By Robin Jovanovich
The scene at City Hall the night of September 14, at the first regular City Council meeting since the record floods from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, wasn’t always orderly. Residents and business owners still recovering from the toll of the 2007 floods came to press the Council for action, for solutions to what is most definitely a community-wide problem.
The recent flooding didn’t just affect a few homeowners. Property values have suffered in Rye. Our floods have made the national news.
The Locust Avenue Firehouse had to be closed. The Police couldn’t get up Locust Avenue. Con Ed turned off the power in Loudon Woods and at many Wappanocca Avenue homes because their electrical panels were flooded. Highland Hall residents had to evacuate because the water pushed so hard against the building’s oil tank that over 1,200 gallons of oil leached out. Those residents are still out of their apartments. Residents who’d never had water in their basements before reported several feet in their basements this time. The Rye High School turf field was under water — twice.
The palpable frustration emanating from the audience in the Council Room stemmed from the fact that not one of the flood mitigation plans reviewed and approved after the 2007 floods has been put into place.
The crowd got rowdier the longer they had to wait to have their say. They waited for Mayor Doug French to commend City employees for their dedicated service before, during, and after the storms. They waited while City Manager Scott Pickup explained the many ways in which the City prepared for the storm. He enumerated the number of reverse 911 calls, the Nixle messages, the monitoring at the Bowman Dam. We learned the many locations where motorists got trapped in the floodwaters. Mayor French described the visit by County, State, and Federal representatives the day after Irene.
While the City’s response was indeed commendable, praiseworthy, and professional, and the Mayor deserves extra credit for getting all those officials, even Senator Gillibrand, here the next day, the natives were restless. They’d heard the promises from elected officials before and Rye had very little to show for all those promises. They wanted to talk about next steps, a future in which flooding is better contained.
County Legislator Judy Myers came to the podium later on in the meeting and reminded listeners that, “Government did work. The County came through with $2.5 million for the sluice gate.” She continued, “Rye is better off than many communities, believe it or not. Count your blessings.”
Ms. Myers’ more important message, that a regional plan is needed to control flooding in this area, was lost among the jeering and head-shaking that followed.
“Why hasn’t the sluice gate been installed?” demanded residents, “much less the expansion of the retention pond upstream!”
According to Mayor French, the City is doing everything it can to get to those next steps. City Manager Scott Pickup and staff have met with every FEMA, State, and County representative to push flood mitigation through the necessary — and seemingly endless — review process.
When the time finally came for comments from the audience, there were dozens worth listening to.
Longtime Indian Village resident Peter Sinnott spoke first. “We have experienced over ten storms under five to six administrations. A CBS Radio reporter interviewed me last week and asked if the storms were more prevalent. I told him that in 2007 we had a 100-year flood, on August 28, 2011 we had another 100-year flood, on September 6 a 50-year flood and on September 8 a 10-year flood. We were asked to evacuate by the Police Reverse 911 twice and were five minutes away from a third time.”
Mr. Sinnott related that he and his wife had attended the Rye Brook Council meeting the previous night at which the impact of Irene on their community was discussed. Engineer Dolph Rotfeld reported on flooding in the region and confirmed the need for additional retention areas. He also recommended installing a rain sensor with tipping cups on a structure in their village to monitor rainfall in an hour or over a few days to see the impact and effect on residents.
“Going forward, I think we need a new approach — a public/private approach to secure the money to solve this problem once and for all,” said Mr. Sinnott. “We’ve been experiencing flooding in Rye for over 70 years. It’s 2011, let’s finally do something about it.”
Mayor French said he would set up a meeting with the engineers on that analysis. Additionally, when faced with problems after a flood, residents are advised to search online for “disaster cleanup near me” immediately. Home owners may also need the assistance of professional roofers if a hurricane damages their roofs. It’s essential to have your condo roof inspected after a severe weather condition to assess any damages it caused. You may also find out that you need a residential gutter system repair service if the gutters have been severely damaged by the hurricane. In addition, aside from hurricanes, you should also prepare for wildfires. If you’re a property owner and your fire alarm system or water-based fire protection system is not functional, then you are required by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Florida Statute to implement a fire watch. Seek expert help from professional Fire Watch Services in Homestead.
