Real Estate

‘If We Wait, People Will Die’: New Yorkers Still Fend for Themselves in Storms


In October 2012, Kathleen Martin was sitting in a dormitory lounge at Boston College as Hurricane Sandy bore down on her family in New York City. Throughout the night, she got updates from her family in Breezy Point, Queens: The house where her grandmother lived was flooded. So was an aunt’s. The storm surge overwhelmed the first floor of her parents’ summer home, where an uncle lived at the time. In all, four family homes were severely damaged. One had to be demolished.

The nightmare repeated itself last year when Ms. Martin’s own home filled with 12 feet of water during a flash flood brought on by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, wrecking her basement and first floor. But this was no coastal beach house — she was living on a suburban street in Mamaroneck, in Westchester County.

“Maybe we were naïve,” said Ms. Martin, now 31, who bought the four-bedroom house in August 2020 with her husband. “It certainly doesn’t seem at first glance like a place that has catastrophic flooding.”

Whatever lessons had been learned after Sandy, which brutalized the area with storm surges, coastal flooding and widespread power outages, they didn’t prepare people for the storm risk that Hurricane Ida exposed: flash floods intensified by climate change, and aging sewage systems that cannot absorb storm water fast enough. In the aftermath of Ida, policymakers are still grappling with blind spots in their post-Sandy recovery plans, and homeowners and renters are wondering what, if anything, they can do to protect themselves from rapidly deteriorating conditions.

“Our structures are a lot more vulnerable than we thought,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. “The challenge is more extensive than we recognized, it’s going to cost more than we budgeted, and it’s more urgent than we expected.”

In hindsight, Sandy stands as a book end — the beginning of an era of stronger and deadlier storms, capped a year ago by Ida, a Category 4 hurricane that managed to catch people unaware after making landfall days earlier in Louisiana.

When Ida arrived in New York on the evening of Sept. 1, 2021, it dumped more than three inches of rain on Central Park in a single hour, almost twice as much rainfall as the city’s sewage system was designed to absorb. The deluge killed dozens of people in the region — including 13 in New York City, most in their basement apartments. The National Weather Service declared a flash flood emergency in New York City for the first time.

“The idea that you could have something on a citywide scale, affecting thousands of tenants and killing 13 people, that had never occurred to me,” said Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller, sitting in his office as he recalled that night. As the city flooded, “we were all watching on our phones, watching subway videos, watching street-flooding videos.”

When Ms. Martin, a behavior analyst, bought her house, she knew it sat next to the Mamaroneck River — it’s visible from her kitchen window, just beyond her yard. On a typical day, it resembles a babbling brook, barely a damp riverbed in some spots. But on the night of Hurricane Ida, its waters rose up with stunning fury, turning her block into a lake.

Ms. Martin wasn’t home that night. She was with her mother in Breezy Point. “We go to bed and wake up at 5 a.m. to all these texts from neighbors, our friends saying there are cars floating down the street,” she said.

For renters and homeowners living in spaces that suddenly seem vulnerable, the future is precarious.

Teresa D. Figario keeps sandbags by the front door of her basement apartment in Pelham Gardens, Bronx, something she never imagined doing before Hurricane Ida. A hulking wet/dry vacuum sits in the living room near her “trusty mop,” and she keeps most of her belongings in stacked plastic bins.

“My life has completely changed,” said Ms. Figario, 39, whose apartment flooded to her waist in a matter of minutes before she fled with her cat. “I have to think in terms of, ‘If this happens again.’ It’s a horrible way to live.”

The basement had never flooded before Ida. Ms. Figario would know — her great-grandfather built the two-family house in the 1920s, and her parents and sister still live there, in the units above her. But on that night, the water bubbled up through the floors, the toilet, the door and the baseboard heaters in her apartment. It took about two months to restore the 200-square-foot space, with ceramic tile replacing carpeting, and concrete board replacing drywall. Now she stays awake on rainy nights watching her phone for flash-flood warnings, waiting for the water to come. In July, she got six inches during a heavy burst of rain.

“If I know there is a storm coming, I put everything a couple of feet up and hope for the best,” said Ms. Figario, who works in communications for the Downtown Alliance in Manhattan. Her parents plan to consult with a company that specializes in sewage issues to see if the problem is related to a backup, and if there’s a way to fix it.

Homeowners and renters affected by storms have few avenues for relief. A typical homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover flooding. Flood insurance is often limited in scope, and only about 4 percent of homeowners nationwide have it, even though 90 percent of catastrophes in the U.S. involve flooding, according to the Insurance Institute of America.

Ms. Martin, in Mamaroneck, did have federally backed flood insurance, but thus far, she said, she has recouped less than half of her $200,000 rebuilding costs. “The insurance was giving us quotes for materials that were half of what they really were,” she said.

A year later, her house has been restored, with blonde wood floors, a new kitchen with quartz countertops, a cheerful front door painted sage and a white picket fence. Ms. Martin has considered selling the house, but fears no one would buy it.

She moved the washer and dryer to the first floor and replaced the water heater with a tankless one, mounted high on the wall. She even considered raising the house, as neighbors nearby have done, but the estimates were over $150,000, and such upgrades are not covered by insurance.

Other homeowners are making similar calculations. Edward Mihelic, who started E & M Basement Waterproofing, in Bay Shore, Long Island, 43 years ago, said that before Hurricane Sandy, if a home had a sump pump and French drains, common waterproofing measures, “it was the kiss of death” because it signaled that a home was a flood risk at a time when people did not think the region faced a serious threat.

Now, Mr. Mihelic said of prospective buyers, “if you don’t have a sump pump and a French drain, they want to know why.”

Professor Klinenberg of New York University has argued that climate mitigation and adaptation plans must bolster communities, knitting them together so they can respond better in an emergency. For example, an outdoor public basketball court designed to capture rainwater during storms could build neighborhood ties and reduce the burden on storm drains. But he worries that, absent public investment, terms like “resiliency” ring hollow. “It’s a way of saying ‘We can’t protect you, so get to know your neighbors and protect yourself,” he said.

That’s a refrain Ariadna Phillips knows well. Ms. Phillips, the founder of South Bronx Mutual Aid, an activist community coalition, spent about a week after Sandy without electricity while living in Bayside, Queens, clearing fallen trees and bringing essentials to neighbors in need.

When Ida hit, she was living in a garden level apartment in City Island, Bronx, and it filled with more than two feet of water, destroying most of her property. As her home flooded, she coordinated with others in her community to rescue a neighbor who used a wheelchair from his basement apartment. “It was surreal,” she said. “I’m in a post-apocalyptic zombie video game. I’m ducking abandoned cars.”

In the aftermath, her losses came into focus. She spent over $20,000 to replace her belongings, pay for temporary housing and cover medical bills from a back injury she sustained during that time. “The amount of debt I’m in is really crippling,” she said. Renters insurance didn’t cover her damages, and her landlady gave her a few hundred dollars for storage. Mutual Aid stepped in to provide housing support, clothing and food.

“I was bouncing from place to place and begging for assistance,” said Ms. Phillips, 41, who moved from a hotel to friends’ apartments with her teenage son, Gabriel Egbert, now 14. She did eventually get about $4,000 in federal emergency aid — not nearly enough to cover her losses. She now lives in another apartment in the Bronx, on the third floor. “I don’t think I’ll ever do garden level ever again in my life,” she said. “That was really traumatic.”



Sahred From Source link Real Estate

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