In Hollis, Queens, tales of flooding are like war stories—and almost everyone has one. Sitting on her porch, Anita Hack, now a grandmother, recalled with startling precision the first time the waters came for her house: August 16th, 1992. Her son had just turned 3 months old and a storm drenched her family's basement and first floor. Although they had lived there only a few months, it was bad enough to make her father promptly put up a "For Sale" sign. But no one was buying. They were stuck.
Next door, Amrisa Bhagwandin, 30, was a teenager when she witnessed her first flood in July 2007. The amount of water that seeped into the house seemed tremendous. Then, about three weeks later, an even bigger deluge arrived, one that paralyzed the subway system and injured about half a dozen New Yorkers. It was her family's first house and now their belongings were awash in sewage. About a week later, her parents insisted on going through with throwing her a sweet 16 party at home, which struck her as crazy. “We have to literally save the house,” she recalled thinking.
Across the street, Amit Shivprasad, 39, can no longer remember dates, just a string of floods that attracts news crews and politicians, who then leave and forget. But when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit in September, the unthinkable occurred. On seeing his parents' tenant Dameshwar Ramskriet standing outside, Shivprasad asked him where his wife and 22-year-old son were. "He said to me, 'Down there,' And I'm like, 'What do you mean they're down there?'"
Shivprasad frantically called 911. But it was too late. When FDNY divers arrived, they retrieved the drowned bodies of Tara and Nick Ramskriet.
This is what it has been like to live on 183rd Street, an otherwise inconspicuous outer-borough residential block soundtracked by the squeals of children, ice cream truck jingles, and lately, construction. Here, rainstorms trigger a terrifying drill. When the skies darken, neighbors collectively run towards the sewer grates. Grabbing rakes, pitchforks, or even sticks to try to loosen any blockages. Once the water starts rising into their basements, that's when the bailing starts, with buckets and trash cans. Some families jump into their cars and retreat to the home of a family member or friend. Others huddle upstairs while keeping a watchful eye through their windows.
Throughout, people look for one fateful sign: once the manhole cover pops up, they know it will be bad. In this and other parts of Queens, water is an unyielding and resourceful enemy; and as many of them have come to learn over the years, water always wins.
That was again true last month. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called the September 1st storm a new reality of climate change and "a whole different kind of weather than we've ever known before." The remnants of Hurricane Ida caught city officials off guard, producing record amounts of rainfall that killed 13 city residents, 11 of whom drowned in basements. The event ranks as the deadliest storm since Sandy.
But while the tragic toll may have set Ida apart, stories from these residents attest to decades of drainage issues. The problems have been talked about in countless community board meetings, raised with elected officials and covered extensively by local media. The reasons are rooted in history: a prolonged lack of infrastructure investment linked to decades of racist redlining policies and a topology that nature intended for water, not human development.
Two maps can tell the story of 183rd Street.
Ask most residents why 183rd Street floods and they will point out that the asphalt stretch suffers from an unfortunate topology. Moving south from Hillside Avenue toward 90th Avenue, the elevation drops from 82 feet to below 50 feet before it begins to rise again, creating a valley. It’s one of the main reasons residents and city officials say the area floods so badly even during normal rainstorms.
In fact, experts who study the environment will say that a lot of flooding can be explained, not only by missing or insufficient infrastructure, but by the history of the terrain.
"I'm afraid they live in the old Rock Hollow Pond," said Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Researching historical maps of the area around 183rd Street, Sanderson spotted a body of water where there are now blocks of tightly packed two-story-homes with driveways. The pond explains the unusual curve on 184th Street, which was formerly called Max Weber Avenue. In 2016, Forgotten New York noticed the anomaly of the street grid and looked at a historical map from 1909 to find out why. (Sanderson noted that while the map shows the pond over 184th Street, the difference between 183rd and 184th streets should not matter—maps, he said, have different levels of accuracy, and coastal plain ponds shrink and expand seasonally and with precipitation patterns.)
Subsequent maps show that by 1924, the pond had been filled in.
Hollis, according to Sanderson, is an example of how cities have unsuccessfully tried to erase their natural ecology. In his 2009 book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, he reconstructed the ecology of Manhattan to uncover the pre-urbanized realm of forests, fields, marshes and ponds. He is currently mapping all five boroughs.
Paving over nature can succeed in very limited areas at great expense, he said, but over vast areas, “It's just folly," he said.
“We think we're so powerful," he added. "That we can just build over things and make streams and topography go away, but that's not really the case.”
Along those lines, residents have for years pointed to southeast Queens’ naturally high water table, which refers to the amount of water that collects near the surface of the soil or road. And many have noted that flooding conditions worsened after the area's transition to the city's water system.
Up until the mid-1990s, the residents relied on well water pumped by Jamaica Water Supply. But the discovery of contamination in the groundwater prompted city officials to connect the area to the city's water system, which is served by upstate reservoirs.
