They have gone through years of damaged homes, destroyed possessions and tens of thousands of dollars in costs that may never be recoverable.
Now there’s a Category 5 storm brewing up in Southeast Queens, and both elected officials and residents in and around Jamaica vow that the Department of Environmental Protection has placed itself squarely in its path for landfall on March 22.
That is when residents, sick of flooding in the area since 1997 and the DEP’s apparent refusal to help, are hoping to stage a massive rally outside the agency’s Corona offices.
More than 100 residents turned up on Feb. 28 at York College in Jamaica for a meeting that state Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Jamaica) termed a call to action.
“The DEP knows what is happening; they’ve told us what is happening,” Scarborough said. “Now they are telling us it is not their responsibility.”
At issue are wells that the city acquired when it purchased Jamaica Water Supply in 1996. JWS had been the last private water company remaining in the city.
The utility provided water service to the Southeast Queens region, pumping tens of millions of gallons of groundwater per day.
Jamaica, like the rest of the city, now is served by reservoirs upstate, and the DEP eventually shut down all local pumping operations.
But that led to a rise in an already-high water table. “The DEP told us the water table has risen 35 feet between 2001 and 2007,” Scarborough said. “That was six years ago. Today’s level? They’re not telling us that part. That’s critical.”
Now even minimal rain causes flooding from a few inches to several feet in some neighborhoods when the higher water table means rain has nowhere to go.
Donovan May of Rosedale was typical of residents who spoke of damage to their homes, property and financial loss, and the effects on their health.
“There are three dummy catch basins near my home,” May said. “Water comes down into my garage and into my house. I can’t keep my kids in my home. They’re sick! I have to rent a place for them to live. What is the sense in buying a home in Rosedale?”
Kenneth Gushway has lived in South Jamaica for five years, and said he has had at least three serious floods in that time
He did say that Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica) has been successful in leveraging some storm sewer and drainage improvements in the area.
“But sometimes that system has the ability to be overwhelmed,” he said.
Angela Green, principal of IS 8 on 167th Street in South Jamaica, spoke with two of her students about the numerous health problems students and faculty members believe may be attributable to chronic flooding of the school’s basement in the past.
What frustrates Scarborough as much as anything is that the DEP does eventually plan to resume pumping — in 2018, when one of the main tunnels bringing water in from upstate is temporarily shut down.
“They are willing to pump out those wells when they are going to need the water,” the assemblyman said. “But they’re not going to pump when we need it to resolve our problem. ... They tell us it is not their responsibility.”
A spokesman for the DEP on Monday confirmed both portions of the assemblyman’s statement, saying that the old Jamaica wells are being considered for use when the upstate Delaware water tunnel is shut down for maintenance in 2018.
“The DEP’s mission is to provide high-quality drinking water to the entire city and to handle storm runoff,” the spokesman said “We are responsible for runoff when it rains, because 73 percent of the city is impermeable ... But groundwater is not a part of that.”
He said further that the agency must get permission from the state for all pumping operations of any kind.
The spokesman could not comment on some of the speakers’ contentions, but he did say that residents of the area were the first ones to ask to go onto the regular city water system because of its higher quality than that in the Jamaica wells at the time.
He said the DEP is spending about $100 million to test and monitor the more than 60 wells to see what would have to be done to bring them up to standard by 2018.
He also said that a large part of the flooding problem in Southeast Queens is a lack of sewer and stormwater infrastructure, a shortcoming that he said the DEP recognizes and takes very seriously.
“We have spent about $1.5 billion on sewer systems in the last 10 years, and we will be spending about $1 billion more in the next 10,” he said. Storm sewers in Springfield Gardens are among the more than 200 projects either underway or in the planning stages. Queens will receive more than 20 percent of the money spent throughout the entire city in that time.
Scarborough laid responsibility at the top of the administration, pointing out that DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland Jr. was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg.
Myriad community organizations were in attendance, as were other elected officials from state and city government. Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson spoke to the crowd, as did representatives of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and Comptroller John Liu. Liu is an all-but-certain candidate for mayor, and Quinn, though not formally declared, is considered the frontrunner.
Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) who are each running for borough president, also were in attendance.
Speakers outlined courses of action that they hope will force the DEP’s hand.
Scarborough has written a bill, A5141, which would require any city of 1 million or more residents — New York City is the only one in the state — to use its infrastructure to alleviate an environmental crisis because it has contributed to the crisis through an act of omission; and it has the infrastructure available to alleviate the crisis.
He said state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) is introducing a companion bill in the Senate. Petitions supporting the bill were circulated at the meeting.
Numerous officials and community leaders also urged residents to bring as many friends and neighbors as they can to the rally planned for 10 a.m. on March 22 at the DEP’s customer service center at 59-17 Junction Blvd. in Corona, at the intersection with the Horace Harding Expressway.
Donovan Richards, who one day earlier was declared the winner in the special election for the 31st City Council District, said residents must attend the rally, sign petitions and send emails supporting the legislation to Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and leaders in the state Senate.
“We can’t be fair ladies and fair gentlemen any more,” Richards said. “We have to stand up to the DEP. Our families can’t continue to live this way.”
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) said Richards will be on the Environmental Committee. He said residents must be prepared to go all out in the coming weeks and months.
Leroy Gadsden, president of the Greater Jamaica branch of the NAACP, said the city has failed to act. “Owning a home is the American dream,” he said. “It gave you something of your own, something you could pass down to your children. ... We are being preyed upon,” he said.
Adrienne Adams, chairwoman of Community Board 12, pointed out the stark contrast that recently manifested itself at a hearing before Borough President Helen Marshall during which community boards asked for money from a projected discretionary budget.
“I still can’t believe the things we have yet to get year after year,” Adams said. “Other community boards were asking for curbs to be raised, and skylights for buildings. But we’re still asking for flooding intervention and infrastructure. It broke my heart.”
Wills agreed with Gadsden and Adams.
“You all pay your taxes, and they make sure you pay them on time,” Wills said. “It’s not enough to go to a meeting. You need to support the bills. Attend the rally and bring friends. Don’t get battle fatigue now. You’ve been dealing with this for years.”
The DEP spokesman said the agency is funded through rates and not city taxes.
Thompson and the representatives for Quinn and Liu called the situation unacceptable.
Scarborough and Bryan Block, chairman of Community Board 13, said this year’s mayoral election looms large in their effort.
“Take note of who came out here tonight,” Block said. “No one can become mayor without carrying Southeast Queens. ... The one question you need to ask of every candidate for mayor who comes here is what they intend to do about the flooding. If they can’t answer that question, you don’t need to talk to them anymore.”
Scarborough said another function of the election is a hard and fast deadline — that no matter who wins, the current administration, its commissioners, and many of the people in city government who have been attempting to work on the problem could be swept out.
“We have to get this done in the next few months, or else we might have to start all over again,” he warned.