08/03/11 8:32pm
08/03/2011 8:32 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO Horton Avenue flood victim turned community activist Linda Hobson (right) and her fellow Horton Avenue flood victims during a press conference on the block Friday.

Porter Trent and his wife, Marie, have lived in their Horton Avenue home for 50 years. Mr. Trent was patching his driveway, with a bucket of tar nearby and trowel in hand, when he heard the news.

Financial help was on the way for the Trents and the few other families who have continued living in their homes after a flood damaged over a dozen houses in the neighborhood last year.

Horton Avenue residents got word Friday that a $3.6 million federal grant will provide relief to the victims of last year’s devastating flooding in the area. The money is coming from the state Office of Emergency Management’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program, which is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The funds will allow local authorities to purchase 13 affected properties in the low-lying neighborhood at pre-flood market value, demolish them and craft long-term mitigation measures to finally solve the persistent flooding problem there.

For families like the Trents, however, the news was bittersweet, as it meant never having to deal with a flood again, but having to leave the place they’ve called home since the 1960s.

“There’s a lot of sentimental value that can’t be replaced,” said Ms. Trent, 75, who raised seven children in the home. She and her 80-year-old husband have spent the 16 months since the flood repairing the house, cleaning the yard and sanitizing everything that was in their basement as they awaited word from the federal government.

The Trents and their neighbors were denied a separate FEMA grant earlier this year and have since filed a lawsuit against the town and county seeking financial restitution. Now that assistance has arrived, flood victim and community activist Linda Hobson said the neighbors’ attorney would soon be meeting with the town, though she stopped short of saying they would drop the lawsuit.

“Legal proceedings were never our goal,” said Ms. Hobson, who worked closely with Shirley Coverdale and the Long Island Organizing Network throughout the process. She emphasized her gratitude to local elected officials, the media, LION and Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, who oversaw the joint agency grant application process.

“It certainly has not been on our accord that we got this far,” she said.

Town officials have said that if they were to receive the federal money, they would seek to return the area to open space or, if Mother Nature insists, wetlands.

Three-quarters of the grant will be paid for through the federal government, but the town and county must provide the remaining 25 percent. The matching $900,000 can come in the form of engineering, administration, permit fees and labor costs, according to deputy supervisor Jill Lewis.

Chief Hegermiller credited the town’s grant writer, Jennifer Mesiano, with helping to secure the funds.

The section of Horton Avenue near the recently built traffic circle has always been prone to flooding because it is at the bottom of a hill, and drainage from all directions empties into it, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said this April, around the anniversary of the flood.

Mr. Walter was out of town for a family emergency this week and could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Long Island Housing Partnership reportedly wants to purchase a swath of land off Doctors Path and build 10 affordable homes there, county officials said. About half of those homes would be reserved for Horton Avenue flood victims to purchase if they were interested.

LIHP vice president Diana Weir did not confirm which parcels the organization was pursuing, but said it is searching for a developer. She said the homes would cost less than $300,000.

County officials including Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) and County Executive Steve Levy pushed for the affordable housing plan as an alternative in case the federal money fell through.

“We wanted to have a path forward just in case,” Mr. Romaine said.

Both Mr. Romaine and Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) acknowledged Ms. Hobson and Ms. Coverdale’s efforts in advocating for the victims.

“This is a statement about the value of persistence,” Mr. Bishop said. “And in light of the discussion that is taking place, this is an example of government working.”

Ms. Hobson’s neighbors seconded that notion.

“She’s been there,” said Ivory Brown, a flood victim whose vacant home was burned down by squatters after the storm. “My guardian angel.”

Although the news brings closure for the residents of Horton Avenue, the future is still uncertain for some, like Ms. Trent.

“I got a den and three bedrooms. I don’t want to move into something smaller than I have, but I don’t like living with a lot of water,” she said during a tour of her home, tears filling her eyes. “Maybe I’ll get excited when [my plans are] official.”

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08/01/11 10:14am
08/01/2011 10:14 AM

We began rolling out our list of the area’s greatest athletes of all-time Friday and announced No. 17 today, Keri Bettenhauser of Shoreham-Wading River.

