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The Northeast Is Cleaning Up From Ida — But What Happens When The Next Storm Hits?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The death toll has been climbing in the Northeastern U.S. from what was Hurricane Ida. At least 49 people in five states are now reported dead after flooding and other weather conditions overtook the region. And as cleanup efforts continue, many are wondering how prepared is the Northeast for the next storm? NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joins us now from New York City with the latest.

Hansi, you've been reporting on this today. What's happening on the ground right now?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The floodwater is gone in many areas, but police are still looking for some people who haven't been seen since the storm. And a lot of people are thinking about, what about the next storm? Because we're still in the middle of hurricane season.

CORNISH: Right. There have been so many stories also about people who died trapped in their vehicles - right? - trapped by the floodwaters. Are you hearing anything from drivers you've spoken to today?

WANG: Well, you know, what's interesting is that other parts of the country have been grappling for years with this problem of some people driving during flash flooding. And this week's storm is making it clear that drivers in the Northeast need to take flash flood alerts and warnings more seriously. I talked to Kathleen Helewa of Warren Township in New Jersey. She was on her way home from work during the storm, told me she remembers hearing that warning about driving through floodwaters. Turn around, don't drown. But she just didn't expect the rain to come down so fast and so heavily. And she was driving a sedan that got stalled in the rain. And when she opened the driver's side door, she saw the water was up to the bottom of the doorframe. And she told me she realized she needed a rescue. So she called 911. Let's listen.

KATHLEEN HELEWA: The 911 operator told me to open my car window so I could get out if the car was overtaken. And that's when I really started to sort of panic inside, because that just underscored how severe the situation was, how bad it was.

WANG: Kathleen Helewa ended up getting rescued by the local police department, like hundreds of drivers trapped by the floodwaters across the region. And, you know, I talked to another driver, Katie Roth of Glen Gardner, N.J. She was also driving home from work during the rainstorm and ended up making it on her own. But she said she felt like she was having a panic attack on the highway, going into water that, you know, who knows was how deep. Let's listen.

KATIE ROTH: This is why we live up north. Like, we don't get the tornadoes. We don't get, like, these floods or anything, unless you live on the coast, you know? I mean, my perspective is definitely changed. And all I can hope is that other people's are too because climate change isn't stopping.

CORNISH: Hansi, another story that's emerged out of this last day - the deaths inside of flooded basement apartments in New York City. What have city officials said about what's going on and what they might do for tenants ahead of the next storm?

WANG: Well, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio got a lot of questions about this during a press conference today, and he acknowledged how complicated this situation is. We're talking about one of New York's most vulnerable populations living in some of the most unstable housing situations. And they're not just facing this growing threat of flash flooding. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DE BLASIO: We have a illegal basement problem. And then we have a problem that so many people that end up in illegal basements are fearful to communicate for fear they might be evicted or, worse in their mind, deported.

WANG: The mayor said the city's new strategy will be to try to get people living in basement apartments out of these homes before the storm hits, have them evacuate into emergency shelters. But tenant advocates I talked to point out just how difficult this will be. To begin with, city officials just don't know where every basement apartment is, in large part because many tenants and homeowners don't want the city to know. It's just another example of how this storm has highlighted another major crisis in the city - the lack of affordable housing.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reporting from New York City.

Thank you.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.