“It’s kind of like we’re patching the boat but it’s already filling up with water,” one climate researcher said.
For Franco Montalto, a flooding expert and engineer, decades of research were suddenly amplified by a real-life emergency in the Adirondacks, where he and his family were on vacation this week.
In the middle of the night, they were awakened by forest rangers knocking on the door of their lakeside cabin. The house was surrounded by a foot of water, and they needed to evacuate.
“It was profound to experience these conditions firsthand,” he said.
Dr. Montalto, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who is writing about flooding as a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, knows better than most that climate change is producing hard-to-predict and shifting weather patterns that can trigger “cascading events.”
Flooding can occur “for different reasons at different times in different places,” he said in a recent interview.
Catastrophic rainfall caused overwhelming floods in parts of the Hudson Valley and elsewhere in the country this week, leading New York officials like Gov. Kathy Hochul to warn of extreme weather that would be “our new normal.”
New York City’s chief climate officer, Rohit T. Aggarwala, gave an even more dire warning, saying that “the weather is changing faster than our infrastructure can keep up.”
Thousands of projects are in the works across the state to combat the effects of climate change, including rethinking flood-resistant housing, updating weather models and racing to manage overflow rain. But many will take decades to complete, and there are concerns over whether it will be enough.
“It’s kind of like we’re patching the boat but it’s already filling up with water,” said Jeremy Porter, the head of climate implications research at First Street Foundation, a nonprofit group in Brooklyn that studies extreme weather.
Nonetheless, New York is plunging ahead, trying to patch the boat.
Last year, Governor Hochul, a Democrat, put forth and voters approved the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, which dedicates $4.2 billion to community projects. There is $1.1 billion earmarked for restoration and flood risk protection.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is working with local governments on waterfront revitalization, raising flood-prone infrastructure and improving roads, dams and bridges, among other things, a spokesman for the department said.
In the Hudson Valley, a shorelines project encourages nature-based management practices along the Hudson River; a collaboration with Cornell University is developing climate-adaptive landscape designs in riverfront communities; and throughout the past decade, the state has overseen 40 resiliency projects, including backup power and floodproofing for critical facilities, now completed. Some towns and cities have started flooding task forces.
Even though parts of the Hudson Valley and Vermont were the hardest-hit places last week, some New York City officials are concerned that the five boroughs lack the natural defenses of more rural Northeast areas: ample soil drainage.
In a paved-over metropolis that has traditionally relied on its sewer system to handle storm runoff, there are not many options for handling overflow, said Edward Timbers, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. Although “hundreds of millions of dollars” are being spent to upgrade and replace some of New York’s 7,500 miles of sewage pipes, the system, he said, was not built for climate change.
Or, as Mr. Aggarwala put it: “There is no more space underground.”
So the city is also focusing on drainage projects aboveground, introducing infrastructure like thousands of rain gardens, which are small streetside greenspaces, often near an opening in the curb, that allow water to bypass the sewage system and instead be absorbed by a patch of soil, broken stones and plants.
Street medians are also being redesigned to take on water runoff. Raising curbs, Dr. Montalto said, could help keep water in the streets instead of flooding buildings. When streets are repaved, he explained, curb heights often stay the same, which means it becomes easier for storm water flowing in the gutter to jump the curb.
So-called bluebelts in the city connect storm sewers to lakes and ponds, conveying excess water to these natural holding areas. This helps reduce, if not eliminate, flooding on streets and in basement apartments, Mr. Aggarwala said. He pointed to the New Creek Bluebelt, part of a larger Mid-Island Bluebelt project and one of almost 90 such ventures in Staten Island, as an example. “It’s in operation and it’s beautiful; the neighbors love it and it’s eliminated flooding in that part of Staten Island.”
Dr. Montalto added that officials are also starting to embrace a “safe-to-flood” approach in their neighborhood planning. By exploring the causes of flooding in a given neighborhood — and then building for those particular challenges — damage can be minimized.
Cloudburst infrastructure, a European concept cropping up in New York, is an example of this kind of work. Think of a sunken play area or park, which converts into a sort of water basin during a storm. This fall, construction will begin on a sunken basketball court that will be part of a public housing complex in Jamaica, Queens.
Climate-resilient affordable housing — with utilities or residences that are all located above the first floor — is a chief concern, especially because lower-income and middle-class residents are often most affected in flooding disasters, said Bernice Rosenzweig, a professor of environmental science at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, buildings in low-lying coastal areas were updated, she said, but there’s still more work to do with inland housing that is susceptible to flooding. When the remnants of Hurricane Ida came through two years ago, many affordable-housing residents in non-coastal buildings were left without heat or hot water for weeks.
Dr. Montalto, who is co-writing the flooding study with Dr. Rosenzweig, said the city had taken many impressive first steps working with researchers to track flooding. But he would like to see more sensors installed to measure flood depths and precipitation accumulations at very short time intervals.
Currently, the three major airports serving the city, as well as a hub in Central Park, are the go-to sources of precipitation data. But in an era of unpredictable and sometimes highly localized storm bursts, more measurement locations are needed, he said.
As for the rest of the state, Nicholas Rajkovich, the director of the Resilient Buildings Lab at the University at Buffalo, underscored the importance of community involvement, especially in the short term. “A lot of times we look at technical solutions, but we also need to look at social factors, social cohesion,” he said. He mentioned community resilience hubs — public gathering spaces in towns and urban neighborhoods that also serve as safe, protected areas during extreme weather.
In the meantime, New Yorkers should be in a constant state of preparation, officials and experts said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul implored New Yorkers to have an “escape route” — store flashlights, food and water and know where the high ground is — in the event of a worst-case scenario. Mr. Aggarwala’s office is focusing its efforts on making sure New Yorkers know whether they are in flood zones, distributing inflatable flood barriers to those who do, and urging people to buy flood insurance.
Because of global warming, flooding will become a more urgent issue, according to experts like Dr. Porter. Most New Yorkers, he said, might not yet be at the point of having an emergency go-bag on hand unless they live in flood zones. But they should understand the risk in their own neighborhoods and prepare appropriately.
It’s up to New Yorkers to do whatever they can to stay safe, Mr. Aggarwala said. “In our new weather patterns, you have to protect yourselves,” he continued, “while we build the infrastructure we need.”