Following the unexpected flooding on December 23 from Winter Storm Elliot, State Senator James Sanders arranged an emergency town hall to bring local elected officials, federal, state and city officials and the community together to get some answers.
At a packed Goldie Maple Academy on the evening of January 5, the meeting got heated as many angry locals expressed, “I’m tired of being tired” in response to the flooding issues that are becoming more common. Through the anger came a few key points; that those with damage must report it to the City so FEMA can potentially reimburse folks; that the bayside of the peninsula won’t see protection for at least three to four years, and that catch basin issues need to be addressed to prevent floodwaters coming up through them during extreme high tide events.
Sanders opened the meeting likening Rockaway to New Orleans’ “Lower 9th Ward” after Hurricane Katrina and said, “We’re looking for solutions.” To try to keep things organized and moving, with a less than two-hour timeframe to use the school’s auditorium, constituents with concerns were asked to write down questions on postcards, to be asked of panel members that included federal representatives like Patrick Touhy of FEMA, Michael Oseback, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), state reps like Adriana Espinoza, Commissioner of Equity and Justice at the NYS Department of Environmental Conversation, city reps like Zach Iscol, Commissioner of New York City Emergency Management, Vincent Sapienza, COO of the Department of Environmental Protection, DOT’s Queens Deputy Commissioner Al Silvestri, Bernadette Nation, Director of Small Business Services, Rudy Giuliani, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery, Rebecca Fischman, Senior Policy Advisor at NYC Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, Benjamin Strong, Senior Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness at NYC Department for the Aging, and elected officials like Councilwomen Joann Ariola and Selvena Brooks-Powers, Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Each member of the panel was given a moment to provide a statement before questions were taken from elected officials and members of the community.
In his introduction, Iscol advised people to sign up for Notify NYC alerts if they have not already done so, so people can receive alerts about potential flooding events. People can sign up at nyc.gov/notifynyc or by calling 311. He also emphasized the importance of those who received flood damage, to report it to the City, so an emergency declaration can be made federally, so federal funds can be released to help those who are struggling. “If you have not submitted a damage assessment form, do so. Call 311 or submit the form online at: www.nyc.gov/site/severeweather/resources/report-damage.page
“For federal emergency declaration, we have to collect this information and provide it to the state who provides it to FEMA, but if we don’t have enough damage assessments, we won’t qualify for FEMA, so if you have not submitted, it is important to do so,” Iscol said.
Osebeck of USACE briefly touched upon the work they will eventually be doing to focus on bayside coastal protection including bulkheads and pump locations, to which Councilwoman Ariola asked if there was any way to speed up that process. “It really is the only solution to keeping out floodwaters, which are rising, from devastating our communities,” she said.
“I will do anything we can to advance this project as quickly as possible, but there are challenges ahead. We’re nearing completion in the 10% design phase, and I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but this 10% holds a lot of weight and this is going to allow us to acquire an architect and engineer firm to expediate to 30%. I’m going to work with our city partners, and they’ll commence the ULURP process and as we move forward that ULURP could present challenges as we look at utilities and locations and dimensions of things to be installed, but I can promise any avenue we can take that will shave off months, days, years, we will seek that opportunity,” he said. But when asked about the fastest possible time for that work to begin Osebeck said, “The actual construction groundbreaking, we’re three to four years away from, and that’s the reality of this. To expediate that in half in unrealistic. There are laws to abide, engineering principals we have to go by, and we can’t just build blindly. We have to ensure this wall will be constructed to serve its purpose.”
Assemblyman Anderson and Councilwoman Brooks-Powers asked specifically about things being done by the City to prevent flooding in the area of Edgemere, and particularly Edgemere Avenue, which as one of Rockaway’s evacuation routes, was underwater during the flooding. Silvestri of DOT said, “Edgemere Avenue is a project that the city will respond to. Through support, the city had $25 million to scope and move ahead with the street raising project from Beach 62nd to Beach 68th Street. Edgemere Avenue is under the Arverne East project that has two segments of Edgemere Avenue being raised. We can do everything we can at DOT to push it forward, but it is in the scoping phase right now.”
