Life and death underground: N.Y. immigrants perish in flooded basements

The aftermath can be seen on Sept. 3, 2021, in Queens, N.Y., as heavy rains from Ida flooded many residences. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post

NEW YORK – In her first-story apartment, as the water rose to Deborah Torres’s waist, she heard the cries for help from below, from the basement where a 19-month-old baby lived with his parents.

There was nothing Torres could do. She was trying to save her own life and get out of the three-story, red brick house in the Woodside section of Queens. There was nothing anyone could do. As water from the storm known as Ida deluged the city Wednesday, Sept.1, 2021,  night, basements filled first. And in this basement, a family who’d come to America from Nepal was trapped inside a tiny apartment that wasn’t supposed to be an apartment.

The weight of the water made the doors and windows in the basement immovable. The rush of rain was so loud, Torres could no longer hear the family below.

Ang Gelu Lama, his wife, Mingma Yangji Sherpa, and their toddler, Lopsang, drowned to death in the two-bedroom space they called home. Police divers found their bodies at about 3:30 a.m. Thursday.

Three miles away, in the East Elmhurst basement where Ernesto Moreno lived with his wife and two children, the water was already up to his calves, about to slosh into the power outlets. Moreno knew he had to get out now. He cast around desperately looking to grab his late father’s shoes and ashes, which Moreno had carried with him from Colombia to the United States four years ago.

There was no time. Instead, he scrambled to find the one possession he couldn’t afford to lose: his family’s passports.

Got them. Moreno and his 17-year-old son, Daniel, climbed out. Everyone was safe, and everything was lost.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped seven inches of rain on the New York City area in about three hours, 49 people were killed in the Northeast, streets flooded and the region’s transportation pathways were paralyzed. In the city itself, 11 of the 13 people who were killed were found in basement apartments that, in most cases, were never legally converted into residential space.

Most of the dead were immigrants; they’d come to New York from Trinidad, Nepal and China. They were busboys and kitchen helpers and 7-Eleven clerks, and in a city where apartments rent for far more than many immigrants’ first jobs pay, the only housing they’d been able to find was below ground.

The story of Ida’s victims in the basements of New York is a tale of neglect and desperation, of strapped landlords straining to cover their nut and deciding to ignore the law, of an overwhelmed bureaucracy incapable of enforcing the city’s housing rules. Above all, it is the story of newcomers to a land of plenty, people who fled hardship only to find a different kind of struggle, families in which everyone works, often at two jobs, and can only barely hold onto an illegal, cramped space in the storage area of someone’s house.

“Five of the six properties where New Yorkers tragically lost their lives during the floods were illegally converted cellar and basement apartments,” the city’s Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca said in a statement. She said her inspectors fanned out after the storm to check more than a thousand properties. What they would find was more violations, more spaces where people weren’t supposed to be living, more places that, like the Lamas’ apartment, had already been the subject of complaints – to no avail.

Someone had complained to the Buildings Department back in 2005 about the house where the Lamas would spend their few years in America. The complaint, about improper use of the building for commercial purposes, was closed, as many are, because an inspector showed up and couldn’t gain access to the house.

When a city inspector returned Thursday, the building was “shaking” and “vibrating” from flood damage and the inspector couldn’t go inside, city records show.

New York housing officials have known for decades that illegal basement apartments are potential death traps. There are at least 50,000 such units, many with only one means of egress, many without windows, many with few or no protections against fire.

“At least 100,000 people – and there’s a strong possibility there’s a lot more – are living in those apartments,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said Friday. “So many people who end up in the illegal basements are fearful to communicate for fear they might be evicted or, worse in their mind, deported.”

On Thursday, Sept. 2, hours after the flooding, inspectors started issuing citations to landlords who had created cellar living space without permits. The only legal use of those spaces, the city’s inspectors wrote, was for “recreation, boiler and storage.”

But the mayor assured basement occupants he’s not out to toss them out of their homes. Instead, he wants to use city resources to help owners upgrade basements to meet safety standards. Under New York law, basement dwellings need a window and must meet minimum space requirements. But many partly finished basement spaces get rented out even though the landlord – who often lives upstairs – has never sought an occupancy certificate from the city.

