Garage doors

The city will distribute inflatable dams to limit the risk of flooding

Darinko Mrvica and his family have lived in his well-kept brick home in Whitestone, Queens for 40 years. The basement floods about every four, he said.

During Hurricane Ida, water from the intense rains poured over the top of his driveway below, climbing halfway up his garage doors and causing one to collapse completely.

Mrvica tried to convince the city to let him build a cement berm to prevent water from spilling onto his property – without success.

“I don’t know what you know about water,” said Mrvica, a plumber who knows misplaced water. In his experience, owners like him are at the mercy of the rain. “How much you can do – not much.”

Yet on Wednesday, the city offered a different solution: inflatable dams, filled with water and arranged in a nested row at the entrance to the driveway, which it hopes will stem the type of torrents brought by heavy rains.

Mrvica’s home was the site of an exclusive demonstration for NY1 of City Hall‘s latest effort to combat inland flooding, which includes distributing dams, along with sandbags, to residents of particularly prone to flooding, so they settle when the area is forecast for heavy rainfall.

The distribution project, started more than a month into hurricane season, comes as the city has made only modest progress in preparing for extreme rainfall events like Hurricane Ida, officials say. , political experts and residents. The storm claimed 13 lives, including 11 in basement apartments overrun with floodwaters.

The project is meant to signal a change in the way city residents should think about their role in flood risk management, said Rit Aggarwala, the commissioner of the city’s Environmental Protection Department, during the demonstration.

“New Yorkers are going to have to develop a culture of preparation,” Aggarwala said, standing outside Mrvica’s house. “This does not mean that the city is going to shirk its responsibilities. We’re going to do everything we can. »

(NY1/Ari Ephraim Feldman)

“Take palliative measures”

It took six of the small fillable dams, each the size of a lifeguard’s rescue tube, to cover the boundary between the sidewalk and the driveway of Mrvica’s house. DEP workers also put extra dams on his two sliding garage doors, just in case.

Water gushing from a fire hose aimed at the dams – and held in place under the heel of a DEP worker’s boot – did not cross the threshold.

Aggarwala said the DEP will send a letter to about 8,000 homes with between one and four units in the most flood-prone parts of the city in the coming weeks, based on a newly developed map that models the risk. current in the city against moderately severe storms. . This new cardsaid Aggarwala, also guides the DEP’s decision-making on changes to the sewer system or the addition of green infrastructure elements.

(The map, based on flood models released by the city last year, does not show Mrvica’s house as an area susceptible to flooding, despite intense water damage to his house during Ida in last September. Mrvica still received several roadblocks after the protest as a thank you for offering his house as a test site.)

Residents of homes indicated by the map as being at risk will then need to obtain the blockades from distribution points during the month of August, before the peak of the storm season. A DEP spokesperson said the department has about 25,000 dams and will tailor the number of dams each home will receive based on its specific topography or layout.

The city will also distribute the sandbags — as many as residents want to take — and encourage New Yorkers to sweep debris from sewer grates. The giveaway will cost the city about $2.5 million, the department spokesperson said.

Aggarwala said New Yorkers who aren’t eligible to receive the dams for free can purchase them. A four foot dam currently sells for $43.95 on Amazon.

It’s part of an effort to get New Yorkers to change their own sense of personal responsibility in response to climate change, Aggarwala said, noting that landowners along the southeastern U.S. coast are asked to keep a stock of food, water and medicine in the event of violent storms.

“We are going to have to adopt stopgap measures,” Aggarwala said.

DEP’s new resource guide, titled “Rainfall Ready NYC,” is the city’s first public document on storm preparedness since a series of reports last year about the damage caused by Ida and how the city planned to respond. It does not provide specific updates on the progress of the dozens of efforts detailed in those early reports — including accelerating storm sewer upgrades, adding stormwater catchment areas in parks, and improving the awareness of residents of basement houses – leaving some of their fates unclear.

