For Franco Montalto, a flood expert and engineer, decades of research were suddenly reinforced by a real crisis in the Adirondacks, where he and his family were vacationing this week.
In the middle of the night, they were awakened by forest rangers knocking on the door of their lakeside cabin. The house was surrounded by a foot of water, and they had to evacuate.
“It was profound to experience these conditions firsthand,” he said.
Dr. Montalto, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who writes about flooding as a member of the New York Panel on Climate Changeknows better than most that climate change is producing unpredictable and shifting weather patterns that can trigger “cascading events.”
Floods can happen “for different reasons at different times in different places,” he said in a recent interview.
Catastrophic rainfall caused flash floods in parts of the Hudson Valley and elsewhere in the country this week, prompting New York officials like Gov. Kathy Hochul to warn of extreme weather that would be “our new normal.”
New York’s climate chief, Rohit T. Aggarwala, issued an even more dire warning, saying that “the weather is changing faster than our infrastructure can keep up.”
Thousands of projects are in the works across the state to combat the effects of climate change, including rethinking flood-proof housing, updating weather models and racing to manage excess rainfall. But many will take decades to complete, and there are concerns about whether it will be enough.
“It’s like we’re patching the boat, but it’s already filling up with water,” said Jeremy Porter, the head of climate implications research at First Street Foundationa nonprofit group in Brooklyn that studies extreme weather.
However, New York dives ahead, trying to patch up the boat.
Last year, Gov. Hochul, a Democrat, introduced and voters approved the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Act, which dedicates $4.2 billion to community projects. There is $1.1 billion earmarked for restoration and flood risk protection.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is working with local governments on waterfront revitalization, raising flood-prone infrastructure and improving roads, levees and bridges, among other things, a department spokesman said.
In the Hudson Valley, a project of coasts encourages nature-based management practices along the Hudson River; collaboration with Cornell University is developing climate-adaptive landscape designs in riverside communities; and during the past decade, the state controlled 40 resilience projects, including backup power and flood resistance for critical facilities, now completed. Some towns and cities began to flood special forces.
Although parts of the Hudson Valley and Vermont were the hardest hit last week, some New York City officials worry that the five boroughs lack the natural defenses of more rural Northeast areas: extensive soil drainage.
In a paved metropolis that has traditionally relied on its sewer system to handle storm runoff, there aren’t many options for handling overflow, said Edward Timbers, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. Although “hundreds of millions of dollars” are being spent to upgrade and replace some of New York’s 7,500 miles of sewer pipes, the system, he said, was not built for climate change.
Or, as Mr. Aggarwala put it: “There is no more space underground.”
So the city also focuses on drainage projects above ground, introducing infrastructure like thousands of rain gardenswhich are small street-side green spaces, often near an opening in the pavement, which allow water to bypass the sewage system and instead be absorbed by a patch of soil, broken stones and plants.
Street medians are also being redesigned to accommodate water flow. Raising banks, Dr. Montalto said, could help keep water in the streets instead of flooding buildings. When streets are repaved, he explained, sidewalk heights often stay the same, which means it becomes easier for stormwater flowing in the gutter to jump the curb.
So-called blousons in the city connect storm sewers to lakes and ponds, conveying excess water to these natural reservoirs. This helps reduce, if not eliminate, flooding on streets and in basement dwellings, Mr. Aggarwala said. He pointed to the New Creek Bluebelt, part of a larger one Mid-Island Bluebelt project and one of nearly 90 such businesses in Staten Island, for example. “It works and it’s beautiful; the neighbors love it and it’s eliminated flooding in that part of Staten Island.”
Dr. Montalto added that officials are also beginning to embrace a “safe-to-flood” approach in their neighborhood planning. By researching the causes of flooding in a given neighborhood—and then building for those particular challenges—damage can be minimized.
Cloudburst infrastructure, a European concept emerging in New York, is an example of this type of work. Think of a sunken playground or park that turns into a kind of water basin during a storm. This fall, construction will begin on a sunken basketball court that will be part of a public housing complex in Jamaica, Queens.
Climate-resilient affordable housing — with utilities or housing that is all located above the first floor — is a primary concern, especially since low-income and middle-class residents are often hardest hit in flood disasters, said Bernice Rosenzweig, an environmental professor. science at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, buildings in low-lying coastal areas were upgraded, she said, but there is still more work to be done with inland housing that is susceptible to flooding. When the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through two years ago, many affordable housing residents in non-coastal buildings were abandoned. without heat or hot water for weeks.
Dr. Montalto, who is co-authoring the flood study with Dr. Rosenzweig, said the city has taken many impressive first steps by working with researchers. to track floods. But he would like to see more sensors installed to measure flood depths and precipitation accumulations at very short time intervals.
Currently, the three main airports serving the city, as well as a hub in Central Park, are the sources of precipitation data. But in an era of unpredictable and sometimes highly localized storm surges, more measuring sites are needed, he said.
About the rest of the state, Nikolao Rajkovich, the director of the Resilient Buildings Lab at the University of Buffalo, stressed the importance of community involvement, especially in the short term. “A lot of times we look at technical solutions, but we also have to look at social factors, social cohesion,” he said. He mentioned community resilience centers – public gathering spaces in cities and urban neighborhoods that also serve as safe, protected areas during extreme weather.
In the meantime, New Yorkers should be in a constant state of preparation, officials and experts said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul implored New Yorkers to have an “escape route” — stockpile flashlights, food and water and know where the high ground is — in the event of a worst-case scenario. Mr. Aggarwala’s office is focusing its efforts to ensure New Yorkers know if they are in flood zonesdistributing inflatable flood barriers to those who do, and encouraging people to buy flood insurance.
Due to global warming, flooding will become a more pressing issue, according to experts such as Dr. Porter. Most New Yorkers, he said, may not yet be at the point of having an emergency bag on hand unless they live in flood zones. But they should understand the risk in their own neighborhoods and prepare accordingly.
It’s up to New Yorkers to do everything they can to stay safe, Mr. Aggarwala said. “In our new weather patterns, you have to protect yourself,” he continued, “while we build the infrastructure we need.”