Leaders in New York and New Jersey told reporters their states needed to prepare for this type of storm to become normal as climate change scrambles weather patterns across the country.
“Things that we were told are once-in-a-century are now happening regularly,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said at a Friday news conference. “But bluntly, they’re also getting worse. It is an entirely different reality.”
Despite grave warnings from the National Weather Service that New York could be inundated with heavy rains and flooding, de Blasio admitted Friday that city officials were caught flat-footed by the historic nature of the deluge. But he placed blame on a changing climate that has brought disasters with “a speed and ferocity we’ve never ever seen before.”
“We have to change our entire mind-set because we’re being dealt a very different hand of cards now,” he said. “And it’s not just us, we saw the destruction of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana. We’ve seen what’s happening in the Southwest with unprecedented drought. We see what’s happening with the wildfires in the West Coast. We all understand this is coming from a climate crisis.”
De Blasio, whose final term in office is set to expire at the end of the year, said that climate change was forcing the city to rethink everything. De Blasio pledged that the city would make quicker use of travel bans during heavy rains and work harder to evacuate people, not just in coastal areas of the city, but also from basement apartments.
“It’s not just saying to people you have to get out of your apartment, it’s going door-to-door with our first responders and other city agencies to get people out,” de Blasio said.
Most of the deaths in New York occurred exactly where officials had told residents to seek safety — their homes. Most of those who died were in basement apartments where floodwaters quickly trapped them inside. De Blasio said that the city would set up special cellphone alerts for neighborhoods with large numbers of basement apartments, most of which are technically illegal but collectively house tens of thousands of New Yorkers who can’t afford sky-high housing costs elsewhere in the city.
Shekar Krishnan, a civil rights and housing lawyer who is the Democratic nominee to represent the hard-hit Queens neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights on the city council next year, said this was an utterly foreseeable tragedy.
“We were the epicenter of the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s the communities like mine that have had the least amount of investments in our infrastructure that are the most devastated and harmed by these disasters,” Krishnan said. “We must start investing significantly in disaster preparedness, especially in immigrant communities like my own.”
Krishnan said among his priorities is the legalization of basement apartments, which would allow tenants to report unsafe living conditions to city officials without risk of eviction. He said that illegal basement apartments throughout Queens flooded nine years ago during Hurricane Sandy, and it was now time for city officials to take action.
“The reality is, because of how expensive housing is in the city and how rents are skyrocketing, many families have and will continue to live in basement apartments because that’s the most affordable housing they can find in the city right now,” he said.
Last year, de Blasio cut funding to a pilot program that sought to find ways to legalize basement apartments and regulate them. “If there ever was an urgent moment in the city to really legalize basement apartments in the city, this is it,” Krishnan said.
De Blasio said that the city would not be able to adjust to this new reality alone and would need help from the state and federal governments. Particularly, he said, lawmakers in Washington needed to invest in infrastructure spending. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government spent $14.5 billion on a new levee protection system around New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and other natural disasters this summer, vulnerable communities across the country will be looking to Washington for the same kind of investment.
On Friday, President Biden approved emergency disaster declarations for New York and New Jersey, freeing federal resources to aid the storm response.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) tweeted that “record-breaking floods are the new normal” and said she had asked staff to draft an “after-action report” to examine the state’s preparation for the storm.
While officials across the four Northeastern states all sounded the alarms of what the storm signaled about a changing climate, the lessons derived from the storm varied.
In downtown Passaic, N.J., streets turned into rivers resulted in the first reported storm-related death. At least 60 people were evacuated from their flooding homes. Some 200 individuals were rescued by first responders. All are signs that “these storms are becoming not-so-rare storms,” Mayor Hector Lora said.
Lora said adapting to an era marked by exacerbated weather events requires strategic and pragmatic emergency plans.
“Mass evacuation is too broad of an approach,” he said. “Displacing a large number of families and inconveniencing individuals without having appropriate resources may end up creating more issues. If you’re putting all these people out of their homes, you better be prepared for where you’re going to place them.”
While the floodwaters in the city of more than 70,000 have receded, dozens have been unable to return to their homes — some may be “permanently displaced,” Lora said.
