New York and other U.S. cities are seeking to ensure their climate mitigation plans protect their most vulnerable communities
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* New York, other cities confront ever-shifting storm targets
* Officials eye populations most vulnerable to extreme weather
* Former FEMA chief laments inequity in resilience strategies
By David Sherfinski
WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded his New York City neighborhood, Johnson Ho had to wade through sewage water to save four downstairs neighbors driven from their apartments.
"If I had not opened my front door to let them in, I am ... 98 to 100 percent confident at least one of them would have been found dead the following day," Ho recalled.
At least 13 people were killed after torrential rains that swept away cars, submerged New York City subway lines and grounded airline flights.
The severity of the storm ruined areas that were thought to be relative safe havens in the New York City borough of Queens, where Ho lives. The neighborhood, he said, is "technically marshlands" and has had flooding issues for years.
"Everything we can do for reconstruction is only a band-aid," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "There's constant risk and water damage that occurs no matter what you do."
As Ho and others pick up the pieces, officials in New York and elsewhere are scrambling to prepare for the next climate-fueled storm, including mapping low-lying areas and those with vulnerable populations.
The increased frequency and intensity of storms like Ida, though, are making long-term planning more difficult - even in New York, one of the most forward-looking U.S. cities on climate resilience.
"The lesson is that climate change is impacting the entire borough now – you can't just look at the waterfront communities that historically flooded," said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr.
'I'M JUST AFRAID'
Just a few doors down from where Ho lives, a family of three were trapped in their basement apartment by the storm and drowned.
The deaths have shone a light on the substandard, often illegally built homes that lack alternate exits and other safeguards.
"We kind of regulate the units out of existence, but in a housing crisis, that does nothing to stop people from living in them," said Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, an advocacy group.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged there is no major plan in place to address the estimated 50,000 illegally constructed units. Many of those who died in New York lived in such homes.
Beyond housing, though, the city had been crafting broader climate resilience measures well before Ida.
New York released a comprehensive resilience plan in May and had rolled out its Cool Neighborhoods program in 2017 to shield the most vulnerable residents from climate-fueled extreme heat through initiatives like targeted tree-planting.
The city also took cues from resilience measures launched in Copenhagen after a major 2011 storm, including pilot programs to convert open spaces to stormwater retention areas, said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency.
New York City has developed 11,000 rain gardens and structures to soak up runoff, mapped out coastal risk districts to limit density in flood-prone areas, and connects residents with expert advice on retrofits, she said.
Authorities also launched an emergency program in May 2020 to deliver air conditioners to vulnerable seniors who might have been effectively trapped in their homes at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're focused on keeping the most vulnerable residents safe – we know that extreme heat has a disproportionate impact on the elderly, the chronically disabled, and particularly (on) low-income communities of color," Bavishi said.
After Ida, de Blasio vowed to step up the city's emergency notification system and improve outreach to populations most at risk from flooding.
Yet that will not necessarily help people like Dawn Crump, who has been dealing with major flooding issues in her first-floor Brooklyn apartment for years – including spots of mold that developed after a storm in August 2019.
"I don't know if they just painted over it, because I still smell the mold," Crump said.
"Every time there's a storm, I have a flood ... every time it rains, I'm just afraid."
Other U.S. cities are laboring to confront the worsening effects of storms and extreme heat.
"Even inland cities are starting to realize that flooding is a big issue," said Jennifer Roberts, a former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. "Stormwater systems that used to be adequate are not any longer."
The region now requires certain new parking lots to incorporate measures like grass, trees and proper drainage ditches, she said.
"You used to get these strip malls that had these huge areas of impervious surface and it just creates a massive amount of water that can easily overflow."
Charlotte and other cities like Houston, Texas have also experimented with housing buyout programs, where localities scoop up homes in high-risk areas and turn them into green spaces or detention ponds to guard against flooding.
Still, Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under former U.S. President Barack Obama, said officials frequently overlooked the most vulnerable when crafting such strategies.
"We look at a dollar return on that investment – not so much the impact on people," Fugate said at a National Academies event this month.
He warned that in the broader fight to prepare for climate change, many officials are simply playing catch-up given the unprecedented nature of recent extreme weather events.
"Whether it's heat islands, whether it's power outages (or) extreme rainfall events, the infrastructure wasn't built for it," Fugate said. "And the communities themselves are not resilient against these impacts."
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(Reporting by David Sherfinski, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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