Eleven of the victims died in basement apartments that quickly became inundated with water, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce a task force and more drastic storm response plan to avoid such catastrophes in the future.
The Department of Buildings is investigating the living conditions of the basement apartments involved in the tragic deaths, and so far, inspectors have found that five of the six apartments where people died were illegally converted.
"DOB inspectors have confirmed that five of the six properties where New Yorkers tragically lost their lives during the floods were illegally converted cellar and basement apartments," Commissioner Melanie La Rocca said. "Our team is tirelessly conducting inspections at over a thousand properties across the five boroughs in the aftermath of Wednesday's storm, and we'll continue doing everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe in their residences."
Some of the faces of this tragedy are 43-year-old Phamatee Ramskriet and her 22-year-old son Khrishah, who perished when that powerful flood water broke through a concrete wall in Hollis.
Their community now has so many questions, and so much heartache.
"My dad said he wished it was him. Because he said he's 71 years old already and he wished that would've happened to him and two wonderful people would've survived and he said he would have done that in a heartbeat," said Amit Shivprasad the building owner's son.
The NYPD says they rescued more than 800 people during the storm, with officers braving the waters to pull people trapped in their homes, cars, and even on public transportation.
Video showed an MTA bus with standing floodwaters nearly seat high, and bodycam video captured police efforts in Central Park, which saw back-to-back record-breaking rainfall.
The waters have receded on Staten Island, but the clean up for homeowners in the Westerleigh section will take weeks. For some, the loss has been immeasurable.
"Everything in our basement is completely gone," victim Chris Sweeney said.
In Horizon Village, many are still without gas and power. Cell phone video shows the flood waters sweeping in fast Wednesday night, filling the parking lot, submerging cars and pouring into homes.
William Cruz was up to his neck trying to clear drains and get to his motorcycle.
"It was apocalyptic," he said. "It was insane. I've never seen anything like that at all."
It is likely that the death toll will climb higher, and a man's body was found floating in the Gowanus Canal Thursday afternoon.
In Flushing, neighbors say improvements to storm drainage are badly needed after three people in the neighborhood were found dead in their basements.
"We have lost a son, we have lost a sister, and this, this is why I cannot comprehend, no one, the emotions here I can speak for everyone," one neighbor said. "There is only sadness and it's, it's just overwhelming."
Mayor de Blasio said climate change and extreme weather mean the city has to adapt.
"We are in a whole different world, and we are all going to have to act very differently because this is not the world we knew," de Blasio said. "This is a kind of extreme weather that's a whole new ballgame."
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More city residents will need to be evacuated from future storms, and the city will regularly consider instituting travel bans, the mayor said in response to increasingly frequent severe weather in the city.
"A travel ban is the kind of thing I want to introduce into the equation early in each storm as a possibility," he said. "And then pull the trigger if I have to, and literally tell people, 'Off the streets, out of the subways, clear the way.'"
The mayor said evacuations, once reserved for "the worst kinds of events," will become more frequent and widespread.
"What we saw in some of these basement apartments on Wednesday was people need to be evacuated who are far away from the coast," he said. "Because of the sheer intensity and speed, the amount of rain that came in such a brief period of time."
City officials stressed that basement apartment residents can call 311 or 911 to report issues without fear of being vacated, unless they are facing life threatening danger.
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