At around 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Joy Wong plugged a pump into a wall in her house as her basement filled with water. Her desperation was all too familiar — three people, including a toddler, had drowned in the basement of the house where she lives, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New York City two years ago.
“I’m experiencing PTSD right now,” she said.
As floodwaters inundated the city, they also poured into apartments located in basements and cellars, underscoring how such homes — where an estimated 100,000 New Yorkers live — can turn into death traps.
Ms. Wong, 61, lives at the corner of Laurel Hill Boulevard and 64th Street in Queens. The child who died in 2021 was a 2-year-old boy who lived with his parents in an apartment downstairs from Ms. Wong’s. Eleven people died in their basement homes in that storm.
The night before the flood from Hurricane Ida, Ms. Wong said, “I kept calling them, and telling them to get out. I said, ‘Come upstairs. You can sleep on our couch. It’s OK.’ ” When she spoke with them in the morning, they told her the water was pouring in the window.
“After that, I didn’t hear from them again,” she said. “We went outside to the side of the house to try to save them. We tried to pull them out. But the water was like an ocean.”
Many basement apartments cannot be rented legally, and do not have adequate means of escape should surging waters rush in. They are often rented to immigrants, or others desperate for an affordable place to live, even if it doesn’t feels safe. The city has long been aware of the dangers posed by the vast network of basement homes, and is seeking to legalize them so that they can be held to higher safety standards. So far, they have failed to do so.
Friday morning, Ms. Wong woke up to find three inches of water in the basement of the house, where she is a renter. Soon the water level jumped. In five minutes, the basement was filled with water, she said.
Because of their fears of flooding, everyone in her family — six children, ages 6 to 38; her ex-husband; and her mother, who only moved into the house a day ago, after having surgery on her back — has moved upstairs, and stopped sleeping in the basement altogether.
The family would like to move, but feels stuck. “People died in this house. We don’t want to live here,” she said.
“Why did the New York City building department allow this house to be built here?” Ms. Wong asked. “Does my life not matter? Do the lives of my children not matter? It’s dangerous to live here. But it’s cheap! That’s why all my children live here with me. But we can’t live this way.”
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