Basement flooding is a part of life along 77th Avenue in Glendale. When heavy rain is forecasted in Queens, homeowners like Vincent Occhiuto haul out large wooden barriers designed to block his driveway from the water. He’s been doing it for 30 years. 

The avenue’s downward sloping driveways, aging combined sewer system and downhill trajectory are a recipe for basement floods. The water that rises up Occhiuto’s walls during rainstorms is a dirty combination of rainwater from the street and sewer water from basement drains. 

“If you come down when it’s raining, you’ll see all the boards up,” Occhiuto said. “I don’t think it’s fair that we have to live this way.” 

The costly and hazardous problem–exacerbated by climate change–is well known to local and city officials. Local Queens representatives and Borough Hall host frequent giveaways of rain barrels, pumps and barriers. Flooding is a constant topic of conversation at Occhiuto’s local community board; sewage and flooding mitigation projects has been their top capital budget priority for more than five years now. 

When Occhuito purchased his home 30 years ago, he was advised by his neighbors to purchase the wooden barrier to protect his driveway from occasional street flooding. Occhuito has since invested in five sump pumps, which redirect overflowing water away from his home, and cost him around $200 each. 

“You just have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

Seeking Solutions

Bernice Rosenzweig, a professor of environmental studies at Sarah Lawrence College, said solving New York City’s inland flooding issues would require overhauling the entire sewer system.

“It would cost literally tens of billions, if not over a hundred billion dollars, and be incredibly disruptive,” she said. 

Rosenzweig is on the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an advisory board for the Mayor Eric Adams, that advises the city on how to prepare for climate-related hazards. She said there is an urgent need for more studies on the kind of rainfall-induced flooding that overwhelmed Queens during Hurricane Ida in 2021.

A national climate assessment by the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program found that the rain falling during heavy northeastern storms has increased by 55% since 1958. However, the Sept. 29 rainstorm that flooded New York City streets was not shocking to residents throughout Community District 5, which includes Glendale, Maspeth, Ridgewood and Middle Village, where flooding is routine.

“We had to set up a whole environmental committee at Community Board 5 because it’s such an issue,” said Kathy Masi, a board member, in May.

The district was able to obtain several major sewer projects in recent years. Gary Giordano, the district manager, said in a May meeting that 77th Ave. was next on the list. But the same project has been promised since 2017, when Elizabeth Crowley, a former city councilmember, told the community board that the project’s design and development was expected to be completed around 2019. In October, Giordano told the board that the project may cost as much as $80 million, but said that citywide budget cuts could slow progress.

A Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson confirmed an upcoming project, but provided no further details. 

What Lies Ahead

Masi is skeptical about the effectiveness of a new project. She saw flooding persist along Penelope Ave. in Middle Village after a recent $27 million sewer update. Additional green infrastructure installed around the district, like bioswales and rain barrels, helps mitigate the flooding, but only during moderate rainfall. And, Masi added, the rain gardens installed by the city are not well maintained. 

Experience can still make a difference when it comes to floods’ human toll. Rosenzweig said that city residents are more aware of how to prepare and when to evacuate. 

“But in terms of whether something has been done to prevent that type of flooding, unfortunately, that hasn’t happened,” she said. “It’s really difficult to think about what would be the strategy for making that happen successfully.”

With little idea of when lasting fixes to their sewers will occur, or how much difference can be made, residents along 77th Avenue continue to prepare as best they can for the next storm.

Like his neighbors, Occhicuto does his best to mitigate his losses. Hurricane Ida destroyed thousands of dollars worth of custom furniture he made by hand. Now, everything in his basement is permanently elevated off the ground. His rain barrier remains perennially beside the driveway and the pumps stay fixed in place, but the waters still come.