In New York City last week, more than three inches of rain fell in an hour, breaking all previous records. Streets and busy roads turned into rivers. The subway was flooded and was temporarily closed. At least 13 people died, most drowned in basement apartments. The devastation brought back chilling memories of Superstorm Sandy, which flooded large swaths of the city 11 years ago.
The death and destruction Hurricane Ida just inflicted on New York is a reminder that the climate crisis is not looming. Is here. There will be fiercer hurricanes and floods, the kind of weather events that can destabilize a society.
Ida and Sandy differed in one crucial way: storm surge. In 2012, Sandy invaded the shores of New York City, sending ocean water into residential neighborhoods. The worst affected areas, such as Lower Manhattan and the Rockaway Peninsula, were near rivers, bays or the open ocean. It was understood that protecting the coastline was essential to avoid a disaster. As terrible as Ida was, it did not coincide with the destruction caused by Sandy, a storm that left power without power in some areas for weeks.
However, Ida revealed another troubling reality. It will not be enough, in the future, to build dikes or secure the coasts. The threat doesn’t just come from ocean water. Ida dumped huge amounts of rain in a short period of time that flooded interior neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods that were relatively unscathed during Sandy instead encountered a bewildering amount of flooding as Ida passed through New York City.
This is not necessarily a problem unique to New York. Any urban area can experience pluvial floods, of the type caused by rains. Cities are full of impervious surfaces like concrete that force water to run downhill instead of sinking into the ground, as would happen with grasslands and forests. If the water has nowhere else to go, no matter how terrifying the subway floods may be, some of it is unavoidable, it will accumulate and accumulate, causing the floods that were witnessed last week.
City planners have been aware of this threat and have been working, since Sandy, to better design neighborhoods to handle extreme rains. Green roofs and rain gardens can make a difference, as can floodplain walkways. One resilience plan designed a basketball court that can hold water during a flood.
The problem, of course, is that climate change is moving too fast. New York, like other large cities, will need to aggressively prioritize resistance to storms in the years to come, investing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in redesigning the city itself to capture floodwater almost everywhere. It is not enough that neighborhoods are above sea level. The downpours at the Ida level will not forgive them.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers will have to learn to live with this reality and expect as little extreme weather as possible. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to force evacuations of basement apartments and basement if dangerous rain is forecast. Although many of these substandard apartments are illegal, in violation of housing codes, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living in them. The city should encourage tenants of these apartments to permanently relocate to safer apartments by offering housing vouchers. New York did not do enough to incentivize residents of vulnerable coastal areas to follow Sandy. We cannot make the same mistake again. New Yorkers living in these substandard apartments, most of them poor, immigrants and people of color, are now on the front lines of climate change.
As scary as all of this is, a better future is possible if local leaders take serious action while persuading the federal government to spend a lot more money on resilience projects. This will have to be done as New York struggles to meet lofty environmental goals set by climate activists and local leadership, such as carbon free electricity by 2040. The Green New Deal, or many of its elements, will need to be implemented. With the right amount of preparation, the next few decades don’t have to be so tumultuous or so deadly.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism