NYC lacked staff, equipment, communication for Ophelia, comptroller report says

US

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration didn’t have the staff, equipment or communication protocols in place to mitigate the major rain storm that brought the city to a standstill in September, according to a report Comptroller Brad Lander released on Monday.

“There was real reason to believe that a lack of clear communication and preparedness made the city’s response to the storm worse,” Lander said at a press conference.

Lander’s report found that, unlike former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Adams did not have an extreme weather coordinator in place during the storm and nearly two-thirds of the city’s trucks that are used to remove trash from catch basins were out of service, which exacerbated flooding. Lander’s report also reissued criticisms that Adams was slow to notify New Yorkers about the severity of the story.

“We’ll need protocols to make sure we notify people early,” Lander said, “giving them the information that they need before they drop their kids off at school.”

City Hall called the report inaccurate and said administration officials began doing media appearances before the storm.

“Our city agencies inspected over 900 catch basins, distributed thousands of flood barriers, rain barrels, and other protective tools, and got the word out to millions of New Yorkers two days ahead of the event,” said Liz Garcia, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams.

Tropical Storm Ophelia paralyzed New York in September 2023 with nearly 6 inches of rainfall in 24 hours. But some parts of the city received more than what official weather service totals count. Gowanus, south Williamsburg and Midland Beach recorded 24 inches of flooding, according to Lander.

September’s extreme flooding and lack of notice left parents unprepared for picking up their children from school and exposed those living in basement apartments as especially vulnerable, the comptroller added.

“New Yorkers in basements were a real gap,” Lander said. “Fewer than 1% of New Yorkers who live in basements got advance notice on advice on how to prepare for the storm.”

Lander noted that Adams still has not officially appointed an extreme weather coordinator, but instead has assigned his chief of staff, Camille Joseph Varlack, to the role. Lander argued that City Hall needs a high-ranking official to see across roles to make sure, for example, that enough catch basin trucks are operational and that alert notices go out in time.

“We’re seeing storms like Ida and Ophelia happening more frequently. And so what we need to do is more, faster,” Louise Yeung, the comptroller’s chief climate officer said. “It’s a matter of putting the resources and time to implement it.“

Lander’s report did, however, credit the city’s emergency managers for paying community organizations for the first time in order to get emergency preparedness notifications to hard-to-reach New Yorkers. But even there, Lander said they weren’t contacted until some two hours after the rain began.

Adams received similar criticism following last summer’s air quality crisis for not having protocols in place to handle such an event.

Looking forward, Lander said that most of the city’s stormwater infrastructure projects are delayed well into the next decade.

His report also found that most of them are over budget with the average overrun three times the originally projected cost.

This story has been updated with comment from City Hall.

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