In the wake of the deaths of 13 people in New York City from this week’s flooding, most of them in basement apartments, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that the city would increase the use of evacuation orders and travel bans, issue stronger flood warnings to those living in basement apartments and send emergency responders door-to-door to help evacuate residents.
“We have to change everything,” Mr. de Blasio said of the effort he called “Climate-Driven Rain Response,” which was immediately criticized by advocates and officials.
“It’s not like the rain we used to know,” the mayor added. “It’s a different reality, a speed and intensity that we now have to understand will be normal.” The city recorded its heaviest one-hour rainfall ever on Wednesday, 3.15 inches, breaking a record set only days earlier by Tropical Storm Henri.
Mr. de Blasio said that the city will now issue travel bans more quickly. And instead of using evacuation to remove people from coastal areas, the city will now move to evacuate people in basement apartments and other areas that face flooding from heavy rain.
“This is a very forceful measure. It’s not just saying to people you have to get out of your apartment, it’s going door-to-door with our first responders and other city agencies to get people out,” Mr. de Blasio said.
The city will target special phone alerts to neighborhoods, particularly in Queens, with heavy concentrations of basement apartments. The apartments are collectively home to tens of thousands of New Yorkers, largely immigrants, and are mostly illegally converted and subdivided units.
In spite of warnings from the National Weather Service that New York City would see heavy rain and flash floods, Mr. de Blasio said the intensity of Wednesday’s rainfall was unprecedented and caught city officials off guard.
“We’ve got to literally change the whole way of thinking because as good as some of the projections are, they can’t always keep up with weather that changes this rapidly and this radically,” he said on MSNBC.
But the mayor’s plan was immediately panned by housing advocates and officials who said it left tenants who were caught at the intersection of the affordable housing crisis and the climate crisis just as vulnerable as before the floods.
“It’s a bizarre plan because you’re talking about evacuating tenants who you don’t know where they live,” said Annetta Seecharran, the executive director of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which works on housing issues for low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers. “It’s rather neglectful to not address the root cause of the problem, which is how do we ensure people living in these apartments are safe?
City Councilman Brad Lander, the Democratic nominee for city comptroller, said the city should provide basic safety improvements for basement apartments such as smoke detectors and then relaunch a defunded pilot program to convert illegal basement apartments.
“It sounds like the mayor is saying let’s leave people in unregulated, illegal, unsafe basement units at large scale but hope they check their Notify N.Y.C. Twitter alerts, which does not sound like a good way to keep people safe” he said.
Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, favors legalizing basement apartments and has criticized the decision to defund the pilot.
Letitia James, the state attorney general, said the mayor should provide emergency housing vouchers for all residents of unregulated basement apartments.
“Extreme rainfall and other severe weather events are now the rule, not the exception, in New York,” she said in a statement. “In the face of that risk, it is our duty to move these New Yorkers out of harm’s way by offering them safer, regulated housing.”