City Caught Flat-Footed on Flood as Deluge Dredges Up Past Lessons

By Katie Honan and Samantha Maldonado, The City. This article was originally published by THE CITY.

Record rainfall soaked New York on Friday, disrupting public transportation and schools while flooding streets and homes as officials struggled to cope with the deluge — and Mayor Eric Adams fended off waves of criticism for his administration’s handling of the storm.

Parents, environmentalists and regular commuters alike were steamed for not being given more of a warning by city officials.

“Every time climate change events happen — and we’re seeing it happen in real time — we’re seeing less and less planning, and it’s the kids who have to suffer,” said Jennifer Salgado of The Bronx, who had to get a cab for her sister to come home early from high school in downtown Manhattan.

The mayor spoke to New Yorkers just before 12 p.m. — well after the horrific morning commute and hours into a storm that flooded 150 schools, countless homes, and miles of streets and highways, even the inside of a bus. The surging waters also shut down Terminal A at LaGuardia Airport.

In defending his handling of the chaos wrought by the rain, Adams said: “We have notifyNYC, we use the various social media channels, and [Emergency Management] Commissioner [Zach] Iscol has been speaking about this from afternoon yesterday, so all the necessary precautions were taken.”

He added, “We’ve gone through these flood-related and heavy rain conditions before and we followed the right protocol.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul for her part publicly declared a state of emergency at around 9:45 Friday morning due to flooding — although students were already in school by then.

Adams announced the same for the city during the noon media briefing but spokesperson Fabien Levy later said the administration had internally declared a state of emergency earlier in the day but just hadn’t announced it.

“Just because we’re having the briefing now around 11:30, 12, whatever it is right now, it doesn’t mean the decision wasn’t made earlier today,” he told reporters.

About four to six inches of rain fell by Friday afternoon, with another two to four inches expected through the day, according to the National Weather Service. Across the city, areas including Park Slope, Gowanus and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn, SoHo in Manhattan, as well as Southeastern Queens, experienced major flooding.

It was the wettest day in New York City since the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021, according to Iscol. It was also the wettest September day on record at John F. Kennedy Airport, surpassing the previous mark set by Hurricane Donna in 1960 — with more than six inches falling since midnight Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is not an ordinary rainfall. This is historic. We are on track to possibly create a new record of 10 inches of rain falling in literally 24 hours,” Hochul said Friday in a late afternoon press briefing. “The last time we even had this number was in 1955 and that was over a two-day period. This is Hurricane Ida-level waters.”

During Ida, the Weather Service measured more than three inches an hour at the storm’s peak, with more than seven inches in all in many parts of the city. At least 13 people died, including 11 who drowned in flooded basements.

Now, like then, the deluge overwhelmed the city’s sewer system, which is designed to hold just 1.75 inches of water per hour. While the city has been making progress with infrastructure projects that will help accommodate downpours, it’s nowhere near as prepared as it needs to be, resiliency experts told THE CITY.

In Queens, Woodside resident Samsul Chowdhury, whose basement flooded during Ida, was again dealing with a flooded basement on Friday.

“I got at least 3.5 inches of water,” by Friday morning, he said. “It’s not that bad, but similar to [Ida].”

‘It Doesn’t Get More Public Safety Than This’

As of 12 p.m. Friday, the FDNY had rescued an unknown number of people from six flooded basements across the city, Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said at the news briefing.

Emergency responders also made four rescues of flooded cars on the Belt Parkway, two on the FDR Drive, two on the Prospect Expressway and one on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, according to a fire department spokesperson.

Some local leaders criticized the mayor and governor’s handling of the event, saying that warnings weren’t communicated sufficiently and early enough.

“This storm is once again proving there is a glaring structural need for better interagency communication, as well as improved communication to the public about severe weather like this,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said in a statement.

Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that promotes environmental resilience, pointed out that despite the onslaught of NotifyNYC alerts that went out to about an eighth of the city’s population, many New Yorkers still did not know what to do this morning and lacked clear direction.