I’ll be honest, I rarely look at the sports section in this or any paper, but it has been fascinating for me to read about the lives of these special sports stars and to learn what makes them great. Almost makes me wish I played sports in high school … almost.

Click here to see the running slide show of the athletes so far and check back every day to see when someone from Riverhead High School cracks the list (hint: you won’t have to wait very long).

I didn’t make it to Music Idol Saturday, but I heard it was a blast. Check out our photographer John Neely’s photos from the event. Samantha Scalfani looks like she is in the zone as she belts out Duffy’s “Mercy.”

I will, however, be at Saturday’s Mardi Gras Festival, taking photos, shooting video and writing a story. After watching HBO’s “Treme” and taking a trip down to New Orleans last fall, I am very excited to hear some soulful Louisiana-style jazz in person.

Check out this video from Treme if you want to get in the mood, though something tells me this Mardi Gras will be slightly tamer than anything you’d find on Bourbon Street.

Some might say the media is a business that focuses on the negative, but we reported on some great news Friday. After a year and a half of fighting, the flood victims of Horton Avenue will be receiving federal funds to purchase their now-inhabitable properties and the area will be preserved as open space.

I have to say nothing in my professional career has made me as happy as seeing the look on flood victim turned community activist Linda Hobson’s face at a press conference the day the news was announced. Linda has been fighting for her neighbors since the storm, doing everything from lobbying politicians to helping fellow victims find housing. No wonder we named her our Person of the Year for 2010!

But it was a bittersweet day for many of the residents, some whom have lived in their homes as long as 50 years.

The money will make them financially whole, but no dollar amount can replace sentimental value.

More on that in Thursday’s News-Review.

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06/27/11 3:13pm
06/27/2011 3:13 PM

VERA CHINESE | Linda Hobson and Marie Trent, two of the 12 Horton Avenue flood victims who are seeking financial restituition for their water-damaged homes. At right is their lawyer, J. Stewart Moore.

A group of Horton Avenue residents have served Riverhead Town and Suffolk County with a lawsuit alleging that the municipalities were negligent in their construction and maintenance of the block.

That negligence led to severe flooding in the area last March, the flood victims contend.

Standing in front of the state Supreme Court building on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead, the group’s attorney J. Stewart Moore of Central Islip said the 12 plaintiffs named in the suit are seeking financial restitution for the value of their flood-damaged properties.

Mr. Moore said the 11 properties referenced in the suit, which was filed in supreme court June 20, range in value from $300,000 to $350,000.

Most of the homeowners affected by the floods are from working-class, African-American families who settled in the neighborhood nearly 100 years ago, he said. The inland and low-lying area, commonly referred to as “the bottoms,” has had persistent problems with flooding over the years.

“These families came here from Virginia and purchased homes [in the 1920s,]” Mr. Moore said. “Many of the families that are here right now have experienced flood after flood after flood. We are asking the municipalities to make them whole.”

Of the 12 severely damaged houses, about half are now uninhabitable due to mold and water damage. The other homeowners say they suffered serious financial loses as well.

“At this point, we are at our wit’s end,” Horton Avenue flood victim and community activist Linda Hobson told reporters outside the courthouse.

The lawsuit, which alleges the town and county did not create proper drainage for rainwater even when it constructed a nearby catch basin, does not seek a specific restitution amount. And additional defendants could be named, Mr. Moore said.

The residents have pooled their money together to retain Mr. Moore’s services.

“I just want to get things over with,” said Horton Avenue resident Marie Trent, who has continued to live in her water-damaged home after the flood. “I want things to be normal.”

Riverhead Town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said he had not yet examined the lawsuit and declined to offer an opinion.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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05/26/11 12:28pm
05/26/2011 12:28 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Ivory Brown outside her burned-to-the-ground Horton Avenue home, which she and her late husband, Reggie, had built. She lived there for 34 years.

