Debbie Gianopoulos awoke Tuesday morning to find her Subaru Impreza wholly useless. It was the third car she’s lost to a freak accident. This time, it was squished like a bug under the hulking mass of a tree on 194th Street at 42nd Avenue. She wasn’t surprised. She had warned the city about the tree.
It had been struck by lightning, shed branches and generally spent most of its time rotting from the inside during the 26 years Gianopoulos stared at it from her front window.
“We’ve put in complaint and complaint and they’ve never done anything about it,” she said.
While the stump-end of the tree rested on her car, its opposite end sat precariously atop another tree’s branch across the street. The weight began splitting the second stump in the middle. It leaned closer and closer to Bill Daley’s home every hour, creating what he feared would become a domino effect of arboreal destruction.
“I can’t stress how dangerous this is,” Daley said, while asking who else he can turn to after calling 311. At times angry while also trying to keep some vitriol at bay, Gianopolous and Daley echoed many around Northeast Queens the day after a rough visit from a cruel mistress named Sandy.
It could have been worse, many said. But that doesn’t make the city’s response acceptable.
As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city, the tempest of howling winds and battering rains felt all too familiar to the residents of Queens’ northeastern quadrant — for good reason.
A microburst plowed through a chunk of the Northeast Queens in 2010, followed by a tornado that shred through Central Queens and Flushing. Almost a year after the resulting felled trees and downed power lines were fixed, Hurricane Irene wreaked her own variety of havoc with gusting winds and soaking rains, causing massive flooding.
It’s easy to see why many residents admitted to simply thinking, “Here we go again.”
They also came to expect an oddly slow, some called it “meticulous,” response by the city. No, power would not be restored quickly. Yes, downed trees might stick around for a while.
In the aftermath, as thousands lost homes and entire enclaves were wiped off the borough’s map, a dose of perspective and experience tempered a lot of reactions to the storm and the city’s response.
Hey, they’ve been through it already. It could’ve been worse.
Yet some felt complaining about the same problems caused by three different meteorological freak storms in successive years was a sign of lessons left unlearned.
Hurricane Sandy presented a hybrid of Northeast Queens’ past experiences: pounding winds gusting up to 90 mph; driving rains and the odd distinction of melding with two other weather systems to create a beast of a storm.
Nobody in Flushing, College Point, Whitestone, Bayside or Fresh Meadows was within Zone A’s mandatory evacuation area. Many hunkered down and rode it out. Those interviewed after the storm did not admit to being complacent, just a bit jaded.
As Sandy dissipated northwest Tuesday morning, the borough’s losses north of the Belt Parkway seemed minor in comparison to the destruction on the television: about 4,000 trees borough-wide, thousands without power, and only one fatality in the over 50 attributed to the storm.
That death occurred when a tree came crashing down onto 47-36 166 St. in Flushing, crushing 30-year-old St. John’s University grad and husband-to-be Anthony Laino.
Despite the tragedy, many within the community approached the day after Sandy with some malaise, some gumption, and a lot of perspective.
“I think people have been understanding. That would be the right word,” said Community Board 7 District Manager Marilyn Bitterman. “You see what’s going on in board 7 and in Lower Manhattan and the Rockaways and I’d say we’re lucky.”
Neighboring Community Board 11 was a little worse for wear. Power was out at its offices until Tuesday, according to District Manager Susan Seinfeld, adding most residents have kept prolonged complaining to a minimum.
“It’s terrible for people that lost a car or a house, but compared to some of the things that happened elsewhere?” she said.
Yet that same conciliatory tone was not echoed by Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who spent most of the last few days and nights personally surveying the extent of the damage himself.
His councilmanic district had about 700 to 800 trees down, with anywhere between 6,000 and 7,5000 families without power, he said. Some face the prospect of up to a week without power, with the borough’s only dry ice station located miles away in Howard Beach. Mix in long lines at the pump and stores staying closed until their power is back on, and you have the makings of a true crisis, Halloran said.
“This is the third storm in three years where this district has gotten hit hard,” he said. “This quadrant has gotten pummeled three times in a row.”
Had the city invested funds in preventative measures that would mitigate the effect of big storms, it wouldn’t be spending an incalculable amount to return things to their initial state, he said.
“We need to start doing a better job of managing our coastal areas. The millions of dollars that is going to be spent in each community just on the waterfront areas to return them to their original state could have been better spent on a coastal erosion plan.”
In his district specifically, Halloran wants Con Edison to switch the electrical grid to an underground system, so trees would not take out power lines any longer.
The spokesman for Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), James McClelland, told a different story, of a city and administration that was better prepared, responsive and involved at the micro-level.
About 200 families in Koo’s district were still without power on Wednesday evening, McClelland said.
“The city’s response has been excellent,” he said. “I think the mayor’s office has learned from the Christmas blizzard. They’ve been in constant communication with us. It’s going really well.”
Halloran checked the tree slowly splitting tree in front of Daley’s home. Didn’t look good.
Finally, word from the city’s Office of Emergency Management. The crack in the tree has to be a certain size for it to be addressed immediately.
“We’re at a stage where we’re measuring inches in a crack to get taken seriously,” Halloran lamented.