Holding Back the Floodwaters

Sep 24, 2021 · 42 comments
Phil (PA)
My home was flooded by Ida. I found this resource on the web and spoke to Rod Scott. He gave me valuable suggestions. I suggest homeowners reach out to him, and someone at NY Times should interview him for another article as he is an expert and wants to help: https://www.floodmitigationindustry.org/
Minneapolis mom (Minneapolis, MN)
Do not depend on builders, mortgage companies or banks for any protection when buying or leasing a home in a flood prone area. They are adept at transferring liability quickly after profiting from a sale. Instead , new buyers should thoroughly review NOAA's flood maps based on likely climate scenarios, and the specific home's disclosure documentation of prior flooding events. (Unfortunately for homeowners who have experienced floods and sewer back-ups - mortgage law requires all flooding events to be disclosed prior to selling. ) You can also support Biden's infrastructure program, which includes options for relocating affected property owners and funding sewer system updates.
mike (florida)
Bill Maher ad the best solution for the floodings in the North. Build a water pipeline that goes from the north to East. Eastern states are starving for water and Northen states are getting flooded. BUILT A WATER PIPELINE FROM NORTH EAST TO WEST.
Cathy (Hopewell Junction N.Y.)
Aren't there one way flow valves that can allow sewage to flow to a sewer line, but prevent it from flowing back into a house? Does the city prevent the installation? It is a short term fix to the long term problem that cities face in separating storm drains and sewage lines. Preventing water that is not from the sewer is different, because it might pour in from street level, or come in through walls. Sumps may not be able to keep up with the rate of flow, especially if they have to pump water back outside - where it will flow in again.
Linda hoquist (Maine)
Having dealt with water in the basement in a 200 year old house I would strongly urge homeowners to avoid sump pump installation. Sump pumps are for clean-up not prevention. I’d never put living spaces underground once the potential of water encroachment has been realized. Since the issue in my 200 year old house surfaced after municipal road work alter the path of an underground spring I’d never count on the city for remediation. While prevention efforts seem financially expensive truly that’s the only solution.
John Mullowney (Ohio)
Water finds its own level, my dad always told me. I grew up in a new house far out in the suburbs with septic system for most of the time, until the city installed sewers. The grass was always greener on that side of the backyard. Never a flood or seepage into the finished basement we had. My first house purchase was a "two family", two identical homes stacked on one another with a basement and finished 3rd floor. Both staircases, front and back ran to the 3rd floor. The house was old, 1920 something, in the Cleveland proper, no flooding, the city installed a "cap" in the storm drains that held rain water in the street longer to prevent any backups. The 19th century sewer system began a total rebuild in the 1980s, something to do with Lake Erie being an international waterway.... Design something that does not flood and listen to residents instead of your contractor donors
Gary Ostroff (New Jersey)
NYC was mostly laid out on a grid plan without regard to existing drainage. When people use basements for living space, that becomes a problem, because under heavy rains, the buried natural drainage courses start carrying water again. As for the sewers, for the fifty years or so that I have been interested in drainage issues, nobody cared about them until now. People, and their elected officials, don't want to think about them or spend money on them, and voila, they stop working properly. Climate change, whatever that vague term means, will only make it worse. It's not the cause; it's only drawn attention to a problem that has been under=reported for decades. And if there is a law against check valves on house sewer connections, that is insane, and must be changed. The City should PAY people to put in the valves. Many cities subsidize their installation, e.g. Toronto and Milwaukee. Ultimately, there is no "solution." The city is where it is, and when there is a deluge, the city will get wet, and water will flow in the path of lest resistance, downhill. With enough rain, the system will be overwhelmed. If the tide happens to be high during the rainstorm, the sewers will be partly filled, and it will be even worse. If there is a major storm surge accompanied by torrential rain (Sandy was unusual in that it dropped very little rain) the areas behind the proposed flood walls will fill like bathtubs, unless they are pumped out with MASSIVE equipment, e.g in NOLA
Robert (Syracuse)
Sewer backflow valve. The Moore family and any others suffering from sewage coming up through their basement toilets or showers during heavy rains should have a sewer backflow device/valve installed on the sewer line from their house to the sanitary sewer main. These backflow devices allow water and sewage to flow in only one direction, and they close if the sewage from the main rises to flow back into the house. A backflow device will not stop all basement flooding problems - e.g., rain water may still flow in from foundations leaks - but it will stop sewage from coming up your drains. Water in your basement is bad, but sewage is far worse especially from a health point of view. Perhaps in some places, it may be hard to gain access to install a backflow device, but if access is possible it is definitely worth doing if you have had past backflows.
