(CNN)When Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on parts of the Northeast in 2012, it exposed the dire need to strengthen New York City’s infrastructure to adapt to what was then a looming threat of the climate crisis.
Nearly a decade later, the city is picking up the pieces after another climate whiplash it was unprepared for. Within two weeks, two storms — Henri and Ida — broke rainfall records in the Northeast. Flash flood emergencies from the remnants of Hurricane Ida stretched for 190 miles from Philadelphia to New York City. Central Park recorded its wettest hour on record, while Newark, New Jersey, recorded its wettest day. As of Friday, the floods had killed at least 46 people in the region. Ida turns New York City into a front line of extreme weather supercharged by climate change“This was worse than Sandy, and it happened over a short period of time,” Maria Lopez-Nuñez, a resident of Newark, told CNN. “And sadly, our region is not more prepared than when Sandy hit.”When the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped more than 7 inches of rain on parts of New York City, officials and meteorologists seemed stunned by the devastating flooding that ensued. “This is the biggest wake-up call we could possibly get,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “What we have to recognize is the suddenness, the brutality of storms now. It is different.”Read MoreBut climate scientists have warned for years that the more humans heat up the planet, these sorts of extreme rainfall events will occur with increasing frequency and intensity. And in many parts of the country, the infrastructure in place today was built for a climate that no longer exists. From the deadly heatwaves that scorched the Pacific Northwest to the damage strewn by Ida from Louisiana to New York, these floods are the latest in a string of events that have laid bare just how poorly equipped America is for what climate change has in store.Climatologist Kim Cobb, director of the Global Change Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, warned that New York, like many cities, was clearly not prepared to deal with climate-related and weather disasters such as Storm Ida.”I don’t think that what we’re seeing today is emblematic of a climate-ready city in New York and, obviously, we have a story coming out from cities across the world — from communities out west grappling with wildfires that are linked to climate change,” Cobb told CNN.”We’re just coming out of Ida’s devastation across the southeast US — Louisiana and Mississippi — infrastructure that is not ready for our climate of now, let alone the climate of tomorrow. These kinds of climate impacts are going to worsen with each additional increment of warming.”Climate adaptation won’t be easy — or cheapCars sit abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, New York, following a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.As other extreme flooding events have shown — like Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking slog across Texas and Louisiana in 2018 — when huge amounts of rain are dumped on expanses of concrete and pavement, it can be a recipe for disaster, said Philip Orton, a professor of ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology.When torrential rains fall on these impermeable surfaces, there is simply nowhere for the water to go but into overloaded storm drains. In the case of New York, floodwaters also spilled onto subway platforms and, tragically, into basement apartments, where many victims were trapped.Climate scientist: This is a dystopian momentOn Friday, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a new series of initiatives geared toward alerting and evacuating residents from vulnerable basement apartments ahead of future storms.Orton said urbanization is likely part of the reason for the devastation seen across the Northeast.But many of these areas were paved over decades ago. What has changed in the years since is the climate, Orton said.Extreme rainfall rates such as the one Henri and Ida exhibited — as well as other recent deadly flooding events in Tennessee, Germany and China — are happening more frequently due to human-caused climate change. A recent UN climate report stated, “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area.” That’s especially true in the US, where the heaviest downpours seem to be increasing in all regions of the continental US, with the Northeast region showing the largest increase, according to the US National Climate Assessment.”People focus on the hurricanes, but the truth is that extreme rain, which can come in the aftermath of a hurricane, like what happened with Harvey and Ida, are the events that we need to be designing for,” Laura Clemons, a certified floodplain manager who formerly advised the New York City Housing Authority on resilience strategies, told CNN. Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastShoppers buy supplies at a grocery store in New Orleans despite the power still being out on Thursday, September 2.Hide Caption 1 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastCows are herded into a pen in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, on Thursday. “All of our neighbors’ cows are mixed up in this bunch, so we’re here rescuing them, getting them off the road and out of the water,” Chris Shivers said when asked why his group was herding the cows. “They’ve been standing in the water now for several days without anything to eat or drink, so they’re under a lot of stress and have seen a lot. The hurricane is a disaster, and these cows will probably never be the same.”Hide Caption 2 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastNational Guard members unload ice at a distribution center in Montegut, Louisiana, on Thursday.Hide Caption 3 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastUnattended horses are seen during a storm in Belle Chasse on Thursday.Hide Caption 4 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastTiffany Miller embraces her daughter Desilynn, left, and godchild Charleigh after the family returned to their destroyed home in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, on Wednesday, September 1.Hide Caption 5 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastThis aerial photo shows the hurricane aftermath in Grand Isle, Louisiana, on Tuesday, August 31. Grand Isle, Louisiana’s last remaining