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As Hurricane Ida Recovery Begins, New Yorkers Want A Permanent Solution

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The remnants of Hurricane Ida killed at least 49 people in the Northeast this past week. Power is back on for hundreds of thousands of residents of the region. And in New York City, the transit system is operating near full service. President Biden plans to visit New York and New Jersey Tuesday. But the flood waters have only just begun to recede. And as Sally Herships reports, there's a long cleanup in store.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: When the unthinkable or difficult happens, Father Christopher O'Connor at Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christian Church in Woodside, Queens, knows what to expect. His parishioners get a certain look on their faces.

CHRISTOPHER O'CONNOR: That stare, like, that looks like - I don't know what to do next.

HERSHIPS: He knows they're trying to keep busy cleaning up, but then what? The neighborhood his church sits in with apartment buildings and collision repair shops was slammed with rain when the storm hit. Usually, Father O'Connor is worried about helping others, but his church got dumped on by rain, too.

O'CONNOR: Our pews are ruined. Our statues are ruined.

HERSHIPS: The church was flooded. The fire department sent its marine unit to pump out the water. They were there till 3:30 in the morning. But O'Connor's eyes are focused outside, on his neighborhood. The church runs a food pantry, but people here have lost their homes. A lot are staying with friends or neighbors, but that's not a permanent solution.

O'CONNOR: So right now, I'm kind of struggling to - how to find resources to help a lot people in the area.

HERSHIPS: Annetta Seecharran is with Chhaya Community Center. Just like Father O'Connor, it's also her job to help. She works on housing issues for low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers. Her concern is basement apartments, where she says about 300,000 New Yorkers live.

ANNETTA SEECHARRAN: Where are they going to go, the ones who've now lost their homes? Because we're facing a housing crisis in New York City, and we're concerned for the homeowners who - for whom many - the rental income is an important part of their livelihood.

HERSHIPS: And concerned for the tenants' safety, too. Mayor de Blasio says he wants to increase the use of evacuation orders if future storms, ones as bad Ida, hit. But Seecharran isn't so sure about that plan.

SEECHARRAN: First of all, nobody really knows where all the basement apartments are. It would be impossible to find them in a crisis. The very nature of basement apartments is that they're in the shadows because the vast majority of them are unauthorized units.

HERSHIPS: Seecharran says the city needs to ensure the apartments have safe exits so that people can get out quickly. And she says often, these residents have immigration issues and are afraid to ask for help. So the city needs to promise they won't be penalized if they do. Across the Hudson River, now full of floodwater, Peter Yacobellis grew up in Queens. Now he's a member of the township council of Montclair, N.J. He says about 50 businesses there were hit by floodwater, broken windows, damaged equipment. And four schools were hit, too.

PETER YACOBELLIS: We were open for a few weeks last year. But basically, for 18 months our schools have been closed and ready to go to open next week. And then this happens.

HERSHIPS: Yacobellis wants to see infrastructure like sewers and drains strengthened so that if another big storm hits, all that water will have someplace to go. But he says after enduring the pandemic, towns like his are out of money. He wants the federal government to help.

YACOBELLIS: And we've just been going from crisis to crisis. And the funding hasn't been enough. The relief hasn't been enough to help us keep up.

HERSHIPS: Yacobellis makes a point of saying local officials like him are nonpartisan. This isn't political. And they don't want to spend federal dollars on anything frivolous, but they need help to prepare for the next storm.

Sally Herships, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY KEANE'S "EMERGING LIGHT (EDIT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.