Dave B (Brooklyn)
We were badly flooded after Ida. Worst ever since buying this house 7 years ago. Full demo of basement is underway. Exterior foundation waterproofing happening as well. Also, new roof is coming. Full outlay is going to be 75K+. I have flood coverage but they haven't told me how much they'll cover. New basement will be 10 times as water resistant, both structurally and in terms of materials we will use. That said, once its all prettied up, we are likely to sell and return to condo living. We'll lose space and privacy, but we just don't love the house or neighborhood enough to live with the threat of flooding over our heads. The new owners should be much better positioned than us to ride it out and I hope they do, but we'll move on to greener pastures.
Vincent B. (Garden City Park)
Basements are not constructed to be waterproof. It is up to the homeowner to "waterproof" the basement, otherwise, they will always be vulnerable to flooding during these storms that are becoming more frequent. But if you install the proper waterproofing and drainage, any basement can be protected.
true blue (grateful)
@Vincent B. Agreed and I would keep it unfinished.
Pinto G (NY nY)
We moved into our beautiful house 13 years ago with a finished basement. 3 major sewage backups over the years from the town main Street line have led us to retreat and unfinish our basement sequentially to some degree after each one to the point that we have ripped out the bathroom and raised the pitch of our outflow about 4 feet and added a backflow valve. We did well after the last storms but some of our neighbors did not. If you want to stay put and have control and ability to improve your situation it is money well-spent to avoid the soul-crushing stress of water coming in again. And good insurance is also worth paying for. You cannot rely on your municipality to help as they will blame you for an “illegal” basement or for not having a back-flow valve. And they will blame residents for placing items into the sewers as the cause of backups instead of their limited, if any, regular maintenance of these lines by flushing them once or twice a year.
The Fish (New York)
Have the house put on stilts. Like a beach house.
b fagan (chicago)
@The Fish - raise the cellar above ground? You're talking about rebuilding the entire home.
mgavagan (New Jersey)
This 4-minute Old House video showing how a back-flow prevention valve works, how a cheaper PVC version failed, and how a new cast iron one is installed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjxuiuX57ZM
edthefed (Denver)
Given the changing environment and past disasters such as Sandy, NYC has been grossly deficient in adapting to the NEW climate. Granted that there will always be less money than the city really needs, there are some aspects of life in the City that need to be addressed and flood protection should be one of them. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s I have never lost interest in my home town and I can say that I never understood how the current Mayor was elected and re-elected. I don’t think that he dealt with the problems of the city as they presented themselves. The examples are numerous but to mention just one, he has grossly failed with the problems of Rikers Island. I wish the Democratic nominee all the best!
David (Flushing)
My area has two problems. Firstly, all the sewage has to be pumped up so it can drain down to the sewage plant near the Whitestone Bridge. The pumping facility is nearby and I frequently see workers climbing down into it which is reassuring in a way. The other problem is a three-block-long row of stores with a large parking lot in the rear. This is located on a slope so all the water runs down to the southern end. At one point, they installed a couple of dry wells, but these quickly filled with debris and the water just flows over the sidewalk into the street in heavy rain. Unfortunately, this continues down another slope for two blocks, where floods the intersection. When that happens, the water flows down our driveway into the large garage. Several years ago, the street was repaved which raised the level of the intersection and reduced the flooding events. However, the recent Ida storm got us with floor drains backing up in the garage and water pouring in the driveway door. We have complained about the parking lot for many years, but without any satisfaction.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
Hmmm, let's see. We Fossil Fuel Addicts can spend sleepless nights worrying about, and big bucks attempting to mitigate (aka, slapping more band-aids on), the Symptoms of our self-induced Climate Disaster. The Symptoms will, of course, continue to get worse as long as we remain addicted, which means we'll have to throw even bigger bucks at (futile) mitigation. Or, we can slash our consumption and WASTE of Fossil Fuels and address the Problem. Addressing the Problem means that ALL of us will need to change our entitled, wasteful, over-consumptive ways,Plus, It'll take a long time to show benefits. I'm betting on choice #1 - it's what we do. Tick, tick, tick…
Sally K. (Seattle)
@Miss Anne Thrope Yes, that's all true. But this article and these comments address the very practical problems that homeowners/renters are having with their homes flooding, and your screed does not answer that issue.
