Five Ways to Prevent the Next Sandy
City and state agencies scrambled to work on new flood maps, emergency warning systems and proposals for drainage systems, porous streetscapes and rain gardens. As with Sandy, there was much to build on, a global playbook of resiliency ideas that combine built and natural infrastructure. Buried streams are being “daylighted,” like Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx, to absorb more runoff. Playgrounds are being designed with reservoirs to store excess runoff. Storm drains are to be cleaned more regularly. Sewers are being expanded; in southeast Queens, where Hollis sits, the city was already working on a $2 billion drainage project.
But just as Sandy revealed the vulnerability of neglected public housing, Ida threw into relief the housing shortages that drive thousands of people to illegal basements — and the backlog of localized flood problems in Hollis and elsewhere that residents had begged the city to address.
“They knew,” Amit Shivprasad, now 40, said during a recent visit to the family house, which is still undergoing repairs. Over the years, he and his neighbors had called 311 repeatedly to report floods on their block.
They had been more prepared than most. In 2002, when the Shivprasads still lived in a nearby basement, a flood had destroyed most of their belongings. So in their new house, they had built plywood barriers that they slipped into their door frames when it rained.
But in Ida’s flood, the weight and pressure of water was so strong it collapsed the house’s foundation, filling the basement to the ceiling in what seemed like an instant, trapping the two tenants. Even the city’s attempt to improve things may have worsened them: Workers installing bigger storm drains had left some grates covered with plastic, Amit said, to keep water out of the work area and protect equipment. This was a common-enough practice that Amit’s father frequently went out with his machete before storms to slash the plastic so the water could drain.
But what did surprise the Shivprasads was the news brought by a Gothamist reporter: Their block was built over a pond, shown on a 1907 map. It had been filled in and forgotten; the area was not even designated as a flood zone. Other Ida deaths, too, happened in places with buried waterways.
A year later, Amit has a new calling. He has printed up T-shirts with the old map and the slogan, “No one cares that we live on a pond.” He takes off every Friday from his work as a security technician at Credit Suisse and works the phones. He pushes the city to reverse its decision not to pay any claims for damages from the floods, arguing that officials should never have allowed the neighborhood to be built, and that the city should buy out residents and turn the block back into a pond — the same conversation taking place in areas, like much of Staten Island’s East Shore, devastated by Sandy.
“We’d take it in a heartbeat,” Amit said, adding that while there are still people willing to buy on his block, he doesn’t want another family of migrants to “work, work, work, work, work” to buy a dream house in a place where it maybe should not be. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone,” he said.