inhabited barrier island at the southern tip of the state, bore the brunt of the Category 4 hurricane.Hide Caption 6 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastThe Maldonado family stands outside their damaged home in Barataria, Louisiana, on Tuesday. “I’ve lost everything in my trailer because of the hurricane,” said Fusto Maldonado when asked about the storm’s impact. “I’ve lost everything, my family has lost everything, and we’re now trying to find help. We all live in this area and now it’s all gone.”Hide Caption 7 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA dead fish lies on a road in Leeville, Louisiana, on Tuesday.Hide Caption 8 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA shrimper works to salvage his partially submerged boat in Golden Meadow on Tuesday.Hide Caption 9 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA palm tree is bent in half in Galliano, Louisiana, on Tuesday.Hide Caption 10 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastPeople wait for a gas truck to arrive at a gas station in New Orleans on Tuesday. As of Wednesday, the power remained out for nearly a million customers in Louisiana and a large number of gas stations didn’t have fuel.Hide Caption 11 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastDestroyed homes are surrounded by floodwaters near Point-aux-Chenes, Louisiana, on Tuesday. Hide Caption 12 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastWorkers on Tuesday remove a tree that fell on a home in Houma, Louisiana.Hide Caption 13 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastWhat’s left of a home stands in Grand Isle on Tuesday.Hide Caption 14 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastMichael Wilson stands in the doorway of his flood-damaged home in Norco, Louisiana, on Monday, August 30.Hide Caption 15 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastHomes near Norco are surrounded by floodwaters on Monday.Hide Caption 16 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA rain shower soaks evacuees in LaPlace, Louisiana, on Monday.Hide Caption 17 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA damaged McDonald’s sign is seen in Raceland, Louisiana, on Monday.Hide Caption 18 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA man rides a bicycle in front of a damaged building in Houma on Monday.Hide Caption 19 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastAn oil slick is seen on top of floodwaters in Kraemer, Louisiana, on Monday.Hide Caption 20 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastResidents wave at a US Coast Guard helicopter while waiting to be rescued from their flooded home in LaPlace on Monday.Hide Caption 21 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastTheophilus Charles sits inside his damaged home in Houma on Monday.Hide Caption 22 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA highway is flooded near LaPlace on Monday.Hide Caption 23 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastResidents are rescued from floodwaters in LaPlace on Monday.Hide Caption 24 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA damaged historic building lies in ruins in New Orleans’ Central Business District on Monday.Hide Caption 25 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA barge damages a bridge connecting Lafitte and Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, on Monday.Hide Caption 26 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastMarquita Jenkins stands in the ruins of her hair salon in LaPlace on Monday.Hide Caption 27 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA destroyed car is seen Monday after an apartment building burned overnight in Kenner, Louisiana.Hide Caption 28 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA resident walks through floodwaters in LaPlace on Monday.Hide Caption 29 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastSiblings watch men assess damage outside a hotel in Houma on Monday.Hide Caption 30 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA woman pushes a stroller past a boarded-up building in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Monday.Hide Caption 31 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA downed tree lies on a house in New Orleans on Monday.Hide Caption 32 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastMembers of the Louisiana National Guard help with recovery efforts in New Orleans on Monday.Hide Caption 33 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA man looks up next to a section of roof that was ripped off a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Monday.Hide Caption 34 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastLights from a TV broadcast illuminate an otherwise dark Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Monday.Hide Caption 35 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastMontegut Fire Chief Toby Henry walks back to his fire truck in the rain as firefighters cut through trees on the road in Bourg, Louisiana, on Sunday, August 29.Hide Caption 36 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastFirefighters cut through downed trees on a road in Bourg on Sunday.Hide Caption 37 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastBarges are seen docked on the Mississippi River as Hurricane Ida hit Destrehan, Louisiana, on Sunday.Hide Caption 38 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastPeople walk through the French Quarter in New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 39 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastEuropean Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet took this photo of Hurricane Ida from the International Space Station on Sunday.Hide Caption 40 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastThe Royal Dutch Shell refinery in Norco is seen as Hurricane Ida made landfall on Sunday. More than 95% of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production facilities have been shut down, regulators said, indicating the storm’s significant impact on energy supply.Hide Caption 41 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastPeople work inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC, on Sunday.Hide Caption 42 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA cyclist wears a face mask while riding through the rain and high winds in New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 