Displacement was not an issue unique to Passaic. Some 400 people sought refuge in Red Cross and community shelters across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Since Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, at least 60 storm-related fatalities have been reported across eight states. Roughly 10 tornadoes also touched down, including one that caused the Northeast’s first-ever “tornado emergency,” the most dire type of alert the National Weather Service can issue. Biden visited Louisiana on Friday to assess the extensive damage the hurricane wrought there.
In the Northeast, at least 13 people were killed in New York City, with another five dead elsewhere in New York. Five people in the Philadelphia area and one person in Connecticut were also confirmed dead.
Among New York’s fatalities was an 86-year-old woman in Elmhurst who was killed when floodwaters rushed into her basement apartment. According to records from the city department of buildings, there had been several complaints about an illegal basement dwelling in the building, but inspectors never gained access to the premises.
As New Jersey’s death toll rose to 25 overnight into Friday — all related to flooding — Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he expected that number to grow. Six people in the state remained missing, including an 18-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man who were voted Passaic’s city-sponsored prom queen and king.
“While the weather may be good and while the floodwaters may have receded, we’re still not out of the woods,” Murphy said Friday on NBC’s “Today” show.
Among those killed were a 69-year-old man whose car was swept away by the storm, a family of three and a neighbor at an apartment complex, and a veteran sergeant with the Connecticut State Police.
In Pennsylvania, Donald Bauer, 65, and his wife were returning to their home in Perkiomenville in heavy rain Wednesday when he drove into floodwaters in Bucks County. The flooding was deeper than he expected, and water poured into the vehicle, said his father, Victor Bauer. The floating SUV then crashed into a house and began to sink, said the couple’s son, Darby Bauer.
Donald pushed his wife out the car window but could not escape himself. First responders tried to pull the SUV from the raging waters but said the conditions were too dangerous. He was found dead Thursday inside the car.
The destruction in these four states came after Ida walloped the Gulf Coast, where Louisiana has grappled for 16 years with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While Ida was downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane after landing Sunday near Port Fourchon, La., the storm proved even deadlier about 1,200 miles away in the Northeast.
Though the torrential weather has passed, its aftermath has proved to be just as harrowing for communities facing recovery.
In New York and New Jersey, the extent of the damage remains unknown. Answers will begin to emerge once officials wrap up the assessment that will enable federal aid to pour in, Jason Wind, FEMA’s acting Region 2 deputy, said in a news conference Friday.
Northeast of Philadelphia, in Bucks County, Pa., officials were so overwhelmed by the destruction that they asked municipalities to survey the damage to their own areas and report back to them.
“This damage was so widespread, our limited staff couldn’t get to all of it,” said James O’Malley, a spokesman for the county’s emergency services department.
Crews in Philadelphia tried to force water from Interstate 676, one of the city’s main arteries, back into the Schuylkill River. Others raced to reopen another nearby road before visitors arrive this weekend for the Made in America music festival, said Brad Rudolph, a spokesman for the regional office of the state Department of Transportation.
For those living near the river, its unprecedented swelling brought an overwhelming sense of loss. Throughout the day, crews piled damaged items from flooded buildings.
“It’s a disgrace. People lost a lot,” said Gerald Harris, who has run Harris Janitorial Services for 30 years. He watched as his workers filled one 40-yard dumpster with mattresses, cardboard boxes, trash bags, lawn chairs and other miscellaneous items.
On 25th Street, David King threw out sopping wet mats and swept brown muddy water out of his bike shop Thursday. He had opened the store six months before the coronavirus pandemic began, then temporarily closed. He reopened with the hope that he would not have to close again.
But the river had other plans.
“Oh, this is pretty devastating,” King said. “We opened, and things were starting to grow. We were building a customer base, and then we had to close down. And then when we reopened again, we were just in the process of building it back up.”
Down the street, Lisa Blackman used a little red cup to pour water out of her Toyota Prius. The hearing specialist checked on her car at 2:30 a.m. Thursday and saw no water. Six hours later, her street and her car had both flooded.
Mother Nature, Blackman said, is not happy.
“Somebody better believe in climate change very soon,” Blackman said as she and her son cleaned out three inches of water in her car using a towel decorated with fishes. “She is really upset with this world.”
Victoria St. Martin and Natalie Pompilio contributed to this report.