For most New Yorkers, rain is just an annoyance. When the sky turns grey, the most pressing question the average New Yorker has to ask is whether or not they remembered their umbrella. But, for a number of people in southeast Queens, a grey sky means that their basements may well be flooded by the time they reach home.
“The water backs up quickly because the storm sewer cannot carry it. You see the water moving along one minute, the next minute it’s up to your knees,” says E. Thomas Oliver, who has lived in Laurelton for over 40 years and lost two cars to flooding on his street. Since then, every time it rains heavily, he and all his neighbors move their cars from their block.
The first time Keisha Phillips-Kong—who moved to St. Albans in 2010—experienced flooding, the water covered her lawn and came to the front stairs of her house. Some of her family members who live upstairs had to move their cars because the water was rising so quickly. The second time it rained the water came into her basement.
“It was that hurricane, I think, and all of that water started running down the windows of the basement,” Kong says, referring to Tropical Storm Irene, which struck last summer. Since then, she has put sandbags around her basement windows so they will not flood and she and her family move all the cars to avoid them getting water damage.
Though New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which runs the city's water supply and sewer system, pledges to fix the problem through instillation of seepage basins and by investing money into research for other solutions, residents say they need to see results now, not later.
Pilots offer hope
Oliver and Kong both have leadership positions in EQUAL (Empowered Queens United in Action and Leadership),a group that advocates for improvements lower-income and middle-class residents want to see in their communities, and which has pressed for more attention to the flooding issues.
EQUAL’s reports indicated that numerous storm drains all over southeast Queens were not being cleaned; some even had grass growing out of them. Michael Stanley, an organizer for EQUAL, says many of the storm drains that were clogged have been cleaned (DEP says some 1,562 tons of debris were removed from drains in the area).
According to DEP, the city's 10-year capital plan includes more than $100 million for high-level storm sewers in southeast Queens. However, many residents feel action needs to be taken now: “Enough. We need to see work being done to fix it. Not just ‘this is what we plan to do in 2018,” says Kong.
DEP plans to install a number of seepage basins at 155th and 165th streets along Linden Blvd to help drain water. According to an article in the Queens Chronicle, DEP estimates that the seepage basins hold the potential to draw 2 million gallons of water out of the ground per day. In order for the basins to work, a pipe must be driven into the ground and into an aquifer to collect water. This water is then directed through a series of pipes towards a storm drain.
According to DEP, one reverse seepage basin pilot is underway will be completed at the end of August. It was supposed to be operating earlier but, according to advocates, the installation was interfering with other utilities and had to be revamped.
Two other locations will be completed by the end of October. These are pilot projects. EQUAL says DEP has indicated it will install more if the pilots product results.
A push for pumping
DEP is also looking to re-open some water pumps to draw water out of the area. Until 1997, residents of southeast Queens received their water from Jamaica Water Supply wells, but because of pollution, the pumps were put out of use. The area is now served by the same upstate reservoir system as the rest of the city. The lack of pumping in the area has caused the ground water table to rise significantly and as a result, flooding has increased in severity over the past decade.
Democratic Assemblyman William Scarborough, who represents parts of southeast Queens, says he has been in engaged with DEP. “We began a campaign to get them [DEP] to provide a solution. Our basic point, which was our main point, was that if they could begin to pump those wells in 2018, they could begin to pump them now,” says Scarborough. As a result, test pumping was performed at the old Jamaica Water Supply well, Station 24, in May to determine the safety and effectiveness of this method of water removal. DEP says it is “currently determining the next steps forward.” But according to EQUAL’s Stanley, Station 24 is just one of several wells that could be pumped, and DEP has not committed to large scale pumping until 2018.
As the aquifer