Helping New York Residents Clean Up After Hurricane Ida Flooding

Northeast  |  September 29, 2021
Passengers flee a bus flooded to the ceiling due to torrential rainfall as Tropical Storm Ida hit New York City at night on September 1. Photo/Su Man Chou

Written by Daphne Liu
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Although Hurricane Ida downgraded to a tropical storm when passing through New York State on September 1, the storm struck New York City late at night without warning. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the weather forecast was completely inaccurate, which made the municipality unable to respond in a timely manner. 

In addition, the 3.15 inches of accumulation during the one-hour rainfall exceeded the drainage capacity of New York City. As a result, the rising waters inundated many subway lines and residences, submerged buses and vehicles, and tragically, killed a few residents who couldn’t escape to safety.

The storm hit many areas in Queens Borough the hardest. The neighborhood near the intersection of Kissena Boulevard and Peck Avenue in East Flushing has suffered some water accumulation in the past due to heavy rainfall. However, this time, almost all of the homes in the area flooded. A Chinese family of three who lived in the basement of one building was trapped and couldn’t get out that night. They were found dead by the police the next day. 

Their next-door neighbor, Yu Guei Wu, a veteran Tzu Chi community volunteer, had her basement wholly flooded, with the ceiling collapsing and rainwater flooding up to the air conditioning vent hole of the first floor.

The intersection of Kissena Boulevard and Peck Avenue is hardest hit by flooding. After the rain stopped early on September 2, families moved their flooded garbage and furniture out of their basements, filling the entire street with the unmistakable smell of the underground gutter. Photo/Shan Shan Chiang

​​The Park Near Their Homes Became a Sea

Mrs. Tseng, a survivor of that terrifying night, lived in the most low-lying spot of the hardest-hit area. She recounted that the rainwater flooded in just three minutes. Usually, her husband would watch TV in the basement and fall asleep, then go upstairs to his room in the middle of the night. On the day of the heavy rain, he was extra-spirited and went upstairs earlier, which made him avoid a disaster. Otherwise, should he have fallen asleep there, as usual, it might have been difficult, if not impossible, for him to escape. 

Yu Guei Wu, whose immediate neighbors drowned in their basement, was grateful to be alive. Yet, the material damages to her home business were devastating. “The basement is a barbershop; the equipment and furniture were all soaked and damaged. The foam and insulations, the ceiling, all fell off. It was really hard to imagine.” Yu Guei had operated the barbershop for over 40 years. 

She also has a heart for social service and was one of the first to offer free haircutting services at the Staten Island Home for the Aged in New York, where Tzu Chi volunteers visit residents to provide company and care. Knowing Yu Guei from their joint community work, the volunteers contacted her the day after the flooding and came by, bringing a hot meal. Seeing the devastation to the barbershop, one got a sense of the power of the rainstorm. 

The natural disaster was merciless. The heavy rain overnight caused countless household losses. When I was at my most helpless, my Tzu Chi family immediately called to greet me and even came to my home to care for me, which brought tears of emotion to my eyes.

The area north along Kissena Boulevard, which turns to Rose Avenue, was also severely flooded on the night of September 1. After the water receded early the next day, the residents along the road began to clean up their flooded basements, trying to clear out all the remaining water. Chun Tzu Chung, a senior Tzu Chi volunteer in her 80s, recalled the situation that night with palpitations:

It was even worse than the disaster caused by Hurricane Sandy 10 years ago. The water started to rise at about 11:30 PM that night, and the entire basement was flooded by 12:00 PM. It was too late to move anything, and the water flooded up to the first floor. My husband and I dared not to close our eyes to sleep until dawn and had our son take over.

Chun Tzu was so frightened that she couldn’t sleep, but she immediately thought of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings, and her mind changed and let go, and her heart naturally settled. Still, the following morning, she remembered just how grave this catastrophe was when she saw that the park across the street looked like a sea …

Tzu Chi volunteer Chun Tzu Chung’s home is in an area that flooded, with the basement submerged up to the ceiling, almost all furniture and belongings soaked. Photo/Shan Shan Chiang
Flood survivors are taking all their usable belongings outside in the sun in an attempt to dry them and dissipate the unpleasant odor of foul gutters. Photo/Shan Shan Chiang

Among Tzu Chi volunteers in New York, Chun Tzu’s residence was one of the more severely flooded ones. In a cell phone group, volunteers from the same area immediately reported on the situation in her home that very night, and everyone mobilized to help clean up the next day. 

