‘The protective mechanisms that the city built after Sandy did little to stop what New York experienced the night of Ida, bringing into sharp relief not just that climate catastrophe is here, but that it will take different forms, demanding different kinds of preparation.’
On the night of Sept. 1 when the remnants of Hurricane Ida struck New York, setting the record for the longest and most rainfall that New York City has ever witnessed, I had the misfortune of being outdoors, dining in one of the many sheds that have been placed to sustain restaurants during the pandemic. The first flood warning I received was not from my phone via the city’s emergency notification system, but from the subway operator when our train froze midway through a tunnel in lower Manhattan. Our L train was to experience “extensive delays” due to flooding, he announced. Fortunately, the train moved within 10 minutes, but suffice to say it was a real Jonah in the belly of the whale moment that foreshadowed the biblical floods to come.
That night, going from lower Manhattan through downtown and central Brooklyn towards southern Brooklyn where I reside, I was given a glimpse into the climate crisis’s impacts across the city in a way that I never anticipated I would. As observers noted, the northern and inland communities of Brooklyn were some of the most impacted by the flooding, while the southern and coastal Brooklyn neighborhoods did not encounter the same levels of floods. These coastal neighborhoods were most impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with my own area of Brighton Beach witnessing anywhere from 5 to7 feet of flooding. The protective mechanisms that the city built after Sandy did little to stop what New York experienced the night of Ida, bringing into sharp relief not just that climate catastrophe is here, but that it will take different forms, demanding different kinds of preparation.
When Hurricane Sandy struck, it was still a proper hurricane by the time it hit Gotham, and the consequent flooding was a result of storm surge from rising seawater, which rendered low-lying coastal areas particularly vulnerable. However, the flooding that the city witnessed as a result of Ida was different. Ida was not a hurricane by the time it reached New York City—it was the tail-end of one, which meant that the flooding came not from rising seawater but from rainfall which follows large superstorms.
In this case, paradoxically, it was the low-lying neighborhoods with proximity to the coast that had a natural buffer to absorb heavy rainfall. New York’s streets are made of asphalt, which causes water to run downhill rather than being absorbed into the ground, and the city’s drainage system is at the street-level, which means that if you are on a high-lying area, it takes time for the water to flow downhill, and in the case of Ida, the heavy rainfall quickly outpaced the ability of the city’s sewers to absorb the impact, leading to excess flooding. What New York experienced that night—and can expect to experience going forward—is known as pluvial flooding, when flooding exceeds the capacity of drainage to manage it, and for which the city’s mechanisms for dealing with rising seas and storm surge offer little help.
But this is not a case to be disheartened. Ida can serve as a lesson that different disasters will require different solutions, and that the city must be prepared to deal with them from all angles. There are a number of things the city can do to prevent climate disasters.
The first is the simplest: plant more trees. Research has shown that not only does greenery serve as a strong buffer to absorb excess floodwater, but that trees in particular, when plentiful and well-planted, offer coolness to neighborhoods in the blazing summer heat. This is in addition to beautifying a neighborhood, which also contributes to overall wellbeing and quality of life. And sadly, it is Black and brown communities in particular that have a paucity of greenery.
After World War II, city planner Robert Moses—who was New York City’s Parks Commissioner from 1934 to 1960—helped fashion the concept of the public park as we know it today. Virtually no public park in New York City was left untouched by his planning. Now, in an age of climate catastrophe, every single public park should have blue-green infrastructure (BGI), which essentially entails building public space where the environment is conducive to bringing water towards vegetation. This could mean that greenery be built in areas where water flows downhill, or it could mean the construction of rain gardens and parks that are able to retain some of the flooding. At least one rain garden (which is about the length of two sidewalk squares) on every block should not be an unreasonable goal. To no surprise, on my way home the night of Ida, when we drove through Prospect Park—the greenest area in all of Brooklyn—the roads were flood-free.
Secondly, there is the matter of housing. The climate crisis is intimately connected to the housing crisis. Indeed, those most deeply harmed by this storm were those residing in basement dwellings that flooded, leading to a number of deaths. These dwellings are technically illegal because they pose fire and flood hazards, among other things, and thus their residents should be incentivized to move to safer housing. But doing so would require a two-pronged approach: first, to increase housing in the first place by building more units and distributing Section 8 housing vouchers to those who qualify, and second, equipping new housing complexes with green infrastructure like green roofs and electric power. The city is already incentivizing homeowners and business owners to shift to electric energy, and such public-private partnerships ought to be encouraged, but it should be the city’s responsibility to ensure that public housing already comes with these safeguards.
This leads us to the third item on the list: decarbonization. With the recent announcement of Clean Path NY (CPNY) and Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE), following the footsteps of the Climate Act in 2019, New York is already leading the way in this regard. The city has begun to shift the energy source of its vehicles to electric power, which is commendable, but many will not be able to afford electric vehicles in the immediate future, and not all will make the change to electric. The city instead needs a radical transformation of its relationship to transit. This will require nothing short of a massive reduction on the reliance of cars—and will likely encounter heavy resistance from car owners. This is where the city can increase bike lanes, Citi Bike stations, and public transportation. For the cars on the road, there is congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing would charge a toll to drivers coming into certain parts of the city, which ideally would disincentivize car use and reduce traffic (and thus carbon emissions) in the streets, while also using the toll money from those who do drive towards building public transit, making it a win-win situation. However, bureaucracy will be an obstacle. The city has now presented a 16-month environmental review to see whether it should even be implemented. While this bureaucratic process was designed in the 20th century to prevent quick, unaccountable, top-down policy implementation, it is now paradoxically being used to forestall immediate and urgent change. The problem is that in the 21st century, the climate isn’t waiting on our schedule.
The fourth thing the city can do is improve sanitation and expand the scale and capacity of New York’s sewer system. Climate change is also a public health issue, and environmental harm inevitably affects the wellbeing of residents. Studies show that flood water can lead to all kinds of sickness, and that pollution contributes to increased health problems. Every single street corner should have containerized trash bins, and parking spaces can be repurposed for keeping trash, two proposals which progressives have outlined through the Sewer Socialist model as a way of thinking about effective governance. The city should take them seriously.
Regarding drainage, the city should begin to move away from its combined sewer system model which roughly 60 percent of its sewers are based on. In such a system, both sewer water and floodwater are managed via a single pipe, which could work under the conditions of the 20th century, but not in the age of climate catastrophe, where heavy rainfall overwhelms sewer capacity. Earlier this fall, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection developed a plan to deal precisely with this issue in flood-prone Jamaica: a stormwater drain dedicated to managing natural drainage. By spending more money on efficient stormwater and natural drainage, the city will save potentially billions of dollars in post-disaster repairs.
I left dinner the night that Ida struck at roughly 10 p.m., as the flood warnings started coming in, and did not arrive home until around 2:30 a.m. The night offered me a vivid—and ominous—image of what our city will be facing in the years to come. But hope should not be lost. New York and New Yorkers are known for their resilience, and we have come together before in response to catastrophes, be it a terror attack, a global pandemic, or a superstorm. This time, we know more catastrophe is coming, and we have the chance to be prepared. It is up to us if we take heed.
Asad Dandia is a Brooklyn-based writer and an MA student in Urban Studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.