After a summer of tainted skies from wildfires, New York City began autumn in knee-high waters from flash floods. And just as smoke from the fires filled the air and seeped through windows and down into subways, so too did the heavy rainfall last Friday, its vast reach spanning across all five boroughs. I, like many New Yorkers, have been unfortunate enough to have witnessed both — an inescapable reality of our neglect to act on climate change.
While I watched rain trickle slowly down the stairs into the subway during the beginning of my own commute to work last Friday morning, nothing would prepare me for my transfer in Manhattan, where rain fell through the ceiling of the 14th Street-Union Square station. I watched folks reopen folded up umbrellas, because surely this wasn’t new, and trek through the railway to wherever they needed to be. This has to be the worst of it, I thought.
But of course, I was wrong. The storm ended up pouring in as much as eight inches of rain in parts of the city, and harrowing images spread all over social media: Cars submerged in water over expressways, either making it through the river of flood water or leaving their drivers stranded. Water streaming into other subway stations like in Prospect Heights, and riders desperate to go into work or home rolling up their pant legs to make it up the stairs to their destination.
About 150 schools either flooded from the rooftop down or from the bottom floor up, forcing teachers and students to move floors in an effort to keep the school day. Both JFK and LaGuardia airports saw roughly 8.5 and 4.9 inches, respectively, with one terminal at LaGuardia shutting down. Hospitals like Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn began processing 120 patients out to other hospitals as their floors flooded. In neighborhoods like Williamsburg, streets became streams, and houses welcomed the currents indoors, leaving residents literally fighting to stay above water. Despite my boss urging my coworkers and I to head out early, all the subway lines I could have taken to my home in Brooklyn were suspended.
Travel advisories and flash flood warnings lasted into 6 am Saturday, and early Friday morning, both Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams issued a state of emergency. “My message to New Yorkers impacted by today’s severe rain: Turn around, don’t drown,” Hochul said in a statement. Adams echoed this advice, stressing, “If you are at home, stay home. If you are at work or school, shelter in place.” However, they both failed to address what happens to those who couldn’t just “turn around” and escape flooding — those already home as the floods streamed in. Especially those living in basement dwellings, who are often low-income, immigrants and Black people or people of color. According to Fire Department Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, a “number of calls” had come in seeking help related to flooding basements, which too often are cheaply built and thus already riddled with safety and sanitation hazards.
I also wonder if unhoused people, representing about 100,000 New Yorkers, were also expected to turn around as they lay vulnerable in a flood that they couldn’t escape? And while Mayor Adams promised shelters would be made available to any basement renters and unhoused folks who needed them, he further stated that the right to shelter did not include migrants — so were they, too, expected to sit tight and wait for the storm to pass?
And what happens the next time a major flood incident like this occurs again, as it surely will? Just two years ago, remnants of the Category 4 Hurricane Ida created a post-tropical cyclone that conjured the same images that we’re seeing from last week’s storm. Roughly 33,500 buildings were damaged, and the storm caused major flooding in subways, housing units and basements, claiming 13 lives. New York’s decades-old drainage system, which is suited to hold up to 1.5 inches of rain per hour, is not designed to handle heavy rainstorms like Friday’s, which threatened up to three inches of rain per hour — causing street and basement flooding. According to a 2021 report on U.S. infrastructure, modernizing New York City’s transit system — including improving accessibility, transitioning to zero-emission technology and upgrading infrastructure to properly prevent flooding — would cost $62.1 billion.
And while New York City plans to place 500 street-level flood sensors to alert residents and emergency responders, improving transit and drainage infrastructure has fallen to the wayside. Instead, the city funnels that money to the New York City Police Department (NYPD), whose total 2023 budget is $10.9 billion — representing 10 percent of the city’s $98.5 billion budget — making the NYPD the largest police budget in the country. The NYPD is also the largest police force in the country, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, having a ratio of one police officer to every 164 New York City residents in 2020 alone.
The Vera Institute of Justice further notes that the NYPD spends close to $1 billion a year policing schools, subways, homeless shelters, protests and large street gatherings, as well as highways and traffic. The department’s overall patrolling services cost a whopping $1.64 billion — a great expense that serves no one, especially in extreme weather events like Friday’s flood. In fact, the cops typically stationed at my subway station were nowhere to be found that day — and my station wasn’t the only one. I noted that in most videos taken within flooded subways, it wasn’t cops, but people helping one another through floodwater, even in some of the most heavily policed stations. It’s almost as if, when their jobs don’t concern hypersurveilling and criminalizing Black and Brown folks or unhoused people, police are nowhere to be found.
Furthermore, in 2020, the NYPD proposed to increase its capital budget in order to build a new firearms facility, a property warehouse and to renovate the department’s buildings and precincts — all while the city it “serves” crumbles under the weight of climate catastrophe.
Funding for the NYPD takes precedence over crucial agencies like the New York City Emergency Management Department (NYCEM), which was in charge of coordinating the city’s emergency response to Friday’s flooding and other major events. In fact, NYCEM’s budget is $59.4 million, making up less than 1 percent of New York’s $98.5 billion budget.
“A lot can be done about urban flooding and stormwater,” Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò stated in a post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “None of it will be, as long as our public institutions function primarily as sites of extraction for cops and corporations.”
As the federal government now grants the city $16 billion in disaster funding after the fact, New York now moves onto its next threat: more smoking skies from wildfires in Canada. After the storm, another haze has set in, congesting the city’s air just as it had four months ago. I can’t help but wonder how long this vacillation between such extremes in our climate will force New York to prioritize people over policing. After all, the police didn’t save us from the flood — so do we honestly believe they could save us from climate catastrophe?
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