“The governor declared a state of emergency at 11 o’clock,” she said. “That feels late because a lot of the flooding that affected people was during the morning commute.”

Eddie Bautista, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, questioned why Adams did not appear before the public until well into the storm.

“I don’t understand how a mayor whose prime campaign narrative was public safety…is public safety only when it comes to street crime?” he said. “It doesn’t get more public safety than this.”

Official communications should not only come with warnings but also actionable advice, said Daniel Zarrilli, the former chief climate policy advisor in the de Blasio administration.

“It’s not enough to say there’s going to be a problem, but not tell people what to do about  it,” he said.

Though officials encouraged New Yorkers to avoid travel at the midday briefing, many schoolchildren and workers across the city had already commuted, not realizing the severity of the storm.

Schools Chancellor David Banks said 150 out of the system’s 1,400 schools took on some water but declared “nothing has impacted our ability to safely educate our students in any of our schools.”

Salgado, of Kingsbridge, put her younger sister in a $100 cab from the High School for Health Professions and Human Services on the Lower East Side to the Bronx on Friday once the school let them leave early.

The teen only went to school because she had three tests scheduled that were later canceled. Once the flooding caused subway shutdowns, Salgado was concerned about her sister getting home, she said.

“There were so many other things he could have done and [the mayor] did nothing, Meanwhile all these kids are now having to figure out how to get home,” Salgado said.

“It really should have been a top-down approach, the mayor really should have had better contingency plans.”

Siobhan Thomas, who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, sent her 13-year-old son Orion to school in Chelsea early Friday on the F train before major flooding happened.

“We thought there was going to be rain, but we had no idea this was going to be an event,” she said. Her husband, Pakorn Bupphavesa, who works from home, planned Friday afternoon to pick their son up as the subways were still affected by taking a bus to downtown Brooklyn, and then the A.

“He’s just going to trek into the city, because everything could be fine by 3 but everything can also be a mess, and he doesn’t want to leave Orion alone to figure out how to get home,” she said. They ended up taking the C train to the B103 bus, a departure from his usual commute.

The rain also collided with the New York’s ongoing migrant crisis, as people were kicked out of the Jefferson Street shelter in Bushwick Friday, despite the storm, as part of the city policy to evict those who’ve spent at least 60 days in the city’s care. That policy has recently been moved up to 30 days before eviction.

With the L train suspended, some walked about a mile on foot to the M train to return to the Roosevelt Hotel intake center in Midtown Manhattan to find another shelter bed.

Climate Change’s Recurring Themes

Similar to Ida, climate change was the main culprit behind the heavy downpour on Friday.

“The sad reality is our changing climate is changing faster than our infrastructure can respond,” said city Chief Climate Officer Rit Aggarwala.

He noted that the Department of Environmental Protection began preparing for the storm midday Thursday by clearing catch basins and encouraging residents to do the same, as well as set up flood barriers.

Janno Lieber, CEO of the MTA, on Friday said that after Ida, the agency worked to make flood-prone subway stations more resilient. Because of those efforts, he said, “There haven’t been any of those crazy washouts inside the stations.”

But buckets of water still poured into many stations, as seen in various social media posts. And transit officials said over half of the subway system was fully or partially suspended.
Citywide, the DEP is working to increase green infrastructure — natural systems like rain gardens, permeable playgrounds and organic roofs that can absorb and redirect water — in part through a $3.5 billion commitment, and expand the sewer infrastructure in some neighborhoods.

The DEP is also working on a series of cloudburst projects that can capture water during torrential rains. The projects will be located in St. Albans, East Harlem, Corona, Kissena Park, Parkchester, and East New York. The first project, which comprises a sunken basketball court located in South Jamaica, Queens, will break ground this fall, according to the DEP.

The work so far is on the right track, officials and observers say, but nowhere near close to the full extent that must be done to allow the city to accommodate heavy amounts of rainfall.

