Storm’s long-term environmental effects may hit hard

05/06/2010 12:00 AM |

Elected leaders and staff from First Baptist Church of Riverhead wait in the rain to start a press conference Monday morning on Horton Avenue, where several homes remain surrounded by flood waters. The group is trying to pressure the state to reassess damages from the late-March rainstorm.

Suspecting that the massive rainstorm that swept across eastern Suffolk County in late March caused more damage than has been reported, local officials are looking for ways to get federal funds to help with the clean-up and repairs.

They’re also hoping the Feds will help pay for a long-term solution for flooding on and near Horton Avenue in Riverhead, the epicenter of storm damage where 11 inundated houses remain uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, there is rising concern that the flooding is having a mounting impact on the health of the entire Peconic Bay system, as excess groundwater polluted with nitrogen and other chemicals from lawns and roads leaches into the bays and creeks.

Representatives of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead and local officials gathered Monday on Horton Avenue to draw attention to the plight of residents there, and to urge renters and homeowners elsewhere to report property damage.

“We really want to spread the word to others about this devastation,” said the Rev. Charles Coverdale, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

Ted Fisch, the regional director of the State Emergency Management Office (SEMO), said at the meeting that his agency could re-evaluate whether or not the region warrants an application for federal emergency aid if enough people come forward to report losses.

Governor David Paterson last month balked at asking President Obama to declare the region a disaster area because the damage estimates didn’t meet FEMA guidelines. Instead, he asked the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans available to flood victims, which the agency agreed to do.

But many local renters and homeowners live on fixed incomes and have said they would not qualify for the loans.

“Low-interest loans are not going to cut it,” county Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), whose district encompasses the North Fork, said at the meeting.

Shirley Coverdale, wife of Pastor Coverdale, said that FEMA has made special exceptions for low-income areas, and those with an elderly population, both of which factors apply in the Horton Avenue neighborhood, she added.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller added that the town plans to make an application to FEMA for a competitive grant to fund a permanent solution to flooding problems at Horton Avenue, such as moving houses there to higher ground and creating a large drainage sump nearby.

The area needs “a long-term solution for repetitive damage,” he said.

Chief Hegermiller urged all those in Suffolk County whose homes were damaged by the March rains to contact their town supervisor’s office.

To encourage people to report flood damage, the Long Island Organizing Network will be hosting a meeting at the First Baptist Church of Riverhead May 8 at 9 a.m. People can publicly state the damage they suffered or observed after the storm so officials can get an even better handle on the devastation.

Ms. Coverdale said that, although Horton Avenue residents suffered the worst damage, there were people across the East End who lost their oil burners and many possessions due to flooded basements. And the resulting high water-table, which she said will likely be polluted with chemicals from roads, farms and septic tanks, is only going to compound the damage.

“People, a month after this happened, are still pumping out all over the place,” Ms. Coverdale said.

She and others believe the environmental impacts to groundwater and the bays and Long Island Sound could be enormous, and they fear a massive mosquito problem in the months ahead.

Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, head of a nonprofit organization of the same name, which advocates for the health of the Peconic Bay and South Shore estuaries, agreed. Mr. McAllister said the flood waters that are being pumped into storm drains could have high levels of nitrogen, which could trigger harmful algal blooms in the bays.

“With the flooding, you have a likelihood that the septic systems are immersed in water,” Mr. McAllister said, adding that the groundwater could be contaminated with bacteria. “It’s something that we really need to be thoughtful about.”

He added that the water that has been pumped from areas such as Manor Lane in Jamesport into Peconic Bay most likely also contains oil and other contaminants from the road.

“That’s not a good thing for the receiving waters,” he said.

Martin Trent of the county Office of Ecology said that while public drinking water should be safe, the flooding could have contaminated private wells.

“That could be an immediate health issue,” he said.

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Benefit for Flood Victims

The Riverhead Republican Club will host a fundraising dinner on May 10 to benefit residents whose homes were damaged by last month’s flooding.

The dinner will be at 7 p.m. at Martha Clara Vineyard on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. The cost is $50 per person and checks can be mailed to the Riverhead Republican Club, P.O. Box 1246, Riverhead, NY 11901. Gold, silver, bronze and honorable mention sponsorships are also available for $1,000, $500, $250 and $150, respectively. All proceeds will benefit the First Baptist Church of Riverhead Horton Avenue Flood Fund.