More than 200 seething Forest Hills residents were told by city officials last Thursday that they are very likely on their own for the foreseeable future when heavy rains cause flooding and sewage backups into their homes and businesses.
Representatives of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection told the crowd at the Jewish Center of Forest Hills that:
• the existing stormwater sewer lines handle up to 1.5 inches of rain per hour, just as they were designed to do when they were installed prior to 1960;
• there are no plans to replace those lines, since they function as designed; and,
• people must file claims for damages from sewer backups with the Comptroller’s Office.
A representative of Comptroller John Liu’s office said:
• if the sewer system is operating as designed, then the city is not likely liable for damages; and,
• people whose claims are denied always have the option of hiring a lawyer and taking the city to court.
The neighborhood in question is bordered roughly by Metropolitan Avenue to the south, followd clockwise by Woodhaven Boulevard, Yellowstone Avenue, Austin Street and Ascan Avenue.
The city’s answers elicited shouting and boos from an already restive crowd at the town hall meeting, organized by Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills).
“It seems that officially there is no hope,” said Joseph Fox, president of the Jewish Center and a resident of the affected area.
Edward Coleman of the DEP said the 1.5 inches of rain per hour standard was considered a three-year storm back when they were installed prior to 1960. After 1960 systems were designed to handle 1.75 inches per hour.
The problem in Forest Hills comes when there is a higher rate of rain, such as happened back in Aug. 2007, and on Aug. 1 and 15 of this year.
Coleman said the stormwater system gets overwhelmed and causes a backup where it combines with the sanitary sewer system.
Overwhelmed catch basins can flood streets and basements, while an overwhelmed combined system can force a combination of storm water and sewage to back up through people’s drains at levels ranging from a few inches to several feet.
Coleman and Mark Lanaghan of the DEP said unless pipes or drains are blocked, the system still works as it is designed at 1.5 inches per hour.
And Coleman said information on rainfall can be tricky. He said, for example, that in the recent storms of Aug. 1 and 15, the majority of complaints for each one came from different sides of Austin Street. He also said while they had radar images of both storms, neither left significant rain at Kennedy or LaGuardia airports, where weather officials take official measurements.
But residents, some of whom have lost two cars and suffered thousands of dollars worth of damage to their homes and belongings, said Thursday that the system, for whatever reason, does not work.
Richie Taub of Selfridge Street had a difficult time believing the problems were news to the DEP. He said he was told by both city engineers and a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at a nearly identical meeting that the capacity of the stormwater system was inadequate .
“That was back in 2007,” he said.
John O’Connell, who lives in an apartment building on 68th Avenue, said repeated flooding has destroyed the elevators, floors in first-floor apartments and numerous cars.
“You can see the water flowing like a river from Woodhaven Boulevard,” he said.
Yellowstone Boulevardresident Ron Green said he has taken to stuffing his toilet and drains with towels to prepare for rainstorms.
“If I’m driving home from work during a bad storm, I know I’m going to be flooded,” he said to the DEP representatives. “You can’t have [sewage] shooting up into your home four or five times a year.”
David Alkalay has had a yoga and health business on either side of Metropolitan Avenue for 16 years, the last three in the basement of 102-06 Metropolitan.
“We were flooded once in the last place,” he said. “We’ve been flooded three times in the last two years here.”
He already has removed the sheetrock and insulation 18 inches above the floor from just about every room the entire business.
“Everything smelled like sewage,” he said. “My insurance company paid the first two times but they’re hesitating on this one.” Full repairs could cost $80,000.
Other residents said the health issues from mold and bacteria have them worried. Lanaghan said there is no single construction improvement that can be made.
“What do you want the capacity to be?” he asked. “Replacing the system will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take dozens of years.”
Most eventually just became frustrated by the DEP’s repeated insistence that the system is working as designed, and the lack of suggestions for dealing with the flooding now and eliminating it in the long term.
“They’re going around in circles,” said one resident who requested anonymity. “They’re not telling us anything.”
While Koslowitz appreciated that the DEP representatives appeared before a somewhat hostile crowd, she said their answers were unsatisfactory.
“I’m very disappointed in the response,” Koslowitz said. “‘Tough!’ That’s what they’re saying to residents. How many times can people repair things?”
Koslowitz said she would meet with her colleagues on the council and people in the administration to see what if any legislative remedies are available.
One, she said, could address the DEP’s practice of cleaning storm drains every three years.
“Should it be more in some areas?” she asked. She also spoke of involving FEMA again.