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Cities And Homeowners Look For Ways To Prevent Flood Deaths In Basement Apartments


Nearly a month after Hurricane Ida struck the eastern United States, parts of Louisiana are still without power, and residents in the Northeast are struggling with the aftermath of flooded homes. The storm killed dozens in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, many of them in basement apartments. Now, homeowners and cities are looking for ways to prevent these tragedies in the future. From member station WNYC, Lydia McMullen-Laird reports.

LYDIA MCMULLEN-LAIRD, BYLINE: Hurricane Ida claimed 13 lives in New York City, 11 of them in flooded basements, including a toddler and his parents in Woodside, Queens. Two houses down, college student Taiba Tahera says she and her siblings narrowly escaped the same fate when the flood came rushing into their home. The water rose suddenly. Tahera didn't even have time to gather her immigration papers and other important possessions.

TAIBA TAHERA: It's, like, not even one minute. We couldn't do anything. The water was coming so fast.

MCMULLEN-LAIRD: Luckily, they were able to get out through a window in one of the bedrooms - a feature Reza Khanbilvardi, an engineering professor at the City College of New York, says is crucial during floods. He says entrapment happens when the water blocks the only exit.

REZA KHANBILVARDI: And if the flow is coming through, then you can't get out because it's coming to your face, and you're going to be submerged very quickly.

MCMULLEN-LAIRD: Khanbilvardi says most legal basement apartments have two exits. But in New York City, there are thousands of illegal basement units that are filling the massive need for affordable housing. The New York City Department of Buildings says 5 of the 6 properties where people died during Hurricane Ida were illegally converted cellar and basement apartments. But advocates like Rebekah Morris, an urban planner at the Pratt Center for Community Development, said getting rid of these apartments isn't an option.

REBEKAH MORRIS: No matter what, people are going to live in basements. Whether or not they're legal, people need housing.

MCMULLEN-LAIRD: Plus, Morris says, they're an important source of income for homeowners. Instead of getting rid of basement apartments, Morris and other advocates are pushing to make them safer by legalizing more of the units.

Another way to prevent these incidents is by tackling one of the main culprits of flooding in the city - New York's aging sewer system. New York is one of over 700 cities with a combined sewer system. Clint Andrews, an urban planning professor at Rutgers University, says that means stormwaters on streets and sewage from homes share the same pipes.

CLINT ANDREWS: A lot of the stormwater goes into the sewers and overwhelms the sewage system and basically does not allow the runoff to happen as quickly as it needs to.

MCMULLEN-LAIRD: In 2018, the city committed nearly $2 billion for sewer upgrades in Queens. But so far, the improvements haven't been able to keep up with the increased rainfall. Andrews says flooding in urban areas has also been exacerbated during the last century by increasingly impermeable surfaces in New York City.

ANDREWS: We've created these opportunities for urban flash floods that used to be much less frequent just because we had less pavement. There were more places for the water to get absorbed.

MCMULLEN-LAIRD: The city's Department of Environmental Protection says it has built more than 11,000 curbside gardens and other green infrastructure designed to intercept stormwater. Storms across the nation are expected to intensify as the climate warms, and rising sea levels will only exacerbate that problem. A recent report found over 2 million properties in the U.S. are at risk of flooding during the next 30 years.

For NPR News, I'm Lydia McMullen-Laird in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lydia McMullen-Laird