On the morning of September 2, Chin Lung and Chun Mei Tsai, husband and wife, first took four pumps to Chun Tzu’s house and pumped out the water in the basement. Then, Hsiu Hua He and Su Man Chou took over, cleaning up the sludge and garbage. According to Su Man, because of sewage that overflowed, the entire basement and neighboring streets are thick with the smell of the gutter, the odor intensifying in the heat of the sun. 

That evening, Shan Shan and Chang Tung Chiang took over and brought hot food. Throughout the day, Tzu Chi volunteers came one after another to assist in the cleanup, spontaneously assuming the task of what was needed, revealing the sincere love and care that shines within the Tzu Chi spirit and family. Despite the piles of soaked and smelly garbage all around, that beautiful spirit shone through, bringing relief of a different caliber.

The caring phone calls and volunteers who helped all day long were really heartwarming.

Tzu Chi volunteer Yan He clears water from the basement of Chun Tzu Chung’s home on September 3. Photo/Su Man Zhou
Volunteers care for Chun Tzu Chung (center) and her family, demonstrating the spirit of Tzu Chi. Photo/Hsiu Hua He

Another senior Tzu Chi volunteer, Min Yu Li, who lives by herself, resides at the intersection of 166th Street and 29th Avenue in Queens, and her basement was also seriously flooded, as she recounted:

It rained heavily at 2:00 AM in the middle of the night, I heard the sound of water downstairs, and the basement started to accumulate water, which was getting higher and higher. I called the police, and they told me that they would make arrangements as soon as possible, but after 3: 00 in the middle of the night, no one came.

Water begins to accumulate in the basement of Tzu Chi volunteer Min Yu Li's home in the middle of the night. Photo/Shan Shan Chiang

Min Yu was very nervous as the disaster escalated, as she had no friends or relatives living nearby. The first thing she thought of was her Tzu Chi family. She contacted fellow Tzu Chi volunteers at dawn. It wasn’t long before the Chiangs and also volunteers from the area, Ching Hsiu Lin and Ling Fang, came to help with the cleanup. Even volunteer Lai Ti Ni, whose home flooded too, came to help after dealing with the issues in her own residence.

Homes and Businesses Destroyed

In addition to helping clean up inside volunteers’ water-damaged homes, Tzu Chi social worker Tse Jen Chu called more than ten long-term charity care recipients one by one early on September 2. They all live in basements, and Tse Jen discovered that two had experienced severe flooding in their homes. Tzu Chi volunteers set out to visit them.  

One of the care recipients is a single mother who lives in the low-lying Kissena Park neighborhood. The basement had flooded up to her waist, leaving mattresses and bookcases soaked and damaged. She temporarily moved upstairs to her landlord’s apartment. The volunteers quickly brought used mattresses and cabinets, providing other supplies later.

A Tzu Chi long-term charity care recipient family lives in the basement, which flooded up to waist level, even the refrigerator fell over. Photo/Shan Shan Chiang

Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region office in Flushing also had some water accumulation during the flooding, as did the basement of the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief in Manhattan.

Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region office located in Flushing suffers slight water accumulation in some parts of the building and basement. Volunteers moved wet clothes and belongings to the parking lot for drying in the sun. Photo/John Cheng
The basement of the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief in Manhattan took on some water. Volunteer Yang Li and a few others help with the cleanup and identification of property loss. Fortunately, there is no significant damage. Photo/Freeman Su

Other than Queens, parts of New York State also experienced substantial flooding. Tzu Chi volunteer Li Li Mei’s laundromat, located in Rye, Westchester County, suffered heavy damage. The water rushed into the business, rising to waist level and filling the basement, damaging the kitchen and equipment, including washers, dry cleaners, dryers, the boiler, the refrigerator, and other machines. 

The flooding also brought in a large amount of mud that poured into the basement. Part of the ceiling collapsed, even trees were uprooted and washed away. The clean-up will take at least a week to complete.

As New York City experienced the heaviest rainfall in a century, the number of families affected by the disaster continues to grow. On September 3, Tzu Chi volunteers in New York City established the New York City Hurricane Ida Rainstorm Emergency Relief Center. They will conduct visits to damaged homes and businesses, distribute emergency relief funds, and assist the American Red Cross with case investigation and follow-up care. 

Through your love and support of our Hurricane Ida disaster relief mission, you can help New Yorkers affected by this catastrophe recover.

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