This rain garden in Rego Park, Queens is an example of green infrastructure that can be used to divert rainwater. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Many New Yorkers remember the havoc Hurricane Ida wreaked last year. Commuters saw the stormwater rush into subway stations and dirty rain water pooled in the streets. The extreme flooding claimed 13 lives. Eleven of those people died trapped in their flooded basements. The many New Yorkers who live in basement apartments for their relative affordability wanted a change. But how? 

Just last week, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a nonprofit that develops and promotes ideas that improve the economic health, environmental resilience and quality of life for New Yorkers, released a report titled: Preventing Another Ida. The report examined flood prevention measures for basement apartments in Queens, specifically in neighborhoods affected the most: Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, and Corona. Epicenter reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with RPA spokesperson Mark McNulty about the report and what needs to change so that another Ida-like situation never happens again.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Epicenter: Can New York City prevent another Ida?

McNulty: New York City cannot prevent heavy rainfall, New York City can prevent deadly and damaging flooding. There are several ways to mitigate rainwater flooding. First and foremost would be doubling the capacity of the sewer system — but that’s not physically possible. Unfortunately, the sewer system in New York City is very old and the costs to upgrade it are prohibitive. The report offers a series of recommendations intended to capture stormwater before it reaches the sewer system and starts to overflow. If we can capture the stormwater before it reaches the sewer system, that’s how we can mitigate flooding and prevent another Ida.

Flooded New York City Streets during Hurricane Ida. Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

Epicenter: What kind of flood mitigation infrastructure is already in place?

McNulty: In Central Queens, there are only three acres of “green infrastructure.” These are things like rain gardens, bioswales and permeable pavement. Our report recommends increasing the amount of green infrastructure by 40 times its current level. We recommend going from three acres to 120 acres of stormwater management infrastructure in Central Queens. This infrastructure can also include “green streets” which have a ton of foliage on them and permeable surfaces like soils. 

Epicenter: That sounds like a lot of work — how feasible is it?

McNulty: This may sound like a huge undertaking but if you converted 5% of the streets and sidewalks in Central Queens into green infrastructure, the area should be strong enough to handle the amount of rain we saw during Hurricane Ida. The space is there, we just need to  convert that space from pavement to infrastructure that can absorb water. The city doesn’t have enough resources to implement this on its own. We need partnership from the state and federal government, both with planning and funding.

Epicenter: How can we prevent dangerous flooding from happening again in illegal basement apartments? 

McNulty: The report calls for a framework to legalize and support basement apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units (ADU). These types of homes already exist and they exist in a high volume in the neighborhoods of Central Queens (where there are more than 30,000 illegal basement apartments). We need to do everything possible and quickly to make them safe, regulated and legal.

Epicenter: Have there been efforts in the past to legalize basement apartments?

McNulty: In 2019, the city started a pilot program in East New York that was bringing illegal basement apartments up to code, renovating them and making them safe. Fifteen apartments were brought up to code — which is fantastic — but the program wasn’t allowed to continue. After Covid struck, the budget for this program was discontinued. There was an effort by Governor Hochul and certain state lawmakers to allow New York City to legalize basement apartments and this didn’t go through. There have been efforts, but they have not been successful. 

Epicenter: The report also calls for people to view extreme flooding as a health equity issue, why is that important?

McNulty: We have seen that flooding and other extreme weather events in New York City, the tri-state region and across the globe do not impact everyone equally, rather they impact those who have the least. In regard to Hurricane Ida, the majority of the people impacted were immigrants and New Yorkers of color. That is why we need to view extreme weather as a health equity issue, because we need to prioritize resources for these communities as we try to make New York City and the tri state more resilient. If we aren’t looking at extreme weather from a health equity standpoint, we might miss this reality. 

Epicenter: How long will the recommendations made in the report take to implement?

McNulty: If you were to legalize basement apartments tomorrow and give the city’s agencies a green light to begin installing more stormwater management infrastructure, it would take a few years to begin seeing results. That is why it is critical that we start now. How many hurricane seasons are we going to wait? How many hurricane seasons are we going to experience where people die?

A rain garden can add a lot of greenery to a community. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

Epicenter: What else should New Yorkers know about the report’s stormwater management recommendations?

McNulty: It’s important to note that more green infrastructure in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, and Corona will not only trap stormwater, but will cool down the community. We’ve just experienced one of the most severe heat waves, the less asphalt you have on a street and the more foliage and greenery, the cooler the street becomes. These new types of infrastructure will save lives immediately by preventing flooding, but they will also indirectly save lives and improve quality of life by mitigating extreme heat and what we call the urban heat island effect. 

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