A traumatising experience: Guyanese family in NY trapped in basement with floodwaters

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By Vishani Ragobeer

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Chanmattie Kandasammi is a single mother who lives with her daughter Gail and son Joel on 184th Street, Hollis, Queens in New York. The family has been living there since 1997 but a week ago, it felt as though their lives were being turned upside down.

This was so because torrential downpours from Hurricane Ida flooded some cities in the United States of America (USA). And Queens, where many Guyanese immigrants like the Kandasammi family reside, was one of the worst-affected areas.

According to reports, meteorologists said that there were some 35 billion gallons of rainfall in just five hours. That might be an unimaginable figure but to illustrate the sheer devastation of the rainfall, Kandasammi said this meant that her street and house were flooded within seconds – not even minutes.

“When I get up and I go outside I see the water is rising, almost to the fence outside and I go and call my son Joel and tell him go and get Gail, (to) let them get out of the basement,” Kandasammi told the News Room via a Facetime call on Tuesday.

Chanmattie Kandasammi, a Guyanese living in New York, standing in her basement after the flood (Photo courtesy of Little Guyana 592 News)

The Washington Post reported that many immigrants, not just Guyanese or Caribbean people, reside in people’s basements which are located partially or wholly underground. And since these basements are located below ground, they were the first to be flooded.

Kandasammi’s daughter was only using the basement as her pseudo-office, as she had been working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted in many other reports, however, the weight of the unrestrained water made doors and windows in basements almost entirely immovable.

Still, Kandasammi knew that she had to get her daughter and her friends who were with her, out of the basement.

“When he (her son) go, the water was already in the basement… till at the neck,” she recalled.

The water was rising quite quickly and it eventually made its way to the first floor of Kandasammi’s house. With no time to lose, the woman related that her son had to kick the basement door open and get his sister and her friends out of the room.

The damage in Kandasammi’s basement (Photo courtesy of Little Guyana 592 News)

That meant, however, that nothing else could be salvaged. The family’s electronic gadgets, furniture and other items were irreparably damaged. Fortunately, their pets – a puppy and a cat – made it out alive too.

“They come upstairs and they were very shaken, they were traumatised,” the woman said, lamenting: “The water was so plenty.”

Even now, one week later, the woman said that her daughter is still terrified. The family is cognisant that 27-year-old Gail could have lost her life that day.

While Gail and her friends were able to escape without any physical harm, another immigrant family living one street away was not as fortunate.

In the basement of a 183rd street house, Trinidadian immigrants Phamatee Ramskriet and her son and Khrishah Ramskriet were reportedly packing a bag when the basement’s wall collapsed and water filled the space. They both drowned.

In Woodside, Queens, a Nepalese family living in a basement drowned too.

“This is the biggest flood we had.

“We had a flood in 2007 and we had big damage and we went till to City Hall for it…,” Kandasammi highlighted.

In the aftermath of that 2007 flood, she was questioned why she did not have flood insurance. She explained that as a single parent, she has been unable to afford this.

The aftermath of flooding from Hurricane Ida is seen in Queens. (Photo: Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Just as last time, though, she is hopeful that she would be able to receive some compensation to help with her cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Her basement, for sure, has been severely damaged and is in need of restoration.

Meanwhile, the woman said that she and her neighbours have been advocating for an improved sewage and drainage system to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

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