43 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastFirefighters look out the window of a shelter in Bourg on Sunday.Hide Caption 44 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastStorm clouds pass over a cemetery in New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 45 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastLaKeisha Verdin holds her 3-month-old son, Kevin, as she walks onto the front porch where her family was watching weather updates on the local news in Houma.Hide Caption 46 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA news crew reports from the edge of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 47 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastWind blows Monroe Best’s hair and face mask Sunday in New Orleans.Hide Caption 48 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastNew Orleans’ Bourbon Street is nearly empty on Sunday.Hide Caption 49 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA vehicle is abandoned in a flooded ditch next to a highway in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.Hide Caption 50 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA man carrying his belongings walks past a sign outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 51 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA wall of rain moves over downtown New Orleans on Sunday.Hide Caption 52 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastThe Boudreaux family sits on their front porch Sunday as they await the arrival of Hurricane Ida.Hide Caption 53 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA man walks along the Mississippi River near the French Quarter in New Orleans early Sunday.Hide Caption 54 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastPeople stand in line at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on Saturday, August 28. Many residents were evacuating the area ahead of Hurricane Ida.Hide Caption 55 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastCrews reopen a flood gate to help trapped motorists who missed a closure deadline on Saturday.Hide Caption 56 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastKeith Clark brings a rope to a friend to help tie down a houseboat before he evacuated Jean Lafitte on Saturday.Hide Caption 57 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastNikeia Washington holds her granddaughter, Halia Zenon, at a hotel in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana, where they evacuated ahead of the storm.Hide Caption 58 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastPeople walk down Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Saturday. Evacuation was voluntary for parts of the city inside its flood protection system. Other areas were under a mandatory evacuation order.Hide Caption 59 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastLarry Ackman, bottom, helps neighbor Mike Jackson, left, and his son Cody board up windows Saturday in Morgan City, Louisiana.Hide Caption 60 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastTraffic moves slowly Saturday along Interstate 10 West in Vinton, Louisiana.Hide Caption 61 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA man drives a tractor through a flooded street Saturday in Guanimar, Cuba. Before entering the Gulf, Ida made landfall twice over Cuba as a Category 1 hurricane.Hide Caption 62 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastUS President Joe Biden speaks during a FEMA briefing on Saturday. “This weekend is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Biden said, “and it’s a stark reminder that we have to do everything we can to prepare the people in the region to make sure we’re ready to respond.”Hide Caption 63 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastDawn breaks over a Hurricane Katrina memorial at Shell Beach in St. Bernard, Louisiana, on Saturday. Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005.Hide Caption 64 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastClare and Joe Cermak work on putting storm shutters up on their home in Louisiana’s St. Charles Parish on Saturday.Hide Caption 65 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastHighway traffic moves slowly near Kenner on Saturday as many residents fled the Louisiana city.Hide Caption 66 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastGregory Moore, left, helps fill sand bags as residents in Gulfport, Mississippi, prepared for the storm on Saturday.Hide Caption 67 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastJohn Guenther unloads about 400 crab traps that he had to pull out of the water near his home in the eastern St. Bernard Parish on August 27.Hide Caption 68 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastJennifer Tate fuels up a gas can August 27 in Pass Christian, Mississippi.Hide Caption 69 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastWorkers stack bags of ice into a gas station freezer in Jefferson, Louisiana, on August 27.Hide Caption 70 of 71 Photos: Hurricane Ida devastates Gulf CoastA resident hammers the shutters of a 100-year-old house in New Orleans on August 27.Hide Caption 71 of 71 Orton said that there are several steps that cities can begin to take to improve their resiliency to flooding, but the fixes are not simple — or cheap.One is to invest in better storm drainage, like larger pipes capable of moving greater amounts of water. But in a city like New York, replacing these aging systems would be an incredibly complex and expensive undertaking, Orton said. And with uncertainty about what the rain events of 5, 10 or even 50 years from now will look like, designing systems that will be able to handle the storms of the future is difficult.”The insidious problem of climate change is that it’s creating this more unpredictable world where scientists, I think, are having trouble telling cities exactly how much more rainfall to expect,” Orton said.Where possible, replacing pavement with green spaces or restoring wetlands and streams is another way to allow rainfall to percolate into the ground and take some of the burden off of stormwater systems.”What you often see is that these floods are occurring where there was a historical creek — It’s still the lowest-lying point in a neighborhood,” Orton said. “There’s definitely been increasing interest in recreating those pathways for water to flow … and