“We’re definitely understanding our risk more, but we haven’t done everything that needs to happen,” Chester said. “Two years sounds like an enormous amount of time for residents of New York City but in terms of planning time, it’s really quite short. It’s hard for the city to mobilize the enormous change that has to happen so fast.”

In the meantime, individuals clearing drains and setting up protections ahead of the storm was the best that could be done to stave off the worst effects of flooding.

In East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Julianna Robinson and her husband, Bernard, used brooms to push the water that had accumulated in the ground-level basement of their home down the drain. The couple, who are in their 70s, had picked up sandbags and inflatable flood barriers from a DEP giveaway in East New York last August, and those supplies helped to an extent.

“The inflatables didn’t work very well,” Robinson said. “But the sandbags helped us the most. We keep them outside the door all the time now…when they say there’s rain, we just push them up against the door. It’s a thing now, a regular thing. We live like this now.”

The Robinsons had a doctor’s appointment in the morning but it was canceled because the examination room had flooded.

At Elmhurst Hospital in Queens the rain caused several leaks in the 66-year-old building, from the emergency department to the nursery, according to staff.

“Every time one of these issues occurs, it’s like we have this setback to the operating budget: All the overtime occurs to repair things, the material that we have to purchase,” hospital Chief Operating Officer Milenko Milinic told THE CITY.  “That’s all money that could have gone to upgrades and patients and put towards the actual services that we’re providing.”

In East Elmhurst, Yurly Olivares and her neighbors have for years experienced rainwater filling up the alleyway behind their homes and seeping in, including during Ida. On Friday, she said sandbags and pumps kept the water out of her family’s home, but that wasn’t true for everyone on her street. She’s been petitioning the city for upgraded storm drains and sewers for over a year.

“Last house on the alleyway always gets it the worst because it all pools at the end for them,” she said in a text message. “Sewers can’t handle it and it comes back in [through the] tub and toilets and then through the backyard door and garage.”


THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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  1. griffen

    In a film from my younger days, The Day After Tomorrow, well the film seemed a bit much and over the top on the foreboding of climate and an unplanned or unprepared population. Reality bites some 20 years later, I will suppose, and I write this from the perspective of a non NYC resident. I recall a similar downfall in a very short period of time earlier this year, drenching southern Florida and cities in Broward and Dade counties.

    Stay safe on higher ground? File this under whocouldanode as our Keystone Kops leadership class continue to fumble the football a few yards at a time. I would say clowns but I used that one Sunday morning, and it’s perhaps a disservice to the clown industry.

    1. The Rev Kev

      When “The Day After Tomorrow” came out nearly twenty years ago the events depicted seemed improbable. In hindsight, as far as flooding in New York is concerned, events are starting to catch up in real time. There may never be a huge wave of water hit that city but I am thinking that severe flooding will become more and more frequent over time- (1:40 mins)

      1. Jeff W

        I’m not sure how much at risk New York City is at being hit by a global-warming-induced tsunami as depicted in the film (although a tsunami caused by an eruption of Cumbre Vieja, a volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, could hit the city), but it seems that, according to one geologist, climate change will play a role in increasing the threat of tsunamis overall.

        Meanwhile, back in the real world, this video by independent journalist Jonathan Petramala, whose beat is, apparently, extreme weather, shows just how wet things got this past Friday in New York.

  2. timbers

    “In defending his handling of the chaos wrought by the rain, Adams said: “We have notifyNYC, we use the various social media channels…” What is social media channels?

  3. FreeMarketApologist

    The city has been throwing money at flood management since Hurricane Sandy (2012, nearly a decade before Ida), and one has to wonder just where it has all gone.

    That said, if you have a drainage system that only handles 1.75″ an hour, any amount above that is going to cause problems. Yet, a basic redesign and improvement plan has yet to be drawn up or implemented.

