On the eve of Tuesday’s primary elections, the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield Gardens was the site of a tense town hall meeting as frustrated southeastern Queens residents, still suffering from widespread flooding that followed a torrential rainstorm on Aug. 22, sought explanations and assistance.
Convened at the urging of city Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), the meeting was attended by representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Office of Emergency Management, the Department of Sanitation, the Office of the Comptroller and the American Red Cross.
DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway took the lead in explaining what went wrong with the area’s sewer and drainage system three weeks ago; echoing the thoughts of city officials in a Sept. 1 meeting with flood victims, he assigned primary blame to “catch basins matted with leaves and other debris,” noting that “if they had been cleared, the sewer underneath, given its capacity, could have easily handled the 0.88 inches of rain that fell in just twenty minutes.”
Holloway also acknowledged that city workers might have unwisely removed a few manhole covers in an attempt to control the flooding, causing sewer water to back up into some residents’ basements.
Sanders listened patiently as Holloway recapped the disaster and offered possible solutions, which included the DEP working more closely with the DOS to keep the catch basins’ grates unblocked, redesigning any catch basins deemed structurally ineffective and adding Springfield Gardens to the list of neighborhoods covered by the OEM’s flash flood activation plan.
After Holloway finished, however, Sanders, perhaps sensing the dissatisfaction in the room, morphed from affable politician into tough interlocutor, pointedly asking all of the gathered officials the one question seemingly on every resident’s mind: “How do we get our money back?”
John Graham, from the Office of the Comptroller, apparently responding as best he could, called the crowd’s attention to the stack of claims forms at the back of the auditorium and reminded them of the 90-day filing deadline.
“You will be compensated, if the city is liable for any damage,” Graham said.
Most of those gathered were longtime southeastern Queens residents who knew the drill, having endured more than one water-logged basement in their time. During her 16 years in Springfield Gardens, for example, Cora Genus recalled three floods, including a terrifying one in 1996, when four inches of rain came down in only a few hours, quickly turning streets into rivers. And Cecil Irvin, sadly a flood meeting regular, estimated that in his 40 years living in Springfield Gardens, he had experienced “12 to 15 floods.”
After the representatives from the assembled agencies gave their presentations and made their promises to help, it was the residents turn to have their say. At a microphone positioned in the center of the room, they faced the city officials and recounted similar tales of water rushing in through their basement windows and doors like a tidal wave, damaging or destroying everything in its path. Almost all of them would be going home that night to houses that smelled of mildew, raw sewage, or both.
Taking his turn at the microphone, Philip Nicklette of Springfield Gardens raised another dire concern, observing that “when people are ready to sell their homes, they will get nothing, because, thanks to the flooding, their foundations are garbage.”
As the hour grew later and the residents became angrier, a couple even storming away from the microphone in disgust, only Sanders’ good-natured pugnaciousness — especially his pledge “to fight whoever needs to be fought” — seemed to keep tempers in check.
But, by the end of the town hall meeting, few residents felt that another one of Councilman Sanders’ pointed questions had been answered adequately: “What are we going to do different?”
Flood victims in need of help are encouraged to contact the American Red Cross at 1 (877) RED-CROSS (733-2767).