Less than two weeks ago, as Tropical Storm Henri whomped the New York metropolitan area and coastal New England, meteorologists were left astounded when a historic amount of rainfall was recorded at Manhattan’s Central Park: 1.94 inches, the most ever recorded in New York City in a single hour. In total, Henri dumped just over 7 inches of rain in Central Park during its slow churn through the Northeast before exiting back out into the Atlantic.
And then along came Ida.
After putting New Orleans’ post-Katrina levee system to the test and leaving over a million households throughout Louisiana and the Deep South without power (hundreds of thousands of customers remain without electricity for the unseen future as utilities scramble to repair felled power lines while gasoline supplies wane), the remnants of Ida swirled northward. The system arrived in the Northeast yesterday, September 1, as a post-tropical storm for the history books: it trounced the historic rainfall records set by Henri just 11 days earlier with 3.5 inches of rain falling in Central Park in a single hour.
As the Northeast cleans up and dries out following a brutal rainstorm event that prompted a flash flood emergency warning (the first-ever to be issued by the New York City office of the National Weather Service for the New York metropolitan area and northeastern New Jersey, the latter of which received its own flash flood emergency warning from the NWS just ahead of the city proper), the catastrophic impacts of Ida have become clearer now that the murky floodwaters have begun to subside. As of this writing, at least 12 deaths have been confirmed in New York City alone, where, last evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency. New York Governor Kathy Hochul made the same declaration about an hour later.
During the height of the storm, the entirety of the city’s deluged subway system was shuttered by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), leaving straphangers, many stuck between stations without cell service and stranded on trains for hours. As of this morning, subway service remained spotty as workers continue to assess and remedy widespread damage. Other forms of transit were also suspended in and around the city, although some brave MTA bus operators tested the amphibious capabilities of their vehicles on a mission to get passengers home safely. In an effort to keep drivers off of flooded roads, Mayor De Blasio also implemented a city-wide travel ban which remained in effect until 5 a.m. this morning. Flights in and out of a water-logged Newark Liberty Airport were also halted and travelers were evacuated as Ida pummeled the region.
Queens Boulevard in Maspeth/Corona is a literal river at the moment. Bus fully flooded driving through, multiple cars stuck in the water. Absolutely insane. pic.twitter.com/LuSL9uWCEl
— Joe English (@JoeEEnglish) September 2, 2021
(Reproduced with permission of Joe English)
In New Jersey, where several deaths have also been confirmed, Governor Phil Murphy also declared a state of emergency. Earlier the day in the southern part of the Garden State, large tornados leveled homes and skirted across the New Jersey Turnpike in scenes rarely—if ever—seen in this part of the United States. In Philadelphia, historic flooding along the Schuylkill River, which crested this afternoon, led to the closure of a major interstate and prompted shelter-in-place orders. At least three fatalities have also been reported in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, which was also ravaged by tornados and extreme flooding.
Video footage captured by cell phone-wielding citizens and shared on social media depicting Ida’s fury in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and across the Northeast has been nothing short of abundant: near-inundated bridges, water pouring into basement apartments, streets and major roadways alike transformed into gushing rivers, deluged stadiums both outdoors and fully covered, abandoned cars bobbing along newly formed lakes, and, of course, cascading waterfalls in the city’s aging subway stations across multiple boroughs. (In a rare instance of levity, at least one New Yorker was captured trying to make the most of it.)
All of these sobering, stunning videos documenting the wrath of Ida beg the question: what can and should be done to prevent this sort of rain-wrought destruction—in some of the largest cities in one of the wealthiest nations in the world—from happening again? Or, at the very least, what can be done to mitigate the impacts of major storm events, which are only increasing in frequency and severity?
During our ongoing climate emergency (in California, a different but no less horrific situation is still playing out), the answer to that question may seem daunting, if not impossible, considering the historically sluggish response from local and state governments to prior flood-producing storms.
Said Felicia Park-Rogers, director of Regional Infrastructure Projects for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, in a statement calling on the New York and New Jersey delegations in the House of Representatives to reinstate the cut $10 billion for transit operations funding in the budget reconciliation bill:
“The events of last night make one thing clear: climate change is already upon us. Severe storms and significant flooding are now the new normal, and our government has fallen well behind in preparing us for these now regular disasters.
Our public transportation network suffers from chronic disinvestment in capital improvements, maintenance, and operations. We cannot adequately address the scale of the climate crisis without heavily investing in the solutions required to mitigate the worst effects of these storms. Our region needs money for maintenance and operations so that in times of crisis we have trained personnel and a well-maintained transit system to handle flooding, power outages, and evacuations.”
But as Slate’s Henry Grabar detailed earlier today, there are a few quick and relatively inexpensive fixes that cities, New York City, specifically, can take on immediately or near-immediately before lawmakers put forth substantive climate policy and major infrastructural projects, public transportation-related or otherwise, get underway. They include legalizing basement apartments, protecting entrances and air vents of subways stations, clearing storm drain-blocking trash, planting stormwater-absorbing trees and investing in other forms of green infrastructure, and working fast before the next Ida comes along.
Update: Per NBC News, the current death toll resulting from Ida’s rampage across the Northeast now stands at least 42 lives lost, including 23 people in New Jersey, 13 people in New York City, four in suburban Philadelphia, and one each in Connecticut and Maryland. In the South, at least 13 people have died due to the storm, nine of them in Louisiana, and the number is rising as the situation there grows more dire by the day.