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Hurricane Ida

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Storm of the future catches New York unprepared

On 1 September 2021, remnants of Hurricane Ida, having traveled over 2,000 km across the United States after making landfall in Louisiana, brought historic rainfall to New York City, triggering the city’s first-ever flash flood alerts as water flooded streets, subway stations and apartments.

Of the 95 people who died as a result of Hurricane Ida’s path across the United States, 13 of them were in New York City alone, and the overall damage caused to infrastructure and housing was estimated to be up to $9 billion. The total cost of Hurricane Ida in the U.S. is estimated at around $75 billion, making it the costliest disaster of 2021.

Key Numbers

75 billion

USD in damages

95

total deaths in U.S.

8 cm

hourly rainfall recorded

New York has faced devastating hurricanes for a long time, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but Hurricane Ida was different, bringing flooding not from the coast, but from the sky, breaking rainfall rate records with over 8 cm in a single hour and catching New York’s ageing urban infrastructure unprepared. In doing so, Ida exposed the shortcomings of the city in protecting those who live a shadow existence in the bustling metropolis. New York is home to an estimated 50,000 illegal basement dwellings, many of which are often inhabited by undocumented immigrants. Eleven of the 13 recorded deaths in New York City from flash flooding were located in such basement apartments, highlighting the gap in managing people and places for disaster risk when awareness at the government level is scarce.

Human-induced climate change is only predicted to make future storms more intense and more dangerous. By 2050, over 2 million people in the New York City area, 60 per cent of the region’s power-generating capacity, as well as dozens of miles of critical roads and rail lines, will face a high risk of flooding – some of it permanently – if timely and proactive measures are not implemented. Until then, many residents remain fearful of the storms that are still to come.

By 2050, over 2 million people in the New York City area, 60 per cent of the region’s power-generating capacity, as well as dozens of miles of critical roads and rail lines, will face a high risk of flooding.

Wider picture

Global average temperatures have risen 1.1°C since 1880, and 9 of the last 10 years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme heatwaves will be three times more frequent in 2030 than in 2001, and the global average cumulative heat during heatwaves is increasing by as much as 4°C per decade in some regions. This changing climate creates new heat hazards in places that are unprepared and unaware of the dangers.

Inexperience is not an excuse however; citizens, organizations and governments can better prepare for worsening weather extremes and keep people safe from preventable disasters.

Root Causes

Unequal distribution of economic opportunities and limited livelihood options

A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response

Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities contribute to increasing global warming and climate change

Drivers

Landscape change via increasing growth and expansion of cities and neighbourhoods.

An absence or ineffective enforcement of regulations to increase resilience.

An absent or poorly communicated warning of a hazard’s impending arrival.

Human activities altering the natural function or flow of freshwater bodies including rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater reservoirs.

Increasing temperatures in the ocean or atmosphere, for example from climate change.

Infrastructure vulnerable to extreme events, often due to lack of investment, maintenance, inadequate planning or poor construction.

Impacts

Disasters can force people to move from their homes due to the loss of shelter, livelihoods or the risk of further incidents occurring. People may be temporarily displaced or urged to migrate to other areas.

Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health.

Public and private structures and systems can be impacted by disasters, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more.

Solutions

Rewilding natural waterways: Rewilding focuses on humans stepping back and allowing natural processes back into urbanized areas. For example, “daylighting” involves the excavation of river and stream networks buried underneath cities and can assist in their capacity to handle excessive rainfall. Rewilded streams can also boost urban biodiversity and provide options for managing urban heat.

Green cities: Green city designs, such as the “sponge city” concept, incorporate a combination of open green spaces like parks, gardens, wetlands, green roofs and porous construction materials into city planning to reduce the amount of potentially dangerous and polluting urban run-off during storm events. Such spaces also encourage urban biodiversity and mitigate urban heat.

Social protection: Government programs taking anticipatory actions to protect vulnerable people, such as assisting landlords to make informal or neglected dwellings safer or facilitating the relocation of people to safer areas, can reduce risk in flood-prone regions. However, being able to engage underserved communities, such as undocumented migrants, remains a challenge.

Responsible waste disposal: Changing the behaviour of residents in cities to avoid actions that can increase flood risk includes managing waste, such as flushed non-biodegradable material that forms large blockages (e.g. “fatbergs”). Unclogging vital sewer and storm water systems also reduces the amount of pollution entering our oceans and waterways.