Hurricane Ida, Sept. 2021. Photo: Casey Horner

Nabil Jamaleddine first saw National Water Main Cleaning trucks along 77th Street in East Elmhurst while walking around the neighborhood with his wife and son back in October. He remembers it was a week after Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s visit to see his and his neighbor’s homes, which had been flooded by Tropical Storm Ophelia. 

The city was doing some kind of investigation and cleanup, Jamaleddine figured, but he didn’t know much more despite asking workers. It wasn’t until earlier this month, at a community meeting he and the Queens Borough President’s office organized, that he and neighbors learned the trucks were part of a long-term city plan to address sewer backup and flooding in their and nearby communities. 

But that could take almost ten years.

The community’s call for transparency in sewage solutions 

“It’s been very opaque,” Jamaleddine tells Epicenter. He says the burden unfairly fell on residents to seek information from the city and share updates and resources with their neighbors. He and other advocates have been trying to get answers for the community. Meanwhile, they passed out flyers about the recent meeting by going door to door at homes and businesses. 

“I shouldn’t have to be the one that goes around the neighborhood reporting things,” he says. “Someone should proactively be [informing us], ‘OK, there’s a massive puddle here — what can we do about it?’ Or, ‘these houses get flooded — let’s start trying to allocate money for rain gardens, let’s provide grants to install a check valve, install some pumps.’”

Community members say being uninformed this way is a hazard and an equity issue at a time when flooding in the area is becoming more frequent, in part due to unprecedented levels of rain. They say many neighbors don’t know about city initiatives to help retrofit flood-prone homes. This comes while the top issues reported to 311 in these areas are sewer backups and street flooding, issues the city is seeing across boroughs because of climate change, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Press Secretary Robert Wolejsza told Epicenter via email. 

The agency does drainage studies all the time for operations, the DEP spokesperson said. “This one was both created and executed very quickly,” Wolejsza said, adding that the DEP had mentioned the study at previous community meetings. “The city has been very proactive in providing resources to residents, homeowners, landlords in order to guide them before, during, and after major storms.” The spokesperson cited resources like the Rainfall Ready NYC Action Plan and information-sharing with community boards and elected officials. 

But “in a case like this, there needs to be some type of advocate; there needs to be somebody from New York who has gone through this situation to guide people,” said local school teacher Christine Connors, who has lived in East Elmhurst since 2007. “Because you go through this situation blindly and [after Ida] the people from FEMA … had a lot of empathy for everything that we were all going through, but [they were] not from New York. So a lot of our questions, they couldn’t answer.”

One common question: How do I find a plumber amid rampant fraud and harassment from people who inundate you with calls or show up at your door after a flood? 

Hurricane Ida in Jackson Heights, Queens, Sept. 2021. Photo: Nitin Mukul/ Epicenter NYC.

The latest in sewer plans

While the DEP says a fix could be nearly a decade away, the possible sewer system overhaul will only happen if the city finds it feasible.

At the recent community meeting at the Lexington School for the Deaf in East Elmhurst, the DEP drew questions from frustrated residents over their projected timeline to prevent sewer backup in these neighborhoods. 

“This is not New York,” said Frank Taylor, chairperson of Community Board 3 and an East Elmhurst resident. “[In New York], we always figure out things and settle things before people have to go bankrupt.” 

Zooming out

The meeting was not the only community forum on flooding in Queens that day: State Senator James Sanders Jr., who is running for reelection this year, hosted one to address chronic, more frequent flooding in Far Rockaway and other low-lying neighborhoods around Jamaica Bay

These forums were a chance to echo longtime calls to upgrade drains, sewer mains, and rain gardens and incentivize flood retrofits. One of the most recent concrete calls is a petition by Jamaleddine, whose wish list comes with a much shorter turnaround than the city’s.   

For neighbors still reeling from 2021’s Hurricane Ida and September 2023’s torrential rain, the timeline is too far out for comfort, especially considering the wallets and chronic health conditions of immigrants and residents of color who are most affected by post-flooding issues like mold, a higher likelihood of infection and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Hurricane Ida in Jackson Heights, Queens, Sept. 2021. Photo: Nitin Mukul/ Epicenter NYC.

What’s the DEP’s long game?

  • Previously: the agency installed rain gardens and manhole covers to increase drainage areas and applied for $50 million in federal funding for a “cloudburst” project. (Cloudbursts are sudden heavy downpours. Managing them requires underground storage tanks, among other measures. The DEP says it will find out in late summer or early fall if it has received the grant.)
  • Currently: the DEP is cleaning and inspecting a 2.5-mile section at one of the largest sewers in the area. The sewer carries stormwater and sewage from East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights to Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. Workers will be there until mid-March.
  • What’s next: The city is set to complete its drainage study in mid-2025. 

On a neighborhood level, according to DEP, it will complete the study in the following neighborhoods:

-Astoria East by August 2024 

-Old Astoria by September 2024

-East Elmhurst by June 2025  

  • The DEP will then assess whether it can install stormwater-only sewers to reduce the demand on the combined sewer system (a single pipe that carries both stormwater runoff and sewage from buildings) in East Elmhurst. 
  • If everything checks out, DEP Deputy Chief Operating Officer Kim Cipriano said the sewer construction project — after designing, acquiring a contract, and construction — wouldn’t be completed before 2032. 

“Flooding will happen again before the city and the state have time to build what may be necessary in this area,” acknowledged Katherine Brezler, strategic advisor to the Queens Borough President. In the meantime, Brezler added, homeowners may apply for financial aid to help fund flooding prevention measures like the New York State Resilience Retrofits

How to flood-proof your home 

While we wait for long-term sewer fixes, what can we do? Here’s what city officials suggest

For homeowners:

  • Install a sewer backflow valve. 
  • Reroute your downspouts away from your building.
  • Connect gutters to a rain barrel.
  • Use flood sensors — place sensors on the floor, near sewer drains, or under the windows if you have outdoor window wells. 
  • Elevate sinks, toilets, and bathtubs above the sewer line.
  • Use flood barriers and sump pumps, making sure to use pipes or hoses that extend 10 to 15 feet beyond your building.
  • While most homeowner insurances do not include coverage for sewer backups, you can add an optional rider to your insurance policy to cover any damages to your home from a sewer backup.

For all residents:

  • Plan for intense storms — use the Notify NYC to be alerted.
  • Wait to use water during storms — you can sign up for text reminders. 
  • Call 311 if you have an issue. Officials say it may feel like an unimportant bureaucratic action, but it does help with data. 
  • Practice your safety plan in case of a severe flood, including choosing a safe center and knowing a secondary location and designated person to check in with.
  • Gather supplies (pack a ‘go’ bag with your medicine, documents, batteries, etc.)
  • Only hire vetted repair vendors to avoid potential scammers or aggressive plumbers after a flood. Non-profit organizations such as Neighborhood Housing Services can provide a list of recommended vendors.

Epicenter also has a basement apartment checklist for keeping you and your belongings safe during the next rainstorm. 

Note: This post has been updated to clarify that Christine Connors was referring to Ida, not Ophelia, in her statement.

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