The emphasis on homeowner responsibility comes after statements by Mayor Eric Adams describing the city’s role in storm preparedness as being largely one of risk communication, escape routes and possible preventative measures. against floods.

“That’s the role we have to play,” Adams said at a news conference in May when releasing the federal government’s forecast for a seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season. “I can’t stress this enough: communication, communication, communication.”

Indeed, the four sections of the document include a section on the role of the City, as well as a second heading, entitled “But we all have a role to play”, which describes what citizens can do by themselves. even to prevent flooding. To that end, the city says it plans to hold workshops “to help homeowners understand simple, cost-effective steps they can take to protect their properties from storm flooding.”

The report, Aggarwala said, “should have a homeowner buying flood insurance, or thinking, ‘What do I have in the basement that’s at risk, should I raise or move? . “”

Aggarwala said the city cannot guarantee that it will be able to help elderly residents or those with mobility issues inflate and assemble the dams before a storm.

“Unfortunately right now it’s a starting point, so we’re going to distribute them, and hopefully those owners who manage to maintain their properties, manage to mow and rake their lawns, etc., are able to do that. which is really a relatively easy install,” Aggarwala said.

The resource guide notes that the city continues to update its flash flood contingency plan, which is due for completion in August, and continues to develop storm-specific messages for basement households. (All but one property where people drowned in basement units during Ida are eligible for free city dams, based on the newly developed map.)

Still, the guide shows the city is falling behind on some of the efforts outlined in last year’s post-Ida reports, such as installing warning signs at dozens of flood-prone intersections.

Mike Dulong, an attorney with the environmental organization Riverkeeper, said the report shows the city is “developing pre-storm warnings and building awareness, which are critical to preventing loss of life and injury.”

But, he added, some of the projects detailed in the report have been underway since before Ida, such as the development of 1,300 new green infrastructures, such as planted medians or rain catchment areas around sidewalk trees.

The city still desperately needs a comprehensive plan to deal with stormwater, said Amy Chester, chief executive of Rebuild By Design, an environmental consultancy.

“Hey, climate change is here, we’ve seen it before, and we’re entering another hurricane season,” Chester said. “So unless we plan a little faster, we’ll never catch up.”

In a report recently published by Rebuild By Design, dozens of experts give their opinion on what the city needs to do to become more resilient to extreme weather conditions. In many cases, the suggestions are the same as before Ida; a few, like an updated stormwater map, are reflected in the city’s new resource guide.

“In terms of stormwater preparedness, we’re definitely behind the times,” Chester said.

Darinko Mrvica said he was skeptical of the plan but hoped it would work. (NY1/Ari Ephraim Feldman)

The city’s latest efforts to prepare residents for flooding come as elected officials and political pundits call for what they describe as bolder measures to protect against intense rains. They say they have seen hoped-for projects fall through.

“There are good things happening,” said Queens Borough chairman Donovan Richards. “But despite all the progress we’re making, the city is still unprepared for another catastrophic storm.”

Zachary Ischol, the city’s emergency management commissioner, said during the dam’s demonstration that the city was better prepared for an Ida-type storm.

Now, he said, “New Yorkers need to look in the mirror and say, ‘Are we ready?’ »

Aggarwala said the DEP is still focused on making physical changes to the city, such as adding new rain gardens and expanding the city’s bluebelt natural areas to absorb excess water. water. He said a full resilience plan is unlikely to be released until April 2023.

“I’m not going to tell you that we have a full plan yet, because coming up with a really full plan takes work,” he said. But, he added, “we don’t wait to implement until we have a full plan. There are enough no regrets opportunities that we are working on at full speed.

Mrvica says he hopes, though skeptical, that the city will be able to deal with the floods successfully. He says he plans to use the many dams left on his doorstep by DEP workers, but will also install thick sheets of plywood over the garage door, to hold back the potential pool of water.

“The commissioner has a nice plan,” Mrvica said. “But if he can do it, I don’t know.”