Climate change drowns the American dream

Ang Gelu Lama, 50 and his two-year-old son Lobsang who drowned in their basement apartment on 1 September in New York City. Photos: FACEBOOK

The rain started falling in the evening of 31 August in New York City and in the next 24 hours, the city and its surroundings got record rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida. It only took a few hours for the streets to be flooded, and the water to enter subway stations.

In a basement apartment of a house at the bottom of a dead-end street in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens, water rushed in through the only window at street level. The apartment was occupied by Mingma Sherpa, her husband Ang Gelu Lama, and their 2-year-old son Lobsang.

Mingma called an upstairs neighbour to say that water was starting to pour into the basement, and the family was unable to open their door to get out. The water rose rapidly, drowning the immigrant family from Nepal before help could arrive.  

“I cannot even describe how horrible the hurricane was for our community,” said Urgen Sherpa, a long-time resident of Queens and a close friend of Mingma and Ang Gelu. “The funeral was one of the most heartbreaking events in my life… I don’t have words to describe how bad it was, how sad it was.”

On the day of the funeral, Ang Gelu’s older brother, who was already in the US, was in attendance. Cars drove slowly down the street in procession, the three caskets lined in a row inside the hearse.

The funerals had been delayed in the hope that Mingma Sherpa’s mother and younger sister, and Ang Gelu Lama’s older sister could travel to New York from Nepal for the funeral. They could not get their US visas. The funeral was held without them, the community mourning while family members grieved on the other side of the world. 

Mingma Sherpa with her husband and young son, all of whom perished in the flood.

Nepal is one of the countries listed as being most at risk from the impact of the climate crisis. The Himalayan villages where Mingma and Ang Gelu come from are exposed to increased risk of flashfloods from melting glaciers, erratic and extreme weather. The Himalaya is warming 0.3-0.78oC faster than the global average, and Nepal’s subsistence farmers have been hit hardest.   

The cruel irony is that having left Nepal for economic opportunity in the United States, the family became the casualties of the effect of climate change that is unleashing more frequent and intense storms across the Americas.

On 11 December, the state of Kentucky was hit by what has been described as the worst tornado in recorded history, killing more than 100 people. Meteorologists say the disaster was caused by record-high December temperatures in the state, with warm, moist air from the Gulf colliding with colder air from the north.   

On 1 September, the day of the tragedy in Queens, New York City experienced record high rainfall from the trailing edge of Hurricane Ida. Central Park in Manhattan got 181mm of rain in 24 hours, nearly double the previous record of 97mm 90 years ago. In Newark across the Hudson, the total precipitation on that day was 213mm – four times higher than the previous daily rainfall record in 1959. 

Four months after the New York tragedy in which a family that left Nepal fell victim to the kind of disaster that are now affects the whole world, the Kentucky tornado once more underlined that no one is safe anywhere from the impact of the climate emergency.

It also came in a year when surges in the pandemic caused job losses that affected the immigrant community in the United States the hardest. It was a stinging reminder of the challenges faced by lower income families in the United States regarding affordable and safe housing. Besides the Nepali family, the floods in New York claimed 7 other lives that day.

Like many other immigrant families who are drawn to New York City for its opportunities, Mingma and Ang Gelu had rented the basement apartment because of the lower cost. The two had married a few years ago, and their Green Card application had been denied just before the storm hit.

While flooding is not an imminent concern for New Yorkers living in high rises, the tragedy proved how dangerous it is for people dwelling below street level. Basement apartments are an increasingly common option for those looking for affordable housing in a tightly packed, dense urban landscape.

Police and rescuers had to bring in divers to retrieve the bodies of the Nepali family in Queens.

Most basement living spaces do not pass New York state regulations for acceptable living conditions. They often have few or no windows, limited ventilation, and typically only one entry and exit, all of which disqualify nearly all basements in the city from being legally livable.

However, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, landlords often choose to rent out these spaces anyway to individuals or families who are unable to afford anything else.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio had promised to begin addressing the growing issue in statements back in 2019, but all efforts have since been cut in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in 2020 Queens became the epicentre of the coronavirus surge.

As global temperatures rise, heavier rainfall is inevitable, even in places that have historically been spared from the worst of seasonal storms like New York, or in seasons when tornados are not supposed to happen like in Kentucky in December. This is not a distant prediction, but a new normal.

Hurricane season in the eastern United States is a predictable annual phenomenon. Stretching from early summer into the last weeks of autumn, hurricanes thrust gale-force winds and torrential rain across the coast. Severe, and sometimes deadly, flooding is increasingly common.

As the 2020 hurricane season came to a close, examining its aftermath revealed dozens of tragic stories of loss and devastation, of which none were more heartbreaking than the drowning of the Nepali family in New York.  

While storms are nothing new for New York City residents, the severe flooding brought by Hurricane Ida was more intense than any storm in recent history. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 brought flooding due to storm surges, but the precipitation from Ida was off the charts.  

This gave the storm a markedly different character compared to those that preceded it. It was faster and far more unexpected. There was simply not enough runoff to manage the enormous amount of water rushing into the streets, enveloping cars, and pouring into any below-ground space in the city.

Cities across the United States and Germany this summer looked like any other part of the developing world that used to be called 'the most vulnerable' to weather extremes. Climate change, it seems, spares no one, no matter where they live.

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