How do you keep the water out when it seems unstoppable? That is the question that keeps Carrie Moore glued to her phone whenever it rains, scanning weather-radar apps to try to determine whether the basement of her Brooklyn row house will flood.

It’s why sandbags now line her back door, and why she and her husband, Ryan, stayed up until 4 a.m. the night Hurricane Ida dumped a historic amount of rain on New York City. They spent the next night and early morning bucketing out sewage and stormwater that had overflowed from the basement toilet and shower, rushed in through the sump pump and seeped in through the foundation.

Despite the efforts, their finished basement filled with a foot of water.

“With the intensity of rains that we’ve been getting, it’s progressively getting worse, and so flooding just seems to be a regular occurrence,” said Moore, an architect. “I know I can’t win when it comes to water coming into our house. The water is going to win.”

Moore blames a sewer main on her block for the backups that have damaged her home and many others. Until Ida, the Moores, who have owned their house for five years, had been able to limit the sewage overflows to the basement bathroom, even as storms became stronger and more frequent. But now, as they rip out drywall and pull up their ceramic tile floors in the main living area of the basement, they’re grappling with a question shared by many across the country: What, if anything, can they do to keep this from happening again?

Despite the damage done, their block did not experience the worst flooding in the city. The storm killed scores of people in the Northeast, including more than a dozen New Yorkers, most trapped in basement apartments. Still, several basements on the Moores’ block flooded with 2 to 3 feet of sewage water, costing those homeowners tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup and repair costs.

Advertising

As their basements dry out, these homeowners are coming to grips with a new reality. They are living in homes built when sea levels were lower, in communities with aging infrastructure and storm drainage systems ill equipped to absorb the volume of water that comes with a rapidly changing climate. As climate change brings wetter, stronger storms, homeowners are paying to shore up basements that are at the mercy of municipal sewage systems that weren’t built for this type of onslaught.

Fixes aren’t cheap or simple. Waterproofing a home with French drains and a sump pump can cost, on average, $10,000 to $20,000, with no guarantee that the improvements will work under extreme conditions. More-aggressive solutions mean spending more money. Do you get a second sump pump? Do you excavate and seal the exterior of the foundation? Do you throw up your hands and move?

Waterproofing companies have been overwhelmed with calls from frantic homeowners. Some say they are booked two to four months out, and the calls haven’t waned in the weeks since the storm.

“This is unprecedented. This is worse than Hurricane Sandy, the volume of calls we’ve been getting,” said Vincent Boccia, a third-generation owner of Boccia, a waterproofing and masonry company that serves New York City and Long Island. In the past, a homeowner “might have said, ‘OK, I can manage this by mopping it up here and there.’ Now you’re not mopping it up anymore — you need pumps, and it’s not once every three years, it’s two times a year, three times a year.”

Home-waterproofing solutions work by adding drainage and pumps that keep water flowing away from a house. But a homeowner cannot control how the water moves down the street or whether it flows properly underground.

Since Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, New York City has invested $20 billion in a climate resiliency plan that includes stormwater management. Yet the work completed so far could not absorb the volume of rain that fell on the city on Sept. 1 in a record amount of time.

Advertising

Moore is reluctant to refinish or waterproof her basement until she can be convinced that the sewer problem has been adequately addressed. The check valve the previous owner had installed broke during Hurricane Henri, in late August. Replacing it could cost $5,000, she estimates. And restoring her basement to its previous condition could cost $30,000. Her homeowner insurance policy only provides for $5,000 in coverage for damage from sewer backups.

Moore worries that the city’s sewer fixes at the bottom of the block will not solve problems for her, since her home is at the top of the block. But according to Timbers, the repairs should resolve problems all along the street, and city engineers inspected the sewer after Hurricane Ida and found it to be working properly.

But Moore is not reassured. “You think of your home as this safe place where it’s yours and you’re invested in it,” she said. “Now that this has happened, knowing how bad it can get in our house, I think about our home completely differently. I just feel like we are at risk of our own property being damaged. All of our things. I can never be OK when it starts raining.”