Seven months after Ivory Brown and her frail, 90-year-old father escaped unharmed from a flood that destroyed her recently renovated Horton Avenue home, she got a call from one of her neighbors.

There was more bad news.

Squatters living in the vacant, water-damaged home had started a fire and all but burned the building to the ground, the neighbor told her.

“I threw my hands up to God and said ‘take it, it’s yours,’” said the 55-year-old widow, who has continued making the $1,300 monthly mortgage payment since the devastating March 2010 flood and the fire that October.

Like many of her neighbors whose houses on the inland, low-lying block were also destroyed by the flood, Ms. Brown didn’t have flood insurance. But it appears that her house burning down might have been a blessing in disguise, as she was insured for fire damage.

And after many months of negotiating with her insurance company, she now expects a check that will not only pay off the mortgage on the Horton Avenue house but also give her a large down payment to build a new one.

That money will make her the first Horton Avenue flood victim to receive any substantial financial assistance.

But a road paved with insurance and real estate paperwork and government bureaucracy wasn’t easy for Ms. Brown to navigate, as she had to prove she had not received government funds for the flood damage.

“It really started to bother me,” said Linda Hobson, a fellow flood victim turned community activist who advocated on Ms. Brown’s behalf. “I said, ‘Ivy, I’m tired. We have to do something.’”

Ms. Brown said she had considered letting the home go into foreclosure but decided against risking her credit.

“You think about it for a minute, but you can’t at 55,” she said.

She’s been staying with relatives since the flood chased her from her home and has continued working for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services as well as for the Riverhead-based Aid to the Developmentally Disabled.

Ms. Hobson and Ms. Brown credited local Allstate insurance agent Beth Hanlon for helping Ms. Brown through the process, though Ms. Hanlon was out of town this week and could not be interviewed for this story.

Ms. Brown’s patience paid off, she said, when earlier this month, she received a letter from Allstate.

She now hopes to build a new home in an affordable housing development which the nonprofit Long Island Housing Partnership is proposing for displaced Horton Avenue flood victims. The organization has identified several properties in Riverhead Town where it could build, the group’s executive vice president, Diana Weir, told the News-Review earlier this month.

Although the project would be open to all who qualified, preference would be given to about five Horton Avenue families who lost their homes in the March 2010 storm.

Meanwhile, flood victims are awaiting word from the State Office of Emergency Management on a $3.5 million grant for Riverhead Town to purchase the properties, raze the houses and construct wetlands in the area.

If that grant were awarded, Ms. Brown would receive additional money for her uninhabitable property, which she would use to put another dent in her new mortgage, making her monthly payment next to nothing.

And if that day comes, Ms. Brown said she will leave one of her two jobs to spend more time with her four children, six grandchildren and great-grandson.

“That’s my prayer,” she said.

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05/10/11 4:00pm
05/10/2011 4:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Horton Avenue in Riverhead last April 1.

The nonprofit Long Island Housing Partnership is proposing an affordable housing development in Riverhead Town that would set aside new affordable homes for displaced Horton Avenue flood victims.

The organization has identified several properties in town where it could build, said Diana Weir, the group’s executive vice president.

Although the project would be open to all who qualified, preference would be given to about five Horton Avenue families who lost their homes in the March 2010 storm.

“We hope to accommodate them all in one location, so they will still be near their friends and neighbors,” Ms. Weir told the News-Review.
The houses would all be owner-occupied, she said.

Ms. Weir said the housing partnership will seek county affordable housing money to offset land acquisition and infrastructure costs, which would enable it to sell the houses at below-market prices. It’s not known at this point what percentage of those costs would be covered by county money, she said, nor is it known how many houses would be proposed.

It’s hoped that the flood victims will receive state Emergency Management Office grant money to offset the loss of their homes, That money can be used for down payments on houses the Long Island Housing Partnership hopes to build, Ms. Weir said.
The families were displaced after a three-day rainstorm flooded the low-lying Horton Avenue neighborhood last March, leaving some houses under several feet of muddy water for more than a week.

To date, the federal government has ruled out grants for the Horton Avenue flood victims, but the state has not yet made a decision.

Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said he had planned to issue a request for proposals from companies seeking to build housing for the Horton Avenue families. Now that Long Island Housing Partnership has come forward with a plan of its own, however, that the RFP is not necessary.

“It will be the same as if a private landowner was proposing this,” Ms. Weir said.

The housing partnership will also provide things like free mortgage and down payment counseling for prospective homeowners. It would hold a lottery to determine who gets first shot at the homes, Ms. Weir said.

The county approved a bill earlier this year to give victims of natural disasters preference in affordable housing programs, but that law applied only to projects on land given to towns by the county through its 72H program, which gets the land from tax defaults. It was later learned there were no such suitable parcels in Riverhead Town, Mr. Romaine said.

After recognizing this, town and county officials met with Horton Avenue residents in late March, which led to the plan to build houses elsewhere in Riverhead Town. That, in turn, led to the housing partnership’s involvement, Mr. Romaine said.

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04/29/11 2:42pm
04/29/2011 2:42 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | It took more than a week for flood waters on Horton Avenue to subside last spring. About a dozen houses were ruined.

Earlier this year, the county Legislature approved a bill that would have given victims of natural disasters — like the flood victims on Horton Avenue in Riverhead — preference for qualifying for an affordable housing program.

But then county officials realized what little good the bill would do for the displaced Riverhead families.

The measure only applied to land that was given to Riverhead Town by Suffolk County for use in affordable housing through what’s known as a 72H program, according to Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

“And it turns out, there are no 72H properties in Riverhead Town that are suitable for affordable housing,” Mr. Romaine said in an interview Thursday. “So we spent a year, in my view, not really moving forward at all.”

He said there are only a few such properties in town and some are already being rehabbed for other uses, while others are actually in flood zones.

In March 2010, a three-day storm inundated the Horton Avenue neighborhood with muddy brown water, soaking possessions, warping walls and creating a haven for mold in some homes. Residents were denied individual FEMA grants because not enough people in the region were affected to meet federal guidelines. So town, state and county officials had been searching for another permanent solution.

After recognizing the problems with the 72H program, a meeting was held March 25 with town and county officials and Horton Avenue flood victims. At that meeting, it was decided the county would try to work with a nonprofit housing group to buy property on which to build new homes for the Horton Avenue victims using county affordable housing money, which can be used to buy property and build infrastructure, Mr. Romaine said.

“We’re talking about five homes here,” he said. “Let’s contract with a nonprofit housing corporation and give them the money, and get them to buy the land the land and build the infrastructure, such as roads and drainage.

“From there, we would coordinate with Riverhead Town, which would subdivide the land and do the site plan.”

Under the plan, flood victims would then be eligible to buy those properties at a price below market value.

Mr. Romaine said the proposal would only address about five homes and the lots would be no bigger than a quarter acre, which is about what the Horton Avenue lots are.

So a parcel of land that is less than two acres but bigger than an acre and a half is all that would be needed, he said. The town would have to approve a downzoning since there are few areas in town where housing lots as small as a quarter-acre housing are still permitted, he said. And, the five homes would all be built on the same subdivided property so the homeowners would still live near their Horton Avenue neighbors, he said.

“All we need is approximately two acres or less in order to do this,” he said. “It’s not going to cost a lot of money.”

In addition, while the county would have to formally seek proposals from non-profit housing corporations for the job, the Long Island Housing Partnership has offered to do the work for free, Mr. Romaine said.

“I estimate that this should take between 12 and 14 months,” he said.

Mr. Romaine was hoping County Executive Steve Levy would have issued a certificate of necessity to allow the resolution outlining this proposal to be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting, but no such certificate came forward, he said. Representatives of the county executive’s office were present at the March 25 meeting, he said, and the plan at that time was to have the resolution in place for the April 26 meeting.

Without it, the resolution will have to go through the Legislature’s committee process, Mr. Romaine said. It will be discussed by the Legislature’s Labor, Workforce and Affordable Housing Committee next Thursday in Hauppauge, and barring revisions, should be on the full Legislature’s agenda on May 10, Mr. Romaine said.

