How a Sewage Flood Upended Lives in Queens

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Weather: A chance of rain today with a high in the low 50s. Temperatures will dip into the low 40s tonight. Both Saturday and Sunday will be partly cloudy with temperatures in the low 60s.

Alternate-side parking: In effect until April 29 (Holy Thursday, Orthodox).

Days after Thanksgiving in 2019, Mark Prescott and his mother, Barbara, were forced to evacuate their house after a raw sewage flood made it uninhabitable.

Their home was one of 127 in South Ozone Park, Queens, to be immersed in rivers of raw sewage. The Prescotts moved into a motel, while other families slept in cars. And some lost most of their possessions.

The city eventually accepted responsibility for the problems, caused by a collapsed sewer pipe. But more than 16 months later, some residents say they’re still waiting for help.

[Read more about the flooding and its lasting effects.]

Here’s what you need to know about the issue:

The flooding was initially blamed on residents who poured cooking grease down drains. But once the true cause was revealed, the city promised to help.

About $1.1 million has been paid out, with about a quarter of the claims still unresolved, according to the city comptroller’s office, which handles the process. But some residents told my colleague Katie Van Syckle that the city has moved slowly or failed to offer enough compensation for repairs.

Now, 19 people have filed a joint lawsuit, and another 15 families are being represented by pro bono lawyers. One of the plaintiffs, Mr. Prescott, suffered a tragic loss after moving into the motel. His mother fell on the premises last spring, was admitted to a hospital and died in April of last year after contracting the coronavirus.

Mr. Prescott said he cannot afford repairs until he receives payment from the city.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary blamed the comptroller’s office for delays. A spokeswoman for Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, said the office has worked swiftly but recognized that the aftermath “underscored systemic inequities.”

The neighborhood is one where many middle-class families of color are homeowners — a status that eludes many New Yorkers, especially Black and Latino people.

But since the sewage flooding occurred, families say that the generational wealth they thought they were building has dwindled to nearly nothing. Many homes are in disrepair, and some families have taken on credit card debt or raided retirement funds to cover bills.

“I don’t think that if this had happened in a white neighborhood, this would have happened this way,” said Janice Harmon, one of the homeowners, who is Black.

The incident illustrates how infrastructure failures, coupled with an inadequate government response, can have an outsize impact on communities of color, said Natalie Bump Vena, an urban studies professor at Queens College. “This is a problem of environmental racism,” she said.

The Times’s Melissa Guerrero writes:

Although many performance spaces, museums and community centers are closed, people are finding creative ways to connect through virtual events and programs. Here are suggestions for maintaining a New York social life this weekend while keeping a safe distance from other people.

On Friday at 7 p.m., watch a cabaret with New York-based Black queer artists and performers.

Purchase a ticket ($10) on the event page.

Watch poets recite their poems about injustices on Saturday at 7 p.m. Attendees can also join the post-performance discussion and open mic.

Register for free on the event page.

On Saturday at 8 p.m. join Asian-American performers for a live comedy show about triumphing over quarantine. The program will pay tribute to New York City’s Chinatown and the photographer Corky Lee.

R.S.V.P. on the event page.

It’s Friday — get ready for the weekend.

Dear Diary:

I was in New York for a whirlwind visit. I saw an old friend and then stayed overnight with my brother. My plan for the next day was to take in a photography exhibit at the Met and then catch a 3 p.m. train back to Boston.

Arriving at the museum, I was intercepted on the steps by a security guard. He told me that I could come in, but my overnight bag could not.

I was determined not to miss this particular exhibit. Seeking inspiration for a solution to my predicament, I walked around the block a few times and had a second breakfast at a deli.

Then it came to me: I decided to ask a doorman at an apartment building in the neighborhood if he would watch my suitcase for a few hours while I was at the museum.

Taking a chance, I selected a small building where the doorman looked reasonably friendly and I explained my plight to him.

He said he had no place to store bags, but then he paused and took a long look at me while continuing to consider my request.

I must have passed muster, because he said he would hold my suitcase in his car, which was parked just across the street.

In a leap of faith, I handed him the suitcase, and a tip, and off I went.

A few hours later, I returned to the building to find that “my” doorman was nowhere to be seen.

Not to worry. The man who was now on duty had his co-worker’s keys and he retrieved my bag from the car.

— Phil Nachman

New York Today is published weekdays around 6 a.m. Sign up here to get it by email. You can also find it at

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