NYC will evacuate basement apartments, launch new alerts for future storms: mayor

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In the days following Tropical Storm Ida’s thrashing on the Northeast, bringing deadly flooding to New York City and the tri-state area, officials from across the region are making plans to try to prevent a similar situation — a surprise storm with tragic affects.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to say his plans may be “a shock to people,” but now is the time to act.

The mayor said Friday the city will create a “different kind of warning, a much more severe kind of warning and a much more severe set of actions, very physical actions, that bluntly will be a jolt to people and a shock to people that we even are talking about these things. But we have learned that we now have to introduce these into the equation.”

Task Force

The mayor said Friday he’s launching a month-long task force to rapidly work on action items to help prevent another situation like the city saw this week.

The panel will develop and present a variety of strategies for the city to put in place quickly as a part of the response to extreme weather events.

“We’ve been shown now a threat that is very different than anything we’ve known before in terms of the danger of this kind of sudden, massive flooding,” de Blasio said. “And we have to look at a series of much bigger changes.”

Danny Hong shows where the water reached up to him as he shows the damage in his basement apartment on 153rd St. in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in New York. The remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped historic rain over New York City, with at least nine deaths linked to flooding in the region as basement apartments suddenly filled with water and freeways and boulevards turned into rivers, submerging cars.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Basement apartment alerts

Basement apartments were a key challenge during Ida, and sadly, were the sites of several fatalities due to flood waters.

The mayor said in the future, the city will reach out to New Yorkers living in basement apartments during emergencies like the one we saw this week. They’ll send out alerts to cell phones for specific rain events that create vulnerabilities for basement apartments. They’re will also be a door-to-door component.

To those worried about seeking help, the mayor guaranteed lifesaving measures won’t come with the price of an immigration issue.

“We also want to emphasize anyone in a basement apartment if you’re in any danger at all, call 911, and never wonder if your documentation status will be asked. It will not be. Never wonder if there’ll be any threat to the place that you live in. If you call because you’re in danger, we want to save lives. We’re not here to make people vulnerable. We want to save lives. So, people should be assured if you call 911, that is just about protecting you and your family and nothing else.

Evacuations

Evacuations have generally been a “last resort” type of move for municipalities and officials as severe weather looms. But the mayor’s new plan includes a way of reimagining evacuations and travel bans.

“Now we understand there has to be a different kind of evacuation for folks in basement apartments and in some other areas of the city as well. If we are seeing this kind of rain, we have to have an evacuation mechanism that can reach them,” the mayor said. “And again, this is a very forceful measure. 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.”

Illegal dwellings

Eleven of the 13 New Yorkers who died in Ida flash floods lived in basement apartments in Queens — and the city department of buildings confirmed that five of the six basement apartments were illegal.    

Advocates said the city needs to do more to retrofit these apartments to make them legal, instead of punishing homeowners or people living in basement apartments — many of whom are low income people of color. Instead, policies have just driven basement apartments into the shadows, one activist said, creating more safety issues, not less.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards grew up in basement apartments like these.

“What can be done about it is the production of real affordable housing,” he said.

The city’s building commissioner said: “Our team is tirelessly conducting inspections at over a thousand properties across the five boroughs in the aftermath of Wednesday’s storm, and we’ll continue doing everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe in their residences.”

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