Horton Avenue residents need FEMA

On Monday, March 29, and Tuesday, March 30, Riverhead received almost nine inches of torrential rain in 26 hours, causing many areas within the town to flood. The neighborhood known as Horton Avenue received the most damage from the floodwaters, which primarily ran down from the higher elevations of farmland to the lower areas inhabited by people on Horton and Osborn avenues. The damage sustained by Horton Avenue was the worst in the entire Northeast corridor, according to officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who saw the destruction firsthand.

On Monday, April 5, FEMA personnel came to assess the damage to approximately 15 homes, 11 of which still remain uninhabitable, on Horton Avenue. Despite the overwhelming agreement of the FEMA team during their evaluation that the devastation was the worst in the entire Northeast and the worst they had seen since Hurricane Katrina, the residents of Horton Avenue have not yet received a decision on FEMA aid because the governor has not asked for a disaster declaration. According to officials, the number of affected dwellings in the Suffolk County area is fewer than one hundred.

In view of the following facts, we believe that both the extent and dollar value of the damages to individual properties in Suffolk County must be reassessed:

* Suffolk County was hit by a cyclone, along with parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, according to a National Weather Service report titled “New England Record Maker Rain Event of 29-30 March 2010.” Data in the report clearly show our area was in the storm’s epicenter.

* Given the fact that Governor Paterson has yet to request FEMA aid, we have been told that remedies must be sought from the local level up.

* Although FEMA assessed a small area of severe devastation in Riverhead, there is also damage in other areas of Long Island stretching from Nassau County all the way to the tips of both the North and South forks. Every day we learn of new cases that have not been assessed or documented, including our library, a local duck farm and numerous cases in other towns.

* We are still in the process of collecting data. Given the closeness of Long Island’s groundwater to the surface, we expect to find additional incidents as well as worsening conditions in incidents already reported; there are serious environmental as well as public health impacts that are inevitable. (Most of the neighborhoods on the East End are located out of a municipal sewer district; septic systems have been subjected to the repeated tides of swelling and receding groundwater.)

* The National Weather Service has published data that show the worst damage wrought by the storm crossed waterways and state boundaries, cutting a swath of devastation that included eastern Long Island, parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The latter two states were given the Federal disaster designation, but we were not, even though we are shown clearly by the data to have been in the storm’s epicenter. Certainly FEMA regulations should take into account that natural disasters don’t observe territorial boundaries.

* The storm that occurred earlier in March wreaked havoc in both Nassau and Suffolk counties and earned a federal disaster designation. The truth is that the earlier event caused less devastation and, according to the National Weather Service, should be linked to the later event as it saturated the ground and swelled our already high water table, making the results of the later storm predictable.

* According to Suffolk County Emergency Management authorities, with whom we met on April 30, FEMA will accept additional damage reports and add them to their original assessment. They agreed that the storm damage has been woefully underestimated.

* People’s ability to get to and from work has been affected as numerous vehicles were completely ruined, exacerbating the already serious pressure on the jobs available to Long Island’s residents.

* The run-off that left our neighborhoods under 6 to 8 feet of water for 11 days contained contaminants including fertilizer, oil and pesticides.

* More than one month after the storm, people are still pumping water out of their basements and homes, as well as their businesses and farms. The water is not receding. After it is pumped out, people are forced to pump again as the groundwater ebbs and flows.

* Recently built catch basins and underground drainage have proven to be inadequate for the torrential storm that occurred. Older catch basins haven’t been maintained and were nonfunctional in many neighborhoods.

Many of the hard-working people in Long Island have spent their lives working to share in the American Dream. Now that their homes are paid for and they are older, how are they supposed to start over? According to reliable sources, FEMA aid has not been denied since a request hasn’t even been submitted. That is an outrageous posture on the part of public agencies. This is simply unacceptable and unfair. The problems have been known. Remedial action was attempted previously. Now residents of Riverhead and other areas of Long Island are expected to bear the cost of low-interest federal loans when most of those affected are homeless and trying not to become unemployed as well.

We are also urging the public to join us for an open dialogue on May 8, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The meeting will be held at the First Baptist Church of Riverhead. It will be attended by elected officials and is sponsored by the Long Island Organizing Network (LION). There is no charge for the meeting and light refreshments will be served.

Ms. Coverdale runs the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, along with her husband, the Rev. Charles Coverdale, the pastor there. Ms. Hobson is a Horton Avenue flood victim who has been serving as a liaison between the community and elected leaders.