to have to talk to people early in each event about much more intense actions, travel bans, for example. We would historically not think of telling people don’t go on the streets, don’t go on the subways, you know, literally banning travel,” he said. “In this case, we need a plan to evacuate folks who live in basements when we have extreme rain and flooding, I’m telling you, this was not part of any previous playbook, but we’ve got to literally change the whole way of thinking because as good as some of the projections are, they can’t always keep up with weather that changes this rapidly and this radically.”

Other politicians, however, spoke of the need for greater preemptive strategies to combat climate change and its impact.

“Climate change is here and we are not ready,” Council Member Mark Levine tweeted along with a video of the 28th St. station on the 6 line inundated with flood water. The Council member, who became the Democrats’ nominee for Manhattan borough president in June, tweeted throughout the evening, noting that the storm was a sign that climate change is not just a future threat but a present threat, and that the city needs to adapt quickly.

“We must commit to more resiliency planning to protect our infrastructure during climate change-induced storms like we’re experiencing tonight,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman tweeted Wednesday night.

There are a variety of resiliency project across the city, including a controversial plan at East River Park that has come under scrutiny by local residents, but there is a lack of a sweeping city-wide plan to curb the flooding many Manhattan residents experienced Wednesday. Even congestion pricing, which aims to cut down on the city’s carbon emissions, still has a long way to go before implementation (with public hearings set to begin on Sept. 13).

Rep. Carolyn Maloney said it was time for federal action.

“What NYC experienced last night was devastating. 7 lives were lost, including someone as young as 2 years old,” Maloney said in a tweet. The number of fatalities in the metro area was later updated to tally seven more deaths. “Climate change is no joke and lives are being taken. We need a #GreenNewDeal NOW.”

With Democrats holding a thin majority in Congress, however, meaningful federal action on climate change is unlikely. The city and state legislative bodies will likely need to act on their own to address resiliency concerns and mitigate the impact of climate change.

Contributed reporting from Emily Higginbotham

“Climate change is no joke and lives are being taken. We need a #GreenNewDeal NOW.” Rep. Carolyn Maloney on Twitter