I think this may be an impetus for more of that.”Stopping development from occurring in flood-prone areas in the first place is also critical. The flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are a key tool used by many cities and communities to understand their flood risk. But there are large swaths of the country that FEMA has not mapped and existing maps still do not account for flooding caused by heavy rainfall. Cars sit abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, New York, following a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.FEMA is expected to roll out a new system for setting flood insurance rates later this year called Risk Rating 2.0, which the agency says will utilize the latest in flood-modeling technology to better capture the risk faced by individual properties.In the meantime, some cities have taken steps to understand the growing threat posed by heavy rains. In May, New York released a new stormwater resiliency plan aimed at updating flood response procedures and opportunities to invest in more resilient infrastructure.Unfortunately, it appears those efforts are still being outpaced by the rapidly worsening climate crisis. “With these uncertainties, it makes [adaptation] more of a challenge, and so we end up in a responsive mode with these floods,” Orton said.In 2014, two years after Sandy, Clemons and a group of experts also designed one of the world’s largest stormwater management systems that could mitigate an 8-inch extreme rain event like the one that just devastated New York City. “We knew this event was coming,” said Clemons, who is now the founder of Collaborative Communities, working on hazard mitigation projects. “The data was very clear that the next disaster to hit New York City wasn’t going to be a [storm] surge event, it was going to be an extreme rain event.”But Clemons said the $250 million project failed to move forward.”The plan has existed since 2014 of how to implement a massive stormwater management system that could accommodate exactly this type of event so this type of devastation doesn’t happen again,” she added. Inequalities in urban infrastructurePeople clean up their flooded homes in a neighborhood in Queens, New York, that saw massive flooding and numerous deaths following a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.Oftentimes, urban adaptation plans fail to take into account how it would improve, or worsen, the underlying inequities baked in the fabric of the city’s infrastructure. In New York, environmental justice advocates say most climate adaptation plans focus on wealthier tourist areas like Lower Manhattan’s financial district. Meanwhile, vulnerable neighborhoods living on floodplains or along the city’s shoreline are often afterthoughts.Climate change-fueled disasters like Ida exacerbate the disparities communities face. According to Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, it goes back to discriminatory city planning policies such as redlining — the government-sanctioned effort to segregate communities of color by denying them housing loans and insurance. A 2019 study of 108 cities in the US found that 94% of historically redlined neighborhoods are disproportionately hotter than other areas in the same city. That’s because neighborhoods of color lack community investment such as urban green spaces and tree cover that help cool cities. They also tend to be slotted next to traffic-choked highways and industrial facilities that spew out noxious pollutants, that then warm the planet and fuel stronger hurricanes.”If your society is structured in such a way where there are haves and have nots and there are winners and losers, then why would you expect it to play out any differently — whether it’s climate change or Covid-19 vulnerability and disparity?” Bautista told CNN. “If it’s baked into your system and your society, then the impacts for a systemic attack on your society’s gonna play out the same way.”After Superstorm Sandy brought unprecedented storm surge to New York City neighborhoods, communities of color were the most exposed to flooding. The storm also disrupted the city’s transit system, which many low-income people rely on to get to work. Research also found that data from New York City’s 311 system show several calls coming from diverse neighborhoods that had been flooded. That same scene played out during Ida, which killed dozens of people in New York’s outer boroughs including a 2-year-old.People walk into a flooded subway station in New York City. Heavy rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida disrupted service, dumping more than 3 inches of rain in the span of an hour.”People keep forgetting that climate change has a body count, especially for people of color,” Bautista said. “When the rubber hits the road, we’re talking about a subway system that’s unusable, a car ownership rate that’s nowhere near what White, higher-income folks have in New York. So how are we suppose to evacuate in a city that’s a mass transit city with the subway shut down, if people don’t have cars?”With the climate crisis making hurricanes stronger and wetter, new research from Redfin, a Seattle-based real-estate brokerage, found that these historically marginalized neighborhoods will continue to suffer a higher risk of flooding than their white and wealthier counterparts. After analyzing flood-risk data from the nonprofit First Street Foundation and redlining maps, the report found that New York City had the second-biggest disparity with 13.8% of homes in formerly redlined neighborhoods at high risk of flooding, compared with 7.1% of homes in non-redlined neighborhoods. Ida is now gone, but it leaves behind a trail of devastation“Either we plan for extreme weather events or will we pay the price,” said Lopez-Nuñez, who lives in the predominantly immigrant neighborhood of the Ironbound in Newark, also an area that was inundated by Ida. As the climate crisis accelerates, more people will be vulnerable to the most severe consequences of extreme weather events. Experts say cities shouldn’t put off adaptation plans any longer, and instead treat it as a larger emergency response system. “We’re living in a time now where we have to talk about adaptation,” Bautista said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but I just don’t know how are we going to be able to pull this off fast enough.”
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