Pols seek FEMA funds; town mulls long-term fixes for Horton Avenue

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO Esaw Langhorne outside one of the flooded rental homes he owns on Horton Avenue Tuesday as he waits for town building inspectors to arrive. He sold a home he owned on the block in the 1980s to Riverhead Town for $7,000. The town demolished it and other homes in the flood-prone neighborhood.

A handful of homes on Horton Avenue in Riverhead was still surrounded by flood waters Wednesday, more than a week after a monster storm dumped upwards of eight inches of rain on the region.

Those able to return to their soggy homes after being forced to evacuate found carpets soaked, interior walls buckled and possessions either washed away or tossed upside down.

Several basements on Horton and Osborn avenues — a close-knit neighborhood that has since taken on the odor of a stagnant bay in August — remained inundated. But even on the somewhat drier first and second floors there was an overwhelming smell of mold and mildew and, in some cases, rotting food left behind as the waters rose and residents scrambled to safety.

“Lucky it wasn’t a hurricane; there could be a couple of people dead around here,” said one resident who struggled to understand how such a mess could occur after decades of effort by the town to protect the flood-prone 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 from 1978 to 1986.

And in 2007, the town completed a nearly $600,000 project that resulted in the installation of a traffic circle where Horton and Osborn avenues now meet. The more recent project called for the digging of a catch basin south of the traffic circle and the installing of a culvert that runs from a basin dug in the 1980s — after the homes were removed — to the new basin. Both basins overflowed in last week’s storm.

Although many residents believe the work that wrapped up in 2007 only compounded the problem, town engineer Ken Testa said the flooding could have been worse had it not been for the new drainage system.

“The frequency of flooding has been reduced since those modifications were made,” he said, also noting that the primary reason for the more recent project was not flooding but traffic accidents.

“What everybody just saw is not likely to happen down there again in a long time,” said Mr. Testa. “It was a fluke rain event that followed other rain events. It was pretty much the worst-case scenario.”

While it was clear that much of the water, which was brown in color, likely rushed in from surrounding farmland, Mr. Testa said groundwater contributes greatly to the area’s long-standing flood problems.

“Unless you raise the whole area up higher than groundwater, you’re probably not going to be able to alleviate the flooding,” he said. “It would probably be cheaper to move the homes.”

That’s something the Town Board is examining.

Aside from looking at ways to facilitate more catch basins on farms, Riverhead’s elected leaders will be exploring the possibility of relocating homes and families — provided the town can secure federal funding — to prevent such devastation from recurring, officials said.

“I think that everybody’s optimistic that we’re going to get people back into their homes; that’s the goal right now,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said this week.

Still, Mr. Walter said, the town will look to see whether more drainage is necessary and, if so, whether homes would have to be moved to make way for an expanded system.

Town building department personnel were in the process of inspecting homes Tuesday, while restoring power to some, as the storm waters receded thanks to dry weather and pumps from the highway department and county Department of Public Works.

Thirteen families were displaced in the flood, Mr. Walter said.

Meanwhile, elected leaders, including Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and state Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham), have been appealing to Albany and Washington for help. Several press conferences were held at the Riverhead flooding site within the last week.

Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel toured the neighborhood Monday before heading to other areas of Suffolk also hammered by recent storms. State and town inspectors are compiling additional information on the devastation, which would ultimately be turned over to FEMA if Governor David Paterson asks President Barack Obama to declare Riverhead Town a disaster area. Those reports are expected to reach Albany on Friday.

If a disaster declaration is made, the town would be eligible for reimbursement of overtime and other expenses. Affected residents could qualify for low- or no-interest loans to help them repair damage to their homes that isn’t covered by insurance, or even rental assistance or recovery grants, authorities said.

What still isn’t clear is whether the town as a whole would be declared a disaster area, or just the one neighborhood. The storm, combined with previous wet weather, contributed to higher water tables that flooded roads and basements throughout Riverhead Town. Those problems persisted this week as well.

Phone calls have been pouring into Town Hall from all over town, officials there said.

“The flood waters just stopped coming in yesterday,” Gayle Wagner said of her home’s basement on Kings Drive in Riverhead Monday. “I’ve been pumping since last Tuesday. I really need to know what’s going on and don’t know where to turn.

“What I read on the FEMA Web site is that we shouldn’t even touch anything that’s down there,” Ms. Wagner continued. “The smell is really rank and we have all the windows open and we have fans running.”

Flooded basements also were reported in Aquebogue, Wading River, Jamesport and South Jamesport, as well as across the bay in Flanders, which is in Southampton Town.

“One of the issues is the water table,” said town Highway Superintendent George “Gio” Woodson, whose crews had been working around the clock to handle the flooding since last week, even rescuing Horton Avenue residents with a payloader last Tuesday when water reached first-floor windows there. “I think we’re to the point now where all the pumping we’re doing is not working, because all we’re doing is pumping groundwater. It may just be making things worse.”

During their Monday visit to Horton Avenue, FEMA officials warned residents to beware of bacteria-laden water that may be developing in the huge puddle around their homes.

The water likely contains sewage from swelled cesspools, as well as home heating oil from tanks that were tipped over, officials said. Fuel spills forced state Department of Environmental Conservation staffers and contractors to stage cleanup operations at the site last week.

“The DEC contractor consolidated oil-coated material, branches and other debris, which was taken off-site,” said DEC spokesman Bill Fonda, adding that workers are still working to identify contaminated soil.

“No soil samples have been taken as of yet,” Mr. Fonda said. Spills were likely generated by three tipped storage tanks, which typically hold 250 gallons of fuel each, he said.

Around-the-clock pumping, which started last Tuesday night and ran through Sunday, directed water from Horton and Osborn avenues to the nearby highway department yard and a farm field to the west, officials said. During that time, the DEC was monitoring the discharge points to make sure no pollutants were being released, Mr. Fonda said.

As for additional help from Riverhead Town with cleanup on the two devastated blocks, Mr. Walter said town workers would assist in pumping basements when the water recedes.

“Those people are in very special circumstances,” he said, explaining why others in town would not be offered the same services.

Many in the neighborhood remained skeptical of potential government help, insisting that the impending struggle to piece their lives back together will soon be forgotten by elected leaders.

“You hear a lot of talk. When you see some action, that would be another story,” said 71-year-old Sherman Trent, who was forced to flee his home last Tuesday and has since been living with a cousin.

Asked what he thought about the possibility of having to leave his home permanently, he said, “I guess I’ll weigh my options.”

Esaw Langhorne, a 70-year-old man who owned a home that was condemned and demolished during the 1980s, said moving families should be last resort.

“They don’t have no money to relocate; can’t even find a job right now,” the Virginia native said Tuesday as he inspected his severely damaged rental trailer on another of his properties.

“I don’t have faith in nothing the government do.”

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Staff writers Tim Gannon and Vera Chinese contributed reporting to this article.