Tex Mex (Border Of Disorder)
New York City already had littoral flood issues exposed during Super Storm Sandy’s coastal surge. This issue on a Sunset Park block, albeit 37 St lays below the slope of a rail yard and Greenwood Cemetery, demonstrates the current public works infrastructure and engineering is inadequate for the deluges and the population densities in areas removed from the shorelines. Queens recently had a sewage back flow matter which demonized a street block. The Gowanus runs through lower Sunset Park parallel to 4th Ave- it has been a flooding road for decades too.
Some places, as nice as they appear to be on good days, are not fit for human habitation. The Feds should buy these places and the residents should move to places that are more appropriate. Going forward, insurance companies and FEMA should refuse to insure these places. If people can't get insurance they won't get financing. And if they're still dumb enough go buy these places intending to live there, using their own funds, the risk is entirely theirs.
JB (Brooklyn)
@MIKEinNYC I don't think it's that Brooklyn is not fit for human habitation; it sounds like it's an issue with NYC's old sewer system. My building is pretty high up on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and we had a bit of basement flooding too after a storm drain on our corner backed up and water came through our cellar doors. I also don't think it's feasible for huge amounts of people in NYC to just move, and where would we all go that would really be better given how many climate issues are happening all over the country/world?
Grand Army (Brooklyn)
@MIKEinNYC. Mike, since you appear to live in New York City, presumably you're aware that some 2.7 million people live in Brooklyn. Instead of talking about our borough's residents as "dumb enough to go buy these places," please make some sensible suggestions about mitigation. Also, where do you live? If it's anywhere in the 5 boroughs, you can't be too far from the water yourself.
martha mcdermott (gwynedd PA)
MOVE while your house is still marketable. Many of us are going to have this problem in NYC and up and down the coast, though -- what, indeed, are we all going to do?
J c (Ma)
@martha mcdermott We are going to move and abandon a lot of property. Probably the best thing we could have done is stopped subsidizing flood insurance. Second best would be to put in a heavy carbon tax to pay for all this mess and to give a market indicator that this is no longer "free." Actually, that might be even more important in the long run.
CharlesinRichmond (Richmond)
properly installed check valves should not break, and should be easy to replace. Everybody who is at risk of sewer backflows should have one. Or inflatable plugs and the knowledge of how to use them. This is basic.
Vicki (Queens, NY)
@CharlesinRichmond There is nothing basic or easy, or inexpensive, when you need this kind of work done and live in a densely populated city like NYC with an aging sewer system not built for rainfall of 3 inches per hour. Our house gutters and sewer lines all dump into the same pipe that runs out to the street main, so you also have to divert the water from the gutters somewhere or it will back up.
David (Flushing)
@Vicki The buildings in my area from the 1950s were built with two drainage systems: one for the roof water, and the other for kitchens and bathrooms. Each system goes to its own manhole near the sidewalk. Unfortunately, we have combined storm and sanitary sewers so both systems end in the same place. At least the builder tried.
John D Warnock (Thelma KY)
As a start, unless Ms Moore replaces the broken check valve, anything else she does short of moving will continue to cost her money.
Northern Manhattan (New York)
The basement of our building flooded and we called 311 to make sure they knew the City of New York's waste water system overflowed into our basement. 311 report tracking comes back a couple of days later and they said they didn't see anything. Meanwhile, all of social media documented the flooding in the neighborhood. We wrote DEP, the Mayor's Office via the Mayor's website. Is anyone home at the Mayor's Office? Nobody responded yet.
B. (Brooklyn)
I called 311 just the other day to report my sewage-backup flood -- not for any compensation but because I thought New York City would appreciate the information -- and was told that an inspector would come around to see whether the fault lay in my own main drain and if so, I'd be ordered to fix it. Having had a similar sewer backup about a year ago and the plumber, at no little cost, in to see if my drain needed cleaning, and getting a clean bill of health ("Not even a twig! Clean as a whistle!"), I did not pursue the matter with 311. I know what would have happened: The inspector would say the fault is with my own main drain, not the city's main sewer line that my drain feeds into, and I would need to get it "fixed." At great cost. Who can trust New York City? I thanked the 311 operator for his information and hung up.
