A version of this piece was published in The Queens Courier on March 5th, 2013.
As Hurricane Sandy barreled down on the East Coast last year, there was one thing on Helene Martello’s mind. “Where am I going to move my car,’” she recalled.
After returning to her Hollis home from a party in 2008, Martello was surprised to find her car submerged in a flood with water reaching as high as the dashboard. A year before she and her husband were spared from a similar disaster, because they had taken their cars to work.
“I was upset, because you didn’t even think another flood would happen,” Martello, 61, said. “We’ve had sewers put in, they told us everything was going to be okay and it wasn’t.”
In the latest community effort to get the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to solve the flooding issue in southeast Queens, nearly a dozen Queens leaders led by Assemblyman William Scarborough met with more than 100 residents at York College on Feb 28, to explain the importance of action before the Bloomberg administration closes its doors.
At the meeting Scarborough revealed new legislation he penned to force the city to take financial responsibility for partly causing the flooding issue in Queens. And he introduced a lawyer who will attempt to file a consolidated suit against the city, combining as many residents’ evidence of property damage they can find.
“We’re looking to get money damages for their ongoing damage of having cellars and basements that are inundated with water and have to be pumped out regularly,” said attorney Mark Seitelman.
Scarborough is hardly new to this fight. The assemblymember has been asking city and state leaders and agencies to fix the problem for years. However, now he and supporters are running out of time as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gets set for his final year in office, meaning the fight may have to start from point A under a new city leader. “We are trying to get this done before the budget passes,” Scarborough said.
Flooding in southeast Queens goes back nearly half-a-century, however, only about two decades ago it dramatically increased. In 1996 the DEP shutdown the Jamaica Water Supply Company (JWS), which operated 69 wells that pumped about 60 millions of gallons of groundwater into residents homes. After the agency closed the wells, underground water rose more than 30 feet, increasing the frequency of floods from heavy rain or when underground water reaches its peak.
The DEP has invested more than $1.5 billion in developing the sewer system in Queens to prevent flooding, and has about 200 projects in place for the next ten years worth another billion, according to an agency spokesperson. Late last year the agency began a new pilot plan to insert three basins in a few areas in Jamaica that would collect and pump out about a couple million gallons of water each a day. It helped, but it’s not enough. Residents want some of the former JWS wells reopened.
“There are some areas where that won’t work,” Scarborough said about the basins. “So you need a combination of reserve seepage basins plus the wells… but they said they don’t have the money, they said groundwater is not their mandate.”
The DEP refused to open the wells until 2018 when the city plans to temporarily close and repair the Delaware Aqueduct, an upstate resource where the city gets half its water, and use water from the wells to compensate.
The DEP is not responsible for the underground water, but elements like rain or snow, which can cause floods, a DEP representative said. The agency is testing the wells and the quality of water for functionality and at this moment is not sure if they are useable.
But residents said while the agency waits to open the wells, people in the community, students in schools, and seniors in retirement homes continue to suffer.
“We need you as a community to come to our school to talk about the water that’s underground and to help us rid this situation for the sake of our children,” said Angela Green, principle of Middle School 8, which receives heavy flooding in its basement.
The Queens community isn’t going to rest. Leaders are planning to rally in front of DEP headquarters in Flushing on March 22.Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica NAACP, urged residents to unite and fight.
“We have to inconvenience ourselves to get convenience one day,” he said.
The DEP started the reverse seepage basin plan in September of 2012.