Good morning. It’s Friday. Today we’ll look back at last Friday, the day record-breaking rains inundated New York City, and discuss the city’s preparedness — or its lack of it.
Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
It has now been a week since the unexpectedly powerful remnants of Tropical Storm Ophelia paralyzed New York City with record-breaking rains that flooded streets and shut down half of the city’s subway lines. Experts said that burst of extreme weather probably won’t be the city’s last encounter with heavy flooding, because climate change is happening faster than the infrastructure can keep up with.
How prepared — or unprepared — was the city? I asked Dana Rubinstein, who covered the response to the storm, to explain.
Adams, who was silent about the storm the day before it hit, says his performance was a success, in part because no deaths were attributed to the storm. Was the city entirely unprepared?
No. The city has had its share of natural disasters over the years — though, presumably, nothing like what it will see in coming decades, thanks to climate change. So protocols are in place, and before the storm, some city agencies did take steps in keeping with those protocols.
For example, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection cleaned catch basins in areas officials considered particularly vulnerable to flooding. The agency also directed city residents to deploy the 5,000 flood barriers that it has handed out in the past year. And the city’s emergency management agency sent out notices via the city’s Notify NYC electronic alert system, which has 1.1 million subscribers — far more than the agency has on X, formerly Twitter — and the agency’s commissioner did a couple of interviews.
The mayor has argued that it should be enough for a commissioner to speak to the media, that his administration is a team made up of many leaders whose words should suffice. But it’s not clear how many people would stop what they were doing to pay attention to whatever a commissioner was saying.
Adams has 1.5 million followers on Twitter. But beyond that, there is nothing quite like a mayor holding a pre-storm news conference at the city’s impressively sophisticated Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Brooklyn to get the word out. The mayor of New York City has a uniquely powerful bully pulpit, and this is, after all, the media capital of the United States.
You write that two investigations will look into how the city responded to the storm. Who’s leading the investigations, and what have they said?
Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller and an ongoing source of obvious and deep irritation to the mayor, is leading an investigation into the mayor’s preparedness for the storm.
After Hurricane Ida dropped historic amounts of rain onto New York City in 2021, causing the deaths of 13 people, the city produced a couple of after-action reports. One of them, called “The New Normal,” was released at the end of Bill de Blasio’s administration, and it called for dozens of actions to be taken to prevent future tragedies, including a census of the more than 100,000 New Yorkers believed to reside in basement apartments. It also said there should be emergency messaging tailored to that particularly vulnerable population of New Yorkers.
Then, in July of last year — slightly more than halfway through the first year of Adams’s administration — he released a report called “Rainfall Ready,” which also contained recommendations, including that the water levels in several lakes in major parks be lowered to allow them to absorb more rainwater.
It remains unclear what has come of the actions recommended in those reports. City Hall has declined to answer that question. Lander is aiming to find out, and, in so doing, increase pressure on the city to take the steps necessary to prepare for the next deluge.
Separately, the City Council is planning to hold an oversight hearing on the city’s storm readiness in the coming weeks. Gale Brewer, who chairs the oversight committee, said the city’s communication practices during storms are of particular concern to her.
Weather has played havoc with mayors before — but until a few years ago, the problem was blizzards in the winter, not rain in hurricane season. What steps did the city take after Hurricane Ida dumped more than three inches of rain an hour on the city in 2021?
Again, at the risk of putting this bluntly, your guess is as good as mine. City Hall has yet to release a detailed accounting of the steps it has taken to enable the city to better withstand extreme rain.
Rohit Aggarwala, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the weather pattern we’ve been seeing is the result of climate change — and that the infrastructure here can’t keep up. Isn’t part of the problem that much of the infrastructure in New York is old — or wasn’t designed for the storms we’re having now?
Totally. The city’s sewage system can handle no more than two inches of rain an hour. During the peak of this most recent storm, there were places that got three inches an hour. When that happens, there’s flooding in the streets and sewage overflows into the waterways. It’s also certainly the case that our transit system is old and porous and built for a time before frequent flooding.
But there are also things the city can do to make its hard surfaces more absorbent. In June, the city touted its installation of porous pavement in Rockaway, Queens. The city said that would allow nearly 1.3 million gallons of storm water to be absorbed into the ground each year, easing the pressure on the sewer system, reducing flooding and improving the health of nearby Jamaica Bay.
What about schools? Did the lack of clear communication from City Hall leave school administrators to be taken by surprise when the rain started?
For sure. There was story after story about individual school leaders grappling with flooded ground floors and drenched students, with little guidance from their higher-ups about how to handle dismissal for the day, particularly in light of many parents’ inability to move around because the subway system had ground to a halt.
It wasn’t only school administrators who were at a loss as to what was coming or what they should do. I spoke to the head of an organization that runs early childhood education centers in Manhattan, many in public housing developments. He said that he routinely takes his cues from the Education Department. When the department calls a snow day, he does, too. He had no guidance for last Friday. When the storm came, one of his centers was flooded so badly that he had to send the kids home, or relocate them elsewhere, shortly after they had arrived for the day.
Friday’s chaos prompted a rare admission from the schools chancellor that his department could have communicated better. He has promised to do an after-action report on the matter.
Prepare for showers and patches of fog with temps eking just above 70. Rain is likely through the evening with the low in the mid-60s.
In effect until tomorrow (Shemini Atzeret).
The latest New York news
Guilty plea for Santos associate: Nancy Marks, above — the accountant who oversaw the finances of Representative George Santos’s political campaigns — pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. .
Sentencing for subway assailant: Frank James, who positioned himself in a subway car and unleashed a fusillade in April 2022, was given 10 life sentences.
Higher test scores: About half of New York City students showed proficiency on math and reading exams this year. But the state’s annual exams were overhauled, so the results can’t really be compared with those from last year.
What we’re watching: Adam Nagourney discusses his new book — “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism” — on “The New York Times Close Up with Sam Roberts” Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. [CUNY TV].
‘Some Like It Hot’
My wife and I were at a performance of “Some Like It Hot” at the Shubert Theater.
Shortly before the show started, two women approached the seats behind us, including the one on the aisle.
“Which seat do you want?” one woman said to the other.
“I bought the tickets,” the second woman replied. “You sit next to the stranger.”
— Damian Maldaver
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you again on Tuesday. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Bernard Mokam and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].