Fed-up Williamsbridge residents whose streets and homes flooded twice this year are banding together to demand the city do something.
Homeowners on Barnes Avenue between 219th and 220th Streets were still repairing damage from the effects of Hurricane Elsa in July when they were hit by the devastating remnants of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 1.
More than 2 feet of water poured into homes as Ida pounded the region with record-breaking rain—over 7 inches in one night—that left 13 dead in the city.
The city’s neglected and outdated sewage system only made matters worse.
Homeowners say the street catch basins that collect stormwater and send it into the city’s sewer system are not cleaned. They’re also concerned that sewage pipes don’t have the capacity to handle the amount of wastewater they receive in neighborhoods where many single-family homes have been turned into multi-unit properties.
After Ida once again forced them to pay for costly cleanups and repairs, an informal community group formed—one that’s determined to stir federal and local government action.
Residents made trips to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Bronx command center together, attended block association and community board meetings and coordinated outreach to elected officials.
Leading the effort is Esther Morrison, 60, a pre-K teacher who lives with her sister and two sons in the three-story brick house she was raised in.
She started knocking on doors and calling people the day after the storm.
“I’m not officially anybody. I was just trying to see what happened,” she said.
Eight storm drains at the intersection of 220th and Barnes were overwhelmed by the rain on Sept. 1, sending sewage water into their homes, Morrison and her neighbors said.
Across New York City, communities are dealing with outdated sewer systems that have not been able to handle excessive rain. The city has funded upgrades in the southwest Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in the past few years and, after Ida, made plans to fund more overhauls in those areas—but not in the northeast Bronx.
Barnes Avenue residents said that they hadn’t seen anyone inspect catch basins for years, even though their blocks are in a flood zone. This year, there have been more sewer complaints in Bronx Community District 12, which includes Williamsbridge, than in the past decade.
“They give us chicken change”
Morrison arranged a meeting with seven of her neighbors in late October at the Gospel Tabernacle Church on Barnes. Normally such community meetings would be held in the church’s basement, but it was severely damaged after taking in about six feet of water from Ida.
Three-ring binders and file folders were spread across rows of cushioned chairs decorated with white bows for a recent wedding in the space where they could gather. The group rifled through stacks of papers documenting their latest emails with the city Department of Environmental Protection, the city comptroller’s office, their home-insurance companies, FEMA and other entities.
Olawumi Odeyemi, 53, was frustrated the city hadn’t done more in the immediate aftermath of the storm. She and her husband, who both work for the city Human Resources Administration, filed claims with FEMA, the American Red Cross and their insurer after their basement ceiling collapsed.
So far, they had spent over $20,000. The money they received from FEMA and the insurance company didn’t cover anywhere near the amount they spent.
“They give us chicken change, small money,” said Odeyemi. “I don’t know what we can use that for. It doesn’t buy my bed. It doesn’t buy anything.”
Odeyemi, like Morrison, is frustrated because she regularly cleans out or “snakes” the line connecting her home to the city sewer system. She and her husband pay someone to do this every three months. She said she wants the city to take responsibility for what she sees as a municipal problem–the sewer backups into basements during big storms.
“If I’m draining my sewage [line] every time, they’re supposed to do their part,” she said. “I have children in colleges that I’m paying for. Why should I be responsible for this?”
Hillary Gooden-Richards, 73, a retired nurse, said she’s had not gotten anywhere talking to the DEP and the comptroller’s office about sewage backflows.
“It is frustrating to hear from people that you trust or agencies that you pay into, expecting help when the need arises,” she said. “And then now that we have the need, there is nothing.”
After the neighbors asked Community Board 12 staff member Ursula Greene to email the DEP, Deputy Director of Community Affairs Eleftheria Ardizzone replied that the agency had responded to 311 calls in September after the storm and that the “sewer was checked and found down and running; no issue.”
The problems on Sept. 1 came from the unprecedented rainfall, not city neglect of the sewers, the DEP contends. “The intensity of rainfall associated with the remnants of Hurricane Ida broke records in NYC and overwhelmed the capacity of the sewer system in many areas,” Ted Timbers, press officer for DEP, said in an email to the NYCity News Service.
“Where do I go from here?”
The neighbors are continuing to fight for sewage system renovations.
“All we’re trying to do is get our political leaders involved to get them churning so they’ll be prepared for the next one,” said Morrison.
The residents have had some success engaging local lawmakers, meeting with Councilman Kevin Riley, the Democrat who represents their district, last week.
“Moving forward, I will be in contact with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to set up a meeting to examine the residents’ concerns while conducting a more in-depth walk through,’ he said in an email afterward. “Additionally, this meeting with the DEP will focus on how to improve sewage infrastructure.”Riley told the residents he will coordinate with other elected officials. With Eric Adams taking over for Mayor Bill de Blasio and a new City Council taking office next month, the changes may take some time.
After hearing of their plight in a recent 222nd Street Block Association meeting, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) is also working with the neighbors’ group to apply for federal grants.
Morrison worries that her neighbors are becoming fatigued by the time and energy it’s taking to advocate for the broader changes. They continue to be preoccupied with fixing their homes and finding ways to afford it.
Cynthia Powell, 69, a retired utility mechanic, said she doesn’t have the money to start repairs on her property, a three-family house she owns next door to Morrison. She will need to completely renovate her basement, which she said is uninhabitable.
Powell said she’s been encouraged to take out a disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration but didn’t think that made sense at her age. When she finally did, her application was not approved because her income was deemed insufficient.
“I’m not working. I don’t have a job,” she said. “Where do I go from here?”