“But if it gets hung up in committee and people have questions or make revisions, it could take longer,” he said.

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04/26/11 4:16pm
04/26/2011 4:16 PM

Although Riverhead Town was denied a $3.6 million grant from the federal government to purchase properties on flood-ravaged Horton Avenue earlier this month, officials say they are hopeful a similar grant from the state will come through.

Last year, the town applied for hazard mitigation assistance from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Office of Emergency Management.

The state money, if awarded, would be used to purchase the parcels, demolish the now uninhabitable houses and turn the land into constructed wetlands.

About a dozen families were left homeless last March after a three-day storm dumped about nine inches of rain on the region and flooded the low-lying block for weeks.

Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller, who filed both applications on behalf of the town, said the town expects to have a much better chance of receiving aid from the state.

“If you think about all the disasters nationwide, I think we have a better chance statewide,” he said. “That’s my assumption.”
Chief Hegermiller said state officials toured the area earlier this month. The town expects to hear from the state sometime in May.

Jon Schneider, an aide to Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), said his office was not surprised to learn the federal agency had denied the town.

“It was something worth applying for under the age-old maxim, you don’t apply, you don’t get,” he said.

He said Mr. Bishop had met recently with state and federal officials who indicated that Horton Avenue was the number one priority for aid in New York State.

“We remain very encouraged that this project will be selected,” Mr. Schneider said.

Linda Hobson, a Horton Avenue flood victim turned community activist, said if aid does not come from from the state she and her neighbors would consider a lawsuit against the town.

“Hopefully the state part comes through or we will have to move forward  with a contingency plan,” said Ms. Hobson, a social worker whose house was destroyed in the flood.

She stressed that a lawsuit would be a last resort.

“When you have people who have lost everything, that’s what they will do,” she said.

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03/30/11 9:55am
03/30/2011 9:55 AM

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | FEMA officials tour Horton Avenue last year.

Almost exactly one year after the severe flooding on Horton Avenue in Riverhead, Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he is cautiously optimistic that flood victims could see federal financial assistance in the near future.

Mr. Bishop met with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last Thursday to stress the immediate need for disaster mitigation money — funds that would be used to purchase flood-prone parcels ­— as about a half-dozen families remain displaced.

“I think the chances of getting help or relief are pretty good,” he told the News-Review this week. “I told them my number one priority for [assistance for] Suffolk County has got to be Horton Avenue.”

In March 2010, a three-day storm inundated the Horton Avenue neighborhood with muddy brown water, soaking possessions, warping walls and creating a haven for mold in some homes. Residents were denied individual FEMA grants because not enough people in the region were affected to meet federal guidelines. So town, state and county officials had been searching for another permanent solution.

Realizing there is no way to prevent another such occurrence, Riverhead Town and Suffolk County submitted a joint grant application last year to FEMA’s competitive Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program. If awarded, the $3.6 million grant would be used to purchase the flood-ravaged properties at the market value before the destruction and return those parcels to swampland.

In February, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined Mr. Bishop in penning a letter to the head of FEMA, urging that his agency consider granting money to help Riverhead Town.

“Although the most recent disaster occurred in March 2010, serious surface flooding has occurred in 1994, 2004, 2005 and 2007,” the letter states. “The community has been grappling with the ramifications, including loss of property, structural damage and mold that has made some houses uninhabitable.”

Mr. Bishop said he expects FEMA to make a decision by the end of April.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller has said that money would be used to purchase between nine and 12 properties, some of which are still occupied.

The town has struggled for decades to protect the low-lying neighborhood. That effort has included a project in which 27 homes that lined the west side of Horton Avenue, near the foot of the natural bowl, were demolished or moved to higher ground between 1978 and 1986.

In the meantime, the Suffolk County Legislature has passed a bill giving victims of natural disasters like the one on Horton Avenue preference in the county’s affordable housing program. County officials are also in talks with the non-profit  Long Island Housing to select parcels for county subsidized properties for victims, county officials said this week.

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