Indian Village residents Carolina Johnson, Holly Kennedy, and Bernie Althoff came to the podium as a group. “We’ve been working together for the last four and a half years as members of the Rye Flood Action Coalition we and others formed after the 2007 flood,” said Ms. Johnson. “Dozens of families’ homes have been deemed uninhabitable. It’s not a solution to raise somebody’s home. Locust Avenue will be next. We have to make sure the things we push for come through.”
Ms. Kennedy added, “With the best efforts of two administrations, we’re still out of our house. I know there is a sentiment, laughed at in 2004 after those floods, that we shouldn’t live in Indian Village. The City has come a long way since then. I appreciate that the police come through with bullhorns, reverse 911s, and Nixles. But we have a community where the Y closes, the Fire Department is closed, the library is closed. Every time I’m told to spend thousands of dollars, I wonder where is Fire Headquarters moving?”
Mr. Althoff said, “Rye has a problem. Install the proverbial sluice gate. The next step is doing a soil survey and enlarging the capacity of the Upper Pond. Explore a retaining basin north of Anderson Hill Road. The combination of all three would bring us a long, long way.”
There is a $50,000 commitment for the soil study, according to the City Manager. Mayor French noted that the City met with the Army Corps of Engineers and a representative from SUNY Purchase a year ago. City officials are as frustrated as residents and business owners.
City Councilmember Peter Jovanovich interjected, “One of the things I’ve learned since becoming an elected official is the insuperable fact that the DEC doesn’t like dredging. The agency is very good, however, at delay, evasion, and obfuscation.” He continued, “I don’t believe that the City of Rye pushing up to Albany is going to be successful, and not through lack of effort by the City. Those departments up in Albany have a view that changing the soil is problematic. Consequently they do nothing.”
What can be done? Councilman Jovanovich believes that things only get done in Albany if the Governor decides they’re a priority. “We need to get Governor Cuomo to adopt flood control as a statewide issue.”
Meanwhile, as we are all writing the Governor, Rye residents and business owners believe we can help in a number of small but significant ways. Eric Moy, whose family owns Fong’s on Elm Place, asked the City to clean Blind Brook of its debris, much of which has been there for years. He had the photos to make his case. “It’s very discouraging for us along the brook. If we can do walls like the new one on Elm, can’t we do a little dredging, make the walls a little higher?” He invited the Council to be the first politicians to go through with some flood mitigation. “Be my hero. Solve this much.”
Other residents pointed to the dumpsters and trees in the brook further up, the debris routinely tossed in the brook by landscapers.
A Wappanocca Avenue resident recommended new engineering at the culvert below the I-95 bridge, next to the Highland parking lot, to provide some relief.
City Manager Pickup explained that the cleaning of the brook requires special permits from the DEC. “We don’t even have permission yet to remove that dumpster.” Residents pushed for a Volunteer Clean-Up Day while we wait for a decision from the DEC.
Central Avenue residents questioned rebuilding the Central Avenue Bridge, which we’ve managed to live without since the 2007 floods. “If rebuilt on grade, it’s not a matter of if it will create flooding, but when.” Another neighbor suggested buying the adjacent Black Bass property and making that part of a drainage improvement project.
Longtime Orchard Avenue resident Dr. Cedric Raine noted that the traffic on his street has dramatically increased since the 2007 floods forced the closing of the bridge and access from Boston Post Road.
“But that’s not why I’m here,” said Dr. Raine. “I’m here because Rye was praised in a 1999 New York Times article because we were a FEMA Flood Impact Community. Mayor Otis was going to try and stop overbuilding.” He continued, “I appealed to the then-Council not to allow the Y to expand because it would cause flooding if they raised the field and blacktopped it. The first-floor flooding that has occurred in my house since the Y expansion goes to Central Avenue, Loewen Court and more. The last few floods have been much worse for our neighborhood. No one should have the right to build on his property if it’s going to cause flooding next door. Yet more monster houses with huge blacktop driveways are going up all over Rye.”
Dr. Raine’s remarks prompted pointed comments on overbuilding. A public forum on overbuilding is overdue, say more and more residents.
The City has a lot on its plate and very little in its coffers, but residents have the Council’s full attention on anything related to flooding and safety.
They held another meeting solely on flooding issues the afternoon of September 16.
Now is the time to send your “edited” suggestions to the Mayor, the City Manager and members of the Council.