    1. LY

      I’ve seen some of the city’s current efforts flood efforts, so some of the money has been well spent. There are the aforementioned catchment basins, updated building codes (raising things like boilers and other things out of the basement and ground floor), raised subway entrances, rain gardens, and drainage improvements.

      But it’s obviously not enough. The fundamental problem is that NYC has a combined sewage system (both stormwater and sanitary run through it). That system runs through areas of NYC that are barely above sea level. A real fix for New York City is currently politically unfathomable. The sheer scale, time-frame, and money involved is hundreds of billions over decades.

      1. LY

        Speaking of the subways, I’ve see several measures in Taiwan’s MRT for heavy rains. These are heavy flood gates in the tunnels, raised subway entrances with flood doors, etc.

        But even if these physical measures are available, the government has to shutdown the system. It seems like the main lesson politicians took from the COVID-19 pandemic is that they can’t take precautions that shut down commerce unless the disaster is actually happening.

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      One of the places the money has gone is to “harden” East River Park on the Lower East Side. The park has been taken over by construction, just a few years after a previous complete renovation, WPA-era structures demolished and community access reduced. And of course, it flooded on Friday.

    3. redleg

      Most storm drain systems are designed for a 2-year rainfall base and a 10-year rain event peak. Those events are determined at the time they are designed.

      Once the systems are in the ground it’s nearly impossible to upsize them in a dense urban area, as the density of utilities under the street is so high that there’s often nowhere to put a new pipe, or nowhere that doesn’t disrupt the other utilities in the same area.

      One other issue is that disaster relief funds under the Stafford Act can only be used to replace damaged utilities to the existing plan or code. Improvements are not allowed. In order for a stormwater management system to be upgraded after a declared disaster, the owner of the system must have updated their stormwater plan to show the new base- and peak- flow conditions and the system changes necessary to manage that water before there’s a disaster. If that hasn’t happened, the owner has to fund the repair as an improvement using their own resources as using foster relief finds for improvements isn’t allowed. Updating a plan generally counts as “install to current code” and not an improvement, unless this part of the Stafford Act has been crapified like most everything else.
      Of course, changing something like a stormwater plan costs money, and cities/utilities don’t like to spend money on things like planning & zoning unless they really have to (or when someone’s getting a kickback), so plans rarely get updated. Flooding like this is going to be a common problem all over the US for the foreseeable future, and none of the solutions are inexpensive.

  4. Starry Gordon

    “The city has been throwing money at flood management since Hurricane Sandy (2012, nearly a decade before Ida), and one has to wonder just where it has all gone.”

    “You might well ask.” If there was a big pile of money, it is gone. Nothing was done, nothing is going to be done. People vote for organization men, they get organization men, the organization is doing fine. Someone should investigate soon, but that would take organization, i.e. there will be more of the same. Some advice from an ancient native: You’re on your own. If heavy weather is predicted, don’t go out. (Sometimes you can see a weather prediction, often hysterical, on TV or your computer in between the cartoons.) If you have to go out, avoid the subways and low-lying areas. Become aware of your surroundings. I’d say “Maintain a bicycle” but now they’ve been improved to the point where they blow up, so maybe not.

  5. Telee

    In spite of the evidence, I doubt that climate change will be topic mentioned during the upcoming presidential election. Any policy that might possibly effect the bottom line of oil companies and Wall Street cannot possibly be implemented. Not with our current political system. Biden and the democrats have been a mixed bag while the republican party won’t even acknowledge the possibility of climate change. I don’t see any coherent national plan or willingness to address this problem.

  6. diptherio

    “”The wasteful expenditures enhance demand and so increase the vendibility of the output, – they increase profits and raise capitalization. They therefore act unequivocally to advance the values of the business men’s holdings and increase their gains, as counted in business terms. The wasteful expenditure is good for trade. It is only in the eventual liquidation that a disadvantageous business consequence comes into view.” ~Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise, 1904.

    I wonder if this is the eventual liquidation he was talking about…

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