QUEENS—As a longtime resident of Sunnyside, Queens, Ed Kim was familiar with the neighborhood’s reputation for flooding. But when he arrived at his Sunnyside arts supply store on Sept. 29, the first thing he noticed was that it was raining. Indoors.
“I walked in the door and immediately started shouting four letter words,” he said.
Rainwater from Tropical Storm Ophelia poured from his light fixtures and punched a hole in the ceiling, caused by a clogged rooftop drain, said Kim, who has operated Sunnyside Arts on Skillman Avenue for one year. Downstairs, a new waterline suggested his basement had flooded about 18 inches.
Queens’ Community Board 2, which includes Sunnyside, often floods during heavy rain. Between Sept. 28 and 30, residents reported 91 inland floods to 311, according to NYC Emergency Management. That was the second-highest rate per capita in the borough for the period, just behind Community Board 13 in eastern Queens.
Sunnyside resident Martine Aerts-Niddam was relieved to be spared this time. Her basement used to flood regularly, until she invested roughly $5,000 in a sump-pump and backflow prevention valve.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can on a personal level,” she said. “I’m waiting for the authorities to do their job.”
In interviews, Facebook posts, and at community board meetings, residents blamed the aging sewer system, which they said is unable to keep up with the neighborhood’s growth.
“Our sewers are over 100 years old. They back up every time it rains, and it rains every other day,” Community Board 2 Chair Danielle Brecker said in an interview. “The community is saying: this is where we need to invest.”
Old sewers and chronic flooding in Sunnyside highlight the significant challenges the city faces as it attempts to update its infrastructure for a warmer, rainier climate. Rohit Aggarwala, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, oversees much of this work through the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. He called the city’s Rainfall Ready program, which distributes flood barriers and flood sensors, a “band-aid.”
To make real progress, his team first had to understand the city’s water infrastructure, he told members of the City Council during a hearing on the city’s climate resiliency work. The DEP recently completed a digital model of the city’s entire sewer system to prioritize areas with chronic issues. His office did not return a request by the New York City News Service for comment on whether this would include Sunnyside.
One challenge, Aggarwala said, is that the city isn’t getting its fair share of federal or state infrastructure funding because New York state law limits how much a municipality can receive. For instance, in 2022, the city received only three percent of the state’s own $225 million Clean Water Revolving Fund, according to reporting by Crain’s New York Business. The federal government allocates funds to New York state with the assumption that the city will get about half, he said.
“There’s a huge amount of water infrastructure money from the federal government that the state has determined New York City should not have access to at all,” Aggarwala said.
In the meantime, he recommended that New Yorkers at least buy their own flood insurance.
“I know it’s a financial challenge to some,” he said. “But nonetheless, it’s just a reality that the city’s not going to be able to protect everybody in the near term.”
Aerts-Niddam, the Sunnyside resident who had installed a sump-pump in her basement, said she’d purchased flood insurance years before. But when her basement flooded during Hurricane Ida, she said it was expensive to clean up the dirt and sewage backup that was left.
“It’s expensive to protect yourself from climate change,” she said. “And it would be nice if the authorities, or the government, or whoever, did their part.”