Both de Blasio and his likely successor, Eric Adams, support efforts to legalize many of the apartments by helping homeowners pay for the upgrades needed to conform to housing regulations.

But when the floodwaters came Wednesday night, the people in the basements were mostly on their own. They cried out for help, called neighbors, tried to reach 911. Some got out. Some got help, from the people upstairs, from police and firefighters.

Some couldn’t get out.

Ragendra Shivprasad went downstairs twice to check on his basement tenants as the rain fell Wednesday evening.

“Be on the alert,” he told them, there might be a flood.

As the rain picked up, nearby manholes popped open and 10-foot geysers of water shot up from the street in Hollis, Queens. At Shivprasad’s house on 183rd Street, there was a loud bang and a sudden rush of water ripped through the side of the building.

In the basement, the tenants, a mother and son, Phamatee Ramskriet, 43, and Khrishah Ramskriet, 22, were packing a bag when the wall collapsed and water filled the basement. They both drowned.

The son’s father and the couple’s other son were not home at the time of the flood.

Shivprasad said he had made sure his basement apartment had three means of entry and watertight doors. The landlord’s son, Amit Shivprasad, said no amount of precaution could have prevented what happened.

“This is a tragedy from Mother Nature,” he said.

But some neighbors said this was a tragedy that had been foreseen.

“This could have been me,” said Amrita Bhagwandin, who lives across from the Shivprasads. After a 2007 flood that trapped her in her house, she said she’s been calling city officials to fix the “water basin” that develops in any heavy rainfall.

Last year, she said, construction began to revamp the sewer system to prevent serious flooding. But it wasn’t enough, and now Bhagwandin wants the city to solve the flooding problem rather than cracking down on basement apartments.

“Demonizing homeowners is not the answer,” she said. “We have death lurking over us.”

Many houses on the block have basement apartments, mostly inhabited by immigrant families making minimum wage.

The owner had rented to the Ramskriet family for more than 15 years. If you force the tenants out, said Amit Shivprasad, “where do these people go?”

Ang Gelu Lama, who drowned with his wife and toddler in Woodside, had come to America from Nepal 14 years ago and in the last few years, he could finally see his way clear to success, said a lifelong friend, Ang Phurba Lama.

Ang Gelu Lama came to America to start a family. He worked a series of low-pay jobs and got married five years ago, when his wife, Mingma Yangji Sherpa, joined him in this country.

“We come from a poor country,” said a friend, Pasang Lama. “We always saved our money to try to have our American Dream. He would always try to save money, so he lived in that apartment for the cheap rent.”

The family had lived in the basement of the three-story brick house on 64th Street for the past three years, in a cramped space with scant counter space and barely more than a stove and a fridge. The apartment had not been approved for residential use, city records showed. Now, dirt clung to the walls, furniture was toppled over and children’s toys were scattered across the floor.

When the pandemic hit, Ang Gelu, who was 50 when he died, was laid off from his job at a 7-Eleven store, leaving him to stay home with their son while his wife kept working at a hotel, Ang Phurba said.

This weekend, Ang Gelu’s friends gathered to tell stories about the little village where they grew up with him, where they would collect firewood in the morning, attend classes in the day, then tend to the livestock and go to market.

After they came to the United States, they and other immigrants from the same village would meet at Nepali restaurants like Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights, play volleyball at the community center and pray at the temple.

Ang Gelu’s older brother, Domi Lama, sat there Friday, Sept. 3, missing his toddler nephew. Domi hadn’t heard about the drowning until people sent him news accounts. He rushed over to the house, only to see police surrounding the building.

Little Lopsang used to come up to his uncle at the temple and hug his leg and sit on his lap.

Domi’s head hung low. “I couldn’t help him,” he said.

Ernesto Moreno, who works 14-hour shifts, splitting time between his jobs as a construction worker and dishwasher, chose the basement apartment on 64th Street in East Elmhurst because it didn’t require a lot of the paperwork that legal units require. It was what a family of four who arrived from Colombia four years ago could afford.

