Flooding Conversations Come Up Short on Solutions

 Flooding Conversations Come Up Short on Solutions

By Katie McFadden

It’s like déjà vu all over again. On the evening of Thursday, February 1, a little more than a year after the first flooding town hall following a December 2022 storm that brought floodwaters throughout the peninsula, the community gathered once again at Goldie Maple Academy for another discussion following major flooding events in September and January.

Last Thursday, Senator James Sanders once again called state and city agencies together to try to provide answers to Rockaway residents who are growing exceedingly frustrated by the damaging flooding that seems to be occurring more frequently. Sanders held a similar meeting last year to a packed house. On Thursday, the auditorium was noticeably less full, and missing were some key players in the flooding prevention discussion—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the NYC Office of Emergency Management (NYCEM). Their absence left many questions unanswered by the end of the night, with Sanders advising people to get in touch with his office after the meeting so he could direct them to the proper channels for assistance. However, there were many agency representatives on hand to provide some updates on what has been done over the last year to address flooding, and what’s still to come.

The meeting began with an introduction by Senator Sanders. “I’m grateful for you all to come out. I’m sad about what brings us out,” Sanders said as he held up a photo of a heavily flooded street in Rockaway from storms in January. “This is becoming a more common phenomenon. Our insurances are enjoying us, enjoying dropping us. We are grateful that we have partners in city, state and federal government who have been working on this morning, noon and night, and we will hear some of the things they are bringing to combat this. Can you win against nature? No, but you can live with nature and make sure nature cannot take us.”

Sanders was also joined by Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson, Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers, Joseph Edwards from Rep. Gregory Meeks’ office and several agency representatives. Among them were Beth DeFalco, deputy commissioner for Public Affairs and Communications for the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation; Elijah Hutchinson, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice; Bernadette Nation, chief executive director of the Emergency Response Unite & Intergovernmental Services at the NYC Department of Small Business Services; Kevin Parris, director of Queens and Staten Island Planning for Housing, Preservation and Development; Aniqua Nawabi, director of Special Initiatives for the NYS Homes & Community Renewal; Joanna Field and Manoara Begum of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation; Dr. Brett Branco, director of CUNY’s Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay; Gary Chin and Maria Anguiano of the American Red Cross of Greater New York, Vincent Sapienza of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, Al Silvestri of the NYC Department of Transportation and Juan Gonzalez of DSNY. All were given a few minutes to introduce themselves and explain some of things they do when it comes to flooding.

Edwards of Meeks’ office announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration had a declaration for the September 2023 storm that allows people to apply for a low interest loan through next week at SBA.gov or by calling 347-230-4032. He also spoke about the water infrastructure law signed two years ago by the Biden administration that allotted $400 billion in funding for over 40K projects across 4,500 communities for water infrastructure improvements. He also said that the president announced a declaration for the September 28-30 storm, encouraging states to submit a hazard mitigation plan. More info can be found on Declaration 4755 on Fema.gov

On the state level, Assemblyman Anderson said they are working to promote the “Mother Nature Bond Act to make sure those infrastructure resources targeted toward environmental projects can come here to the Rockaways.” He also said they’re working with the state DEC to look at projects that could work on the peninsula. Anderson also encouraged residents to file 311 complaints when they have flooding issues so there is a paper trail and various agencies can look at specific areas that need help. Talking on a controversial issue, Anderson said one of the proposals is “Managed Retreat. There are some areas that might have to go back to nature, but we can do so in a way that doesn’t displace people and gives us public use of those lands. It’s something that we should talk about.”

On the city level, Councilwoman Brooks-Powers said city council is working closely with the NYC DDC on certain projects to address flooding. Her office also worked with families who had shoddy work done through Build it Back after Hurricane Sandy, so those issues could be readdressed.

DeFalco of the NYC DEC spoke about different types of flooding impacting the area. With coastal flooding, she explained that when a high tide comes through tide gates, it can run up through sewers, manholes and catch basins. “It’s a big challenge for us. When we have tide gates and they’re working, it’s great, but we can’t start pumping water from the street until high tide goes down. It’s getting worse with climate change because the oceans are rising, and climate change is bringing more intense and more frequent rainstorms. The ocean gets warm and warm water evaporates into the clouds and those clouds then drop all that water in our backyards and now they’re dropping it more frequently,” she said. “Our sewers were not built to handle more than 1.5 inches of rain per hour. Some sewage is coming back up through the bathtub and toilet, especially in basements. Some of those fixes are going to take quite a while.”

