Nearly a decade ago, Coney Island resident Michael Silverman lost power and his building flooded during Superstorm Sandy. His 8,000-resident highrise complex, mostly seniors, were stuck inside their apartments and in elevators as the rising ocean waters and heavy rainfall flooded their basements and elevator shafts. It was a couple of days before they got food, water and assistance.
In the aftermath, his co-op had to pay $2.5 million to repair its substations, located underneath the complex and powered by their own off-the-grid steam turbine plant. Silverman, who testified at a New York City Council hearing Monday, pressed a question to city agencies: Are the five boroughs ready for the next big storm with this year’s flood season approaching?
“There’s nothing darker than a highrise hallway without lights after the backup batteries have gone dead,” said Silverman, president of the board of directors at Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, during a joint hearing held by the Committees on Resiliency and Waterfronts and Fire and Emergency Management.
The meeting was called to assess the status of an emergency flash flood evacuation plan and climate adaptation projects meant to prevent the destruction witnessed during extreme weather events, such as when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the New York region last fall.
But Kizzy Charles-Guzman, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice (MOCEJ), said the city wouldn’t finalize its big plans until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases a feasibility study on New York and New Jersey Harbors and Tributaries. Council members said their constituents can’t wait for that to happen.
“Storms are getting more severe,” said Council member Ari Kagan, who represents Coney Island and Sea Gate — areas affected by coastal flooding. “We cannot wait for the next storm to act. Mother nature will not let us.”
Read More: Why One Queens Block Has Flooded For Decades
The Army Corps of Engineers’ final report isn’t expected for another couple of years, but a draft could be released for public comment as early as this summer. It will lay out an approach for resiliency design across the entire harbor, including the groundwork for new coastal infrastructure projects. Charles-Guzman said the corps’ data and recommendations are key to various initiatives — in order to tailor effective responses that address the needs of individual communities.
MOCEJ is taking a multilayered approach to climate adaptation that addresses multiple hazards such as heavy precipitation, sea level rise and extreme heat. At the forefront are green infrastructure and coastal protection projects such as sea walls.
The citywide plan will be released pursuant to local law, and based on environmental projections from the New York City Panel on Climate Change. These predictions will be translated into several languages informing communities what to expect during an extreme weather event. It would also offer specific solutions suited to individual neighborhoods.
The office also wants to release the city’s first comprehensive study on environmental justice as required by local law 60 and 64 of 2017. It will identify disadvantaged communities and determine which ones are missing out on the benefits of climate resiliency projects and funding.
One such project is called Cloud Burst. It would be piloted in four neighborhoods that utilize the landscape and infrastructure to capture rain from heavy downpours and store it safely with green roofs and expanding green space.
Other projects include expanding NYCHA’s green infrastructure and parks, and the city's plan for a $2.5-billion overhaul of the sewers of southeast Queens and coastal protection projects.
“We simply cannot construct these unprecedented large-scale projects,” said Charles-Guzman, who has been on the job for about two months. “This study will lay the groundwork for future potential infrastructure projects.”
Guzman insisted she wants the plan to have a data-driven framework, meaning topography, land use, green space and socioeconomic factors will be assessed to identify solutions that meet a neighborhood’s needs.
Green infrastructure such as rain gardens and grass are only good for absorbing about a couple of inches, according to Dr. George Guo, a civil engineering professor at Rutgers University. And if it rains 3 inches in one hour, like it did during Hurricane Ida, Cloud Burst alone would not be enough. Guo said more storage is needed such as underground or roof top reservoirs, and it must be large enough to handle an extreme storm. When precipitation is even just 1 inch per hour, that is still intense and difficult to divert into a pool when it comes down that hard. Then there is the problem of what to do with the rain water when it is collected.
“We need to find a way to take the water to the ocean,” Guo said. “There’s a lot of storage right there, and we don’t need to build it.”
A push for backwater valves, a temporary fix
Backwater valves are designed to automatically shut off to prevent water flow in and out of a home or business when the sewer system backs up. These backflow preventers are installed on the main line going to the sewer to reduce the risk of flooding indoors.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently awarded funding to the mayor’s climate office for a study to determine where and when backwater valves work best in the city to protect homes and businesses from flooding. Currently, City Hall is considering a bill that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to provide financial assistance for the purchase and installation of these valves.
But a backwater valve can only go so far. When flooding as bad as Hurricane Ida happens, the water has no place to go — streets become rivers and no valve can make water disappear, according to Guo. The rain water must be safely diverted.
A FEMA-funded backwater valve study, conducted by MOCEJ, will be completed by early next year.
Emergency flash flood evacuation plan
Currently, the city’s Emergency Management department uses a multi-language alert system with more than one million subscribers known as Notify NYC, but it’s not an evacuation plan yet.
According to Cristina Farrell, the agency's first deputy commissioner, weather forecasting technology does not provide enough time to warn of extreme hazards and does not allow for neighborhood-specific forecasts. Coastal storms can be tracked for days which can allow for planning. The agency is in the process of adapting their strategy for flash flood emergencies, but it’s facing limitations.
“The evacuation plan required by the legislature is extremely challenging as the forecasting technology to predict extreme flooding at a neighborhood level with enough time to evacuate in a flash flood does not presently exist,” Farrell said.
The agency is partnering with the National Weather Service and a private forecasting company to help make more informed decisions such as when to declare an emergency and how to prepare for it. The city wants to be able to give instructions and provide resources that are specific to a community’s threat level because the impacts of extreme weather won’t be the same from neighborhood to neighborhood. Coastal areas will have to deal with rising tides along with precipitation. Areas with very little green space will experience more runoff from precipitation. The agency is also increasing public messaging about hazards, especially for basement dwellers, who account for 11 of the 13 city residents killed during Ida.
Council members emphasized to the municipal emergency department that evacuation plans do not just warn and inform residents of weather hazards — but also must provide resources before, during and after an extreme flooding event.