Sapienza of DEP said, “There’s been a lot of work in the Rockaways over the last few years. There are projects for water mains, sewers and DOT work that DDC has designed. But I want to point out that much of this work wouldn’t have prevented this flooding given the tidal surge. We’ll continue to make those investments but in events like this, I don’t know if it would’ve made much of a difference.”
Several locals who had a chance to speak begged to differ. In a simple question, one local asked, “Why are the sewer lines never clean?” which was met with loud applause. The local went on to say they’ve lived in Rockaway for 60 years and they’ve never seen the city clean the catch basins on Beach 17th or anywhere else. Silvestri responded saying, “In DEP’s defense, when we activated the flash flood plan, they, along with Sanitation, cleared a thousand catch basins in 24 hours before this event. The flooding that occurred was not caused by rain, but tidal flooding based on a new moon and offshore winds piling water into Jamaica Bay. They did clean the catch basins. I inspected them. In a tidal event, the water in the bay is higher than the elevation of the catch basins, so the water is not gonna do down.” In response to this, someone loudly shouted, “Nonsense!” Sapienza responded, “I will continue to do inspections of catch basins and I will put it on my personal route to inspect 17th Street.”
However, some in the audience insisted that the problem is indeed coming from the catch basins, as locals across the peninsula claimed they watched the floodwaters come up from the catch basins themselves. Another local named David chimed in saying, “You didn’t give us answers. You’ve been beating around the bush. You know what’s going on here. The day that water came, the tide was higher than the catch basins with 6 ft, five inches of water. On January 21 it’s gonna be 6 ft 8 inches and January 22 it’ll be 7 ft. You know what’s gonna happen.”
A local plumber named John then commented, offering possible solutions to the DEP. “My statement to Sapienza is, the catch basins on 73rd rise and flow with the tide. The tidal water was at elevation 8 on December 23. For Hurricane Sandy, it was elevation 12. I appreciate the DEP’s investment in the infrastructure throughout Rockaway, but you’ve built a superhighway for Jamaica Bay to come in and flood our neighborhood. This water came from the storm sewer system that is tied into Jamaica Bay. It’s not your fault personally, but I’ve spoken to our councilmember, and they have told me they’ve urged DEP to install devices such as duck bill flappers. I’m a plumber, so I understand how water works. I have six vehicles out of commission from that flood and this all could’ve been avoided. Look into installing electrically operated knife gates. These things are available,” John said. “And the next time one of your engineers suggests lowering the elevation of Beach Channel Drive by two feet, give them a swift kick in the ass. You cannot lower the elevation of the roads in Rockaway. When you drive toward the bridge on Beach Channel Drive, all of the old elevation was dry. All of the new work that DEP paid millions for was drenched in two feet of water.”
The issue of water coming up from catch basins was brought up repeatedly at the meeting. “On December 23, the water didn’t come from the ocean, and it didn’t come over the bay wall. I watched with my own eyes; it came out of those catch basins. It cost $2.5 million to put duck bills in and we had no water come up from one corner. But they fixed the one corner but on 128th and Cronston, the water was backed up at 6:15 a.m. It needs to be fixed. Far Rockaway to Neponsit is experiencing this,” a man named Mike said. With so many questions about catch basin problem areas directed at Sapienza, Sanders suggested that DEP provide a phone number for specific concerns. The community affairs number was provided: 718-595-3496
Another big concern that came out was Rockaway’s evacuation routes. A woman named Ms. Jones said, “There’s three exits out of the peninsula and they were all flooded. Who was the rocket scientist that decided that they’re going to take away lanes and reduce them from three to two and put parked cars in the middle of the street? On a hot sunny day, you cannot get off this peninsula. You go the other way to the bridge and that’s gone from two lanes to one. Then you decided to overdevelop the peninsula. Who is the rocket scientist behind overdevelopment? When is the evacuation meeting?” A city official responded saying. “When the flooding is happening, that is not the time to evacuate. You need to sign up for Notify NYC and pay attention to public messaging.”
Many other residents had specific questions about their unique situations, however, due to limited time, as guests had to be out of the auditorium by 8:30 p.m., those residents were directed to speak directly with city officials that were providing advice in the neighboring gym.