On Wednesday night, Moreno, 50, got home with his son, Daniel, at about 8:45. One glance at their neighbors’ house and they realized they were up against a flood.

Inside, Ernesto helped his son; daughter, Daniela, who works in a hospital; and his wife Alexandra escape up a staircase to the first floor, where the house’s owner lives. Then Ernesto waded into the quickly-filling basement, to the dresser in his room where he kept his family’s paperwork. He found their passports, switched off the electricity supply and climbed out a window.

He decided not to open the door out of the basement for fear of letting in a wave of water, though that’s what happened later anyway.

He was thinking about his father’s shoes and ashes – and the family’s laptops and phones, their link to relatives in Colombia – but the paperwork was most vital. Without his passport, Ernesto, who arrived in this country on a tourist visa, feared he’d lose his work.

“We are people from the other side of the moon,” Daniel said, “so we need something to represent that the passport was our ID. If [my father] lost them, then he wouldn’t have any way to work and pay rent.”

As he exited, Ernesto held the passports in his hand, above the water, because his pockets were getting wet.

Once outside, the family stood on their neighbor’s stoop and watched the storm swallow their home.

“Always, it’s life that’s more important than material things,” Ernesto said.

He did manage to save one of his father’s shoes, and his son was glad of it.

“Sometime in my life I was expecting to have those shoes too,” Daniel said, “because that’s the only thing my father had from my grandfather.”

On Saturday, the basement unit was a mess of broken, peeling walls, the smell of chlorine permeating through the remains.

The Morenos are now staying upstairs with their landlord, and Ernesto has washed the shoe and placed it, torn on the side, neatly on a shelf in a cabinet salvaged from the flood.

One block away, William Hurtado, was watching TV at home in the basement with his 18-year-old daughter, Monica, who was studying for her first college courses.

Then the water started leaking into their apartment. A trickle blossomed into a torrent and the water rose to Hurtado’s knees. They hurried to fill a cooler with essential documents, his wallet and their cellphones.

At about midnight, a terrifying whoosh pushed the water up to his chin.

“It was like a dam broke,” said Hurtado, 47, a Venezuelan immigrant who works in the kitchen of a Queens pizzeria. “I thought we were going to die.”

The father and daughter escaped through a door that opened to a flooded back alleyway. Hurtado carried Monica on his shoulders as she held the cooler.

He pushed through the high water to a van in the alley. They clambered onto its roof, above the rising water. They yelled for help.

“I could see people looking out of their windows but no one could reach us,” Hurtado said.

Their only chance was to reach a second-floor balcony of their building. They figured they could jump from the van’s roof to an awning, then pull themselves over the railing to the balcony.

Hurtado hoisted up Monica, with the cooler. She scrambled onto the balcony, but when her father tried to follow, one of his flip-flops slipped on the awning’s wet surface.

Just as he thought he’d fall, “my neighbor came out to the balcony and he grabbed my arm and was able to help me over,” Hurtado said. “I was in shock.”

Only then could Monica call her mother, Veronica Hernandez, 44, who was at her job as a restaurant cashier, increasingly distraught that she couldn’t reach them.

The Hurtados lost nearly all their possessions. So did the couple’s son, Francisco, who lived in a basement apartment next door with his girlfriend, Kimberly Mendoza, and their 1-month-old daughter. The son’s family was not at home when the storm struck; he was at work as a busboy at a Brooklyn restaurant and his partner and daughter were visiting relatives.

William Hurtado said he managed a farm in Venezuela, which the family left in 2017 after he got anonymous calls threatening to kidnap his wife and children in an apparent extortion attempt.

“We have worked so hard to have our homes here,” said the son, Francisco. “We are starting again at zero.”

William Hurtado has found a temporary apartment nearby. Francisco has started searching for a new home. He’s worried about having enough money to replace their belongings and buy a crib for the baby, Kamila.

Francisco had been saving to buy an engagement ring for Mendoza. He’d planned to give it to her for her birthday later this month. For now, the proposal is on hold.

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