Vicki (Queens, NY)
@Northern Manhattan We called 311 and reported the backup, and then got the same notice. Who are they kidding?
Deirdre (New Jersey)
If you live in a home with a sump pump you need flood insurance for a home not in a flood zone- that would cover you We have a sump pump that never went on. There was some effluence on one basement wall. We did an interior French drain and new deeper sump pump. The water sounded like Niagara Falls as soon as they cracked the concrete. The sump pump turned on every 30 seconds- two weeks later we are up to 1 minute 45. So far so good-but getting flood insurance is my next step. No water has ever been in our house.
Don Wiss (Brooklyn, NY)
"Mr. Timbers suggested homeowners install check valves on the sewer lines, which can keep water from backing up into a home." My plumber says that check valves on the main sewer line are illegal in NYC.
CharlesinRichmond (Richmond)
given there is a program proposed in the city to pay for them in Brooklyn per google this seems highly unlikely.
Don Wiss (Brooklyn, NY)
@CharlesinRichmond I spoke with my licensed plumber again. No moving parts are allowed in NYC sewer lines. Check valves have moving parts. This also prohibits any kind of valve in any sewer line. This is law. Whomever is proposing check valves doesn't know the law.
In the real world of NYC housing (New York)
Our NYC Housing & Preservation and Development (HPD) sponsored building's basement flooded again. We don't know what they are preserving or have developed, but we do know this agency has high turnover of staff, commissioners and residents who live in HPD built buildings where they promote "affordable housing" and it's not that affordable when you need to fix mold in basements, and deal with on-going construction defects where their preferred developer changes their LLC, and say they are not responsible for the construction defects, and blames the city code, and their contractors. The contractors and developers fail to correct defects that were identified and then they tell the homeowners their warrantees have expired. If you look more into the developers, and contractors they have donated money to Cuomo and Deblasio.
Donna in Brooklyn (Manhattan)
I see the problem as so much bigger than house dwellers with basements. The way that Ida overwhelmed the subways left me gob-smacked. And at the same time the storm made it very unsafe to drive your car. So basically this storm -- which was not really a very big storm for New York -- made it impossible to travel around the city safely. And now we are surely going to have storms like this more often. Maybe twice, or three-times a year? And already, whenever there is rain in the forecast and the weather page says there is a "flash flood warning," I change my plans and stay home. Can NYC function like this? I really don't know, but it's a question that needs to be asked.
Shaun Eli Breidbart (NY, NY)
@Donna in Brooklyn Not a very big storm for NYC? It was record rainfall right after a previous record rainfall left the ground saturated.
Helen Keller (NYC)
Time to move
Elizabeth A (NYC)
My previous home always had a damp basement, but Hurricane Irene (2011) led to a serious flood that we had to hand bail and pump for hours to save our water heater and furnace. Everything else in the basement was destroyed. We spent $12,000 on a french drain and sump, and that held back the waters for the rest of time we lived in the house, though it always seeped a bit in heavy rain. And that was the end of any dream of finishing the basement. I never stored anything there again that could be damaged by water — not wood, not paper, not fabric. Basically, just plastic and ceramics, all stored in waterproof bins. If you've ever had major water infiltration, chances are you will again. Water will always win.
C (NY)
This is simple: you decide what kinds of risks you can live with/afford to live with, and act. If you don't need basement living space that is vulnerable, leave it empty. It makes cleanup easier and cheaper. If you can, put your cash into mitigation like sump pumps and foundation sealing. Your next vacation? A stay-cation. That money is now sunk into your basement. Same for your big holiday blowout. And the one after that. If you can't do either, decide how badly you want to live in this home. The stress of fearing the next storm is bad for your physical and mental health, and for your pocketbook too. Every choice has a cost. Choose mindfully and think of all consequences. The infrastructure will not change quickly, and climate change is a reality. Wishing that it was 1990 is stupidity. Sorry. Expecting the city to solve your problems is definitely stupidity.
See also