There was, however, an unintended consequence. Experts had warned that ceasing to pump millions of gallons of water a day from the wells could result in flooding. In fact, during a public hearing as early as 1986, Edward Scheader, the deputy director and chief engineer of the DEP's Water Supply and Wastewater Collection, cited the risk of localized flooding should the wells be closed.
Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University who studies climate change in cities, said the phenomenon has been observed across the city. "When people started to get [the city's] water supply, that’s when suddenly the water table rose, even in Manhattan," he said. "People suddenly had flooded basements."
But despite more than a decade of pressure by residents and elected leaders, including Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, to have the wells pumped, the city has been reluctant to initiate the project and has over the years pushed the timetable into the future.
Asked about the matter, Douglas Auer, a DEP spokesman, said that the agency does not have plans to operate the wells. Instead, he said, the agency is "pursuing an individualized approach to mitigating basement flooding, working with property owners to identify site specific solutions that can improve their conditions. As part of this effort, staff has done door-to-door canvassing with our partners at York College."
And, despite the intense flooding that killed two individuals on 183rd Street, city officials maintain that the sewers did not fail. Ian Michaels, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Design and Construction, said that both his agency and the Department of Environmental Protection inspected the storm sewers in the 183rd Street area after the storm and "found them to be unobstructed."
A Map Of Inequality
Wedged between Jamaica and Queens Village, Hollis has historically been a Black neighborhood. In a city where roughly a quarter of New Yorkers are Black, more than 60% of Hollis's roughly 21,000 residents are Black, according to 2019 census data. Asians make up the second-biggest group, with 15%, followed by Hispanics, with 10%.
About half of the households in Hollis are homeowners. On 183rd Street, three of the families that experienced the worst flooding from Ida are Guyanese immigrants, part of the area's growing contingent of Indo-Caribbean residents.
Much like the maps that reveal ecology, some say demographics tell another story that explains the area’s persistent flooding.
Richards, who grew up in southeast Queens and represented the area as a city councilmember, speaks unequivocally of the profound inequality of investments. He recalled that around 2014, he met with the head of the DEP to look at a map of where the agency had invested in projects in the borough.
"It was hard to not pinpoint or to see that there was systemic racism here," he said.
Natalie Bump Vena, an urban studies professor at Queens College whose research has focussed on southeast Queens, referred to yet an older set maps: beginning in the 1930s, the Homeowners Loan Corporation, a federal agency, marked Hollis, including 183rd Street and the areas around it, in yellow under a classification system meant to denote credit risk for mortgages. Hollis received the second-worst rating, that of "C," which stood for "definitely declining." Those who got a “D” rating, were effectively redlined, with loans either unavailable or priced at high interest rates.
Vena ties flooding back to redlining to explain why certain communities were starved of resources.
“Why did the city after World War II allow these communities to proliferate without giving them basic services?” she said. "If you go to these community board meetings, they're not only talking about infrastructure, they're talking about trash pickup, they're talking about park maintenance.”
In 2011, the disparity struck some as so stark that the NAACP questioned whether flooding in southeast Queens amounted to a civil rights violation.
“I don’t know of any other community in these five boroughs that’s subjected to the type of abuse and the flood damage as here in southeast Queens. And who comprises this community? It’s predominantly minorities and people of color,” said Leroy Gadsden, the Jamaica, Queens chapter president, at the time.
‘Some People Are Going To Have To Move’
In response to Ida, Sanderson recently wrote a New York Times op-ed that called on cities to rethink the way they have handled flooding.
"For more than 20 years," he wrote, "I have been studying the historical ecology of New York City and thinking about what it means for the city’s future, and I can tell you one thing: Water will go where water has always gone."
He later added: "The truth of it is, some people are going to have to move."
The concept of what is known as “managed retreat” from flood-prone areas is hardly new. Following Sandy in 2012, spurred by the demands of some homeowners, then Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a large-scale program to buy out flood-prone homes, mostly on Staten Island. All told, the state spent $655 million in federal relief aid to buy more than 600 homes.
In 2016, the city initiated its own relocation program for homeowners in a part of Far Rockaway called Edgemere. Except in that case, homeowners whose properties were damaged by Sandy were offered a land swap that allowed them to move further inland. After buying the land, the city then preserves it for open space, coastal protection measures or to provide more waterfront access.
But Hollis is not a coastal community; the area is not even in a designated flood zone, a factor that prevents homeowners here from being eligible for flood insurance from private companies, they say. All New York City residents, however, can purchase coverage under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program.
Nevertheless, the idea is gaining traction among residents. Last month, roughly 20 homeowners gathered in front of Queens Borough Hall with protest signs, some of which read, "Buy Us Out."
Amit Shivprasad, whose parents' tenants died in their basement apartment, were among those that called on the mayor to help them end their decades-long ordeal of ruined possessions, costly repairs, and constant stress.
"You cannot go on a vacation. You cannot sleep at night when it rains. This is how sad it has become," he said at the time.
Since then, he’s been taking the temperature of homeowners spanning 182nd to 184th. So far, he estimated that more than 12 of them would likely consent to buyouts.