Falco explained that they’re waiting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address some of the coastal flooding issues with sea walls and other measures to stop storm surges, but they’re frustrated with the slow movement. “The mayor also announced the Bureau of Coastal Resiliency, so we’re working with the Army Corps to make sure we are nagging them to get projects running.”

She went on to say, “One of the things we are working on is making sure the sewers are operating efficiently, that we are cleaning them on a regular basis, but that’s not part of the bigger problem. The bigger problem is trying to install more tide gates and expand the sewer system. We have a request with OMB for 50 new tide gates citywide,” Falco said. “The other thing we’re trying to do is help people prepare their homes for what this reality looks like. Climate change is coming faster than where we’re at and we’re trying to adjust while we do these large infrastructure projects that are unfortunately not going to help us when that next storm comes.”

Hutchinson of the Mayor’s Office explained “the flooding we’re experiencing in the lowest lying areas of NYC is not just coming from the shoreline anymore. It’s coming from below. Now there are multiple climate issues that are layering on top of each other, making this condition worse and exacerbating the strains on our infrastructure.” He added that the city is creating a Hazard Mitigation Plan with NYCEM, which is open to public comment through March 5 (nychazardmitigation.com), so as FEMA disaster declarations are made, resources can come to impacted areas in the city. He also encouraged folks to sign up for Notify NYC alerts to get updates on storms and incoming flooding.

Hutchinson also says the city has Flood Net, a system of sensors across the city where people can access data on flooding through an app or website (Floodnet.nyc). There are currently 75 sensors and the city recently acquired funding to install 500 more around the city to monitor flooding. There is also a resource for homeowners to learn about affordable flood insurance options through the National Flood Insurance program (FloodHelpNY.org). He also spoke about a new resource that identifies how the city should spend funding on infrastructure, Rainproof NYC. The city is also looking into a program to help people who may want to move out of flood areas and funding to do so, which they’re hoping to launch in 2025.

Nation, of SBS, explained how they have been assisting businesses after emergencies occur and they’d like to help connect other business owners with tools they may need such as insurance. If small businesses need assistance, she suggested calling 212-618-8810. A representative from NYC HPD said all new developments are being built to the top resiliency standards, such as Arverne East, which comes with infrastructure improvements around the area.

Nawabi of NYS Homes & Community Renewal spoke about the Resilient Retrofit Program, available to homeowners who want to complete flood mitigation measures to make their homes safer from flood damage. “This is up to $50K, half loan (1%), half grant. So if your project is $50K, $25K of it is a forgivable loan, so I think that’s a really great incentive to allow homeowners to make those necessary home improvements such as elevating mechanicals, installing sump pumps, fortifying foundations, etc.” It is a $9 million program and is first come, first served. Homeowners must live in the home to qualify.

Dr. Brett Branco of CUNY’s Resilience and Science Institute spoke of some of the programs they offer. The Community Flood Watch program allows people to share photos of flooding, that they make more visible to government agencies and through email alerts. Reports can be filed at https://srijb.org/jbfloodwatch/.

Silvestri of DOT shared that they applied for a FEMA hazard mitigation study for Brookville Blvd., also known as Snake Road in Far Rockaway, and the city was awarded funding for that study in December, which will help guide the city on solutions for flooding issues on Brookville Blvd.

Gonzalez of DSNY explained that their officers inspect the 600 catch basins across the city ahead of storms to make sure they’re not blocked on top, and works with DEP to make sure they are unclogged underneath. The representatives from the American Red Cross explained that they’ve been leading programs on emergency preparedness around Queens to better prepare families for emergencies.

The forum then turned to the residents, with Sanders reading out questions from audience members, allowing any of the panel members to answer. As many of the questions applied to the Army Corps and NYCEM, answers were scarce. Others had specific questions about problems on their block, and they were advised to speak with the appropriate city agency after the meeting so they could work with them on some solutions.

Senator Sanders seemed as frustrated as the audience members with the lack of answers. “Fighting doesn’t mean that you win. Not fighting guarantees that you lose. We need to take this area more seriously,” he said to the panel.

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