In Woodside, Queens, one neighbour heard a family calling out for help from their basement apartment as a deluge of water flooded the building. No one could reach them through the torrent. All three of them died, including a toddler. It was a similar story in Cypress Hill, Brooklyn. Sixty-six-year-old Roberto Bravo tried desperately to escape as the water poured through the windows, but no one could reach him in time.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida brought devastation to New York City on Wednesday evening, causing flash floods that closed subways, left people stranded in their cars and destroyed homes. But there was one group overrepresented among the victims: of the 12 city residents who lost their lives in the storm, 11 died in basement apartments.
Basement or “garden” apartments — living spaces below ground level — are often a more affordable option in a city where housing for lower-income communities is hard to come by. They can be found in affluent areas in the cellars of grand brownstones, but in some working-class neighbourhoods they are often cramped spaces, sometimes rented illegally by landlords hoping to maximise profits from their building.
Throughout the night, New Yorkers took to social media to share images of their basement apartments being flooded with water. For some, it was yet another example of how climate change and the disasters that come with it disproportionately hit the poor.
“Class has always determined who lives and who dies in disasters. It was true when the Titanic sank, drowning passengers in steerage while the affluent floated off on safety boats. It’s true in the climate crisis too,” said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU and author who writes on climate change and inequality.
Professor Klinenberg described Ida’s impact on basement apartments as “what happens when the housing crisis and the climate crisis meet.”
“In New York City, thousands of poor families live below ground, packed into so-called ‘garden’ apartments that are actually basements, where they are always vulnerable to inundation — and a host of other problems too,” he told The Independent.
At least 114,000 New Yorkers live in these illegal structures, according to a study by the Pratt Center for Community Development, most are found in neighbourhoods with high immigrant populations like Queens.
While they may be cheaper, those illegal apartments often bring risks. Many do not meet building codes and do not have the required emergency exits. It is not known whether those who died on Wednesday were in illegal apartments.
my bronx basement apartment flooded. pic.twitter.com/ImE0Ya4bdx
— fran thee evangelist ✨ (@fgarlands) September 2, 2021
Neighbours of the Woodside family who perished in Wednesday’s storm recounted with horror the downpour that flooded their building in a split second. Choi Sledge, who lives on the third floor of the house, told the New York Times that she received a phone call from the woman who lives in the basement apartment.
“She said, ‘The water is coming in right now,’ and I say, ‘Get out!’ Get to the third floor!” Mrs Sledge told the newspaper. “The last thing I hear from them is, ‘The water coming in from the window.’ And that was it.”
The victims were named as Ang Lama, 50, Mingma Sherpa, 48, and their 14-month old son Lobsang Lama.
The NYPD would receive many more calls to basement apartments over the next 24 hours. Police found Darlene Hsu, 48, unconscious in her flooded apartment in Corona, Queens, around 10.45pm, according to the New York Daily News. She died soon after.
NYPD divers recovered the bodies of two women and a man from a still-flooded basement in Kissena, Queens. A 66-year-old man was found dead in his flooded basement apartment on Ridgewood Avenue, in East New York.
The impact of climate disasters on poorer communities goes beyond housing. Ali Diini, a community organiser running for state senate in her home district of Harlem, was among those whose apartment was flooded on Wednesday. The water cascaded into her bedroom on the basement level of the apartment she shares with a roommate.
She told The Independent that working-class neighbourhoods in New York do not have the infrastructure to handle extreme weather events, and are more vulnerable to climate change as a result.
“People from more affluent neighbourhoods have more of an infrastructure to prevent this. I do think there is environmental racism within the city,” she said. “There’s also the way a lot of our green planning in the city is linked to racism and class issues.”
Last night, Tropical Storm Ida flooded many apartments, including my own. After Sandy, you would think our City and State would beef up our infrastructure, but that is not the case. We must reinforce our infrastructure now! pic.twitter.com/v0MLUOpjiO
— Ali Diini (@AlidiiniState) September 2, 2021
Ms Diini pointed to a recent New York Times report that found temperatures in Harlem were 31 degrees hotter than more affluent neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets, as well as a disparity in the number of trash bins and pick-ups.
There is also the storm’s dramatic impact on the subway system, which is mostly used by low-income New Yorkers. Videos of subway trains filling with water and deluges falling from drains above were common on social media throughout the night.
“A lot of the people affected by that are people coming home from work who are stuck, and their only means of transportation is the subway. You see a lot of comments on social media saying, ‘oh, why don’t you just take a taxi,’ and you could see the surge prices of Uber’s being $100 to $200 to get from one borough to another. So it’s obviously an issue of class.”
She added that recognising that disparity is the first step in fixing it.
“We need to make sure that we recognise that there is environmental injustice happening in our neighbourhoods and within the city and actually create legislation to fix it — making sure that the building codes are met, ensuring that the buildings are more resistant to topical storms and hurricanes.”
Climate inequality is a global issue. A 2019 United Nations report warned the world is heading for “climate apartheid” scenario if current trends continue, “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
“Extreme events pull the curtains away and expose just how cruel and unequal affluent cities are these days ... No one is truly out of harm’s way these days. But some are far more at risk than others, and class largely determines who survives.”
Professor Klinenberg said climate inequality is “especially visible on an international scale. The US and Europe have money to spend on adaptation and climate security. The developing world has much less.”
But it is just as prevalent here at home.
“Extreme events pull the curtains away and expose just how cruel and unequal affluent cities are. No one is truly out of harm’s way these days, but some are far more at risk than others, and class largely determines who survives.”