When asked about buyouts, de Blasio said last month that he was open to hearing the residents' ideas but cautioned that Sandy had wrought deeper devastation in that entire homes were destroyed. "I think it's always legitimate to say, 'Is this an area that still makes sense going forward and to work with the community on that'?" he said at a press conference.
Richards, who helped some of the Rockaway homeowners with their buyouts, warned that the buyout process can be long and cumbersome. In the case of Edgemere, the planning process took at least a year. Not all of the homeowners wanted to sell. Of the 11 that did, only three chose to relocate to a new home built more inland on vacant city land, according to the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency. Buyouts were decided on a lot-by-lot basis and did not require agreement across property lines.
Eric Adams, the Democratic mayoral nominee who is heavily favored to win in November, has said he supports the idea of buyouts for Ida victims. “We know which areas are going to flood,” he told reporters last month. “We need to do it in a very strategic and intelligent way to buy homes in those areas so we don't continuously have the flood damage that we're witnessing.”
$2 Billion Solution
On a recent Sunday, Amrita Bhagwandin stood in her empty and destroyed basement complaining of a headache—nearly a month after the storm, the 51-year-old and her husband were still dealing with the fallout.
"Seven dumpsters came out of this," she said. "It's a true nightmare."
Immediately after the flood, which had risen up more than a foot on their first floor, concerns over mold forced them to strip the walls of what had once been a finished basement. That was when they discovered that the foundation wall had cracked in several places. Now, it looked as if it might buckle any minute. Worried that the house could not support much weight, they moved out most of their possessions and later had steel beams installed to keep the structure intact.
Amrita and her husband first bought the corner house on 183rd Street and 90th Avenue in 2005 for roughly $400,000. She works as a manager at a production and shipping company; her husband is a structural engineer. They have a white-picket fence and a modest garden filled with plants and flowers that are somehow still in bloom after the storm. After their first flood, they threw their daughter Amrisa's sweet 16 party in the streets rather than cancel, and they have maintained this same kind of resilience. The flooding has propelled Amrita to attend community board meetings, reach out to elected officials and document the street's problems with videos and photos.
Over the years, they estimate they have spent $100,000 fixing their home after floods. They are now staring at a $125,000 bill to renovate the basement alone. That, along with deaths of her neighbors, has made Amrisa want to leave 183rd Street.
"It's just..." she began, her voice quavering. "I can't do this anymore."
Like Shivprasad, Bhagwandin is urging the mayor to offer buyouts.
Under de Blasio, New York City has made the biggest and most sustained pledge to fix southeast Queens' infrastructure. All told, the administration has committed $2.2 billion to build a comprehensive drainage system, improve street conditions and alleviate flooding in neighborhoods throughout the area.
Numbers like that are difficult to dispute, and even residents will acknowledge that in recent years their neighborhoods have been turned into busy construction zones. While a near term nuisance, they represent the city’s commitment to a long-term solution.
"I'm not here to defend the mayor," Richards said, "but I will say this was the only administration that has put up money."
But city infrastructure projects tend to be complicated and beset by unforeseen delays. Of a total of 43 projects currently planned in southeast Queens, 16—or less than 40%—are "substantially completed," according to the DEP.
Time is not on the residents' side.
On 183rd Street, where two people drowned, a nearly $10 million sewer improvement project had already been well underway. The entire project is set to be finished by the spring of 2022, according to the DEP. The first portion had been a massive undertaking that required opening up the street for the installation of a new sewer that is 75% larger than the previous one.
The DEP said it is conducting an ongoing investigation into the flooding incidents, but some residents like Amrita Bhagwandin are convinced that the constant jackhammering paved the way for worse damage from flooding. A video she recorded last year showed her chandelier shaking from the vibrations.
“That's what also shook the foundation,” she said.
Asked about the effects of the construction, Michaels, of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, issued the following statement: “As we typically do with projects of this type, before work began vibration monitoring equipment was installed and pictures were taken of all building exteriors to create a record for future reference. Vibrations have not exceeded the limits that were communicated to the community, and no structures in the area show external damage related to construction.”
He said two homeowners in the project area had previously complained about internal damage. “Both homes were inspected and we do not believe there is damage from construction,” he said. “However the homeowners have been given instructions on how to file a claim for damages with the Comptroller.”
Addressing future extreme weather events, the mayor issued a report calling for interventions that would cost the city $25 million, but which he admitted fall short of the climate-proofing projects that would costs billions and require federal funding. The short-term list of actions include cell phone alerts, travel bans, basement evacuations and even sandbags. One proposal includes expanding a program that would advise homeowners on making resiliency improvements and help them finance such retrofits. The initiative is scheduled to begin in 2022, after de Blasio leaves office.
The residents of 183rd Street, meanwhile, are planning another protest. Sanderson, the ecologist, had a blunt recommendation. "I think these people probably shouldn't be living in a pond anymore," he said.
A previous version of this story misstated the projected finish date for the sewer project on 183rd Street. The city's DEP estimates it will be completed by spring of 2022. The story has also been revised to note that all New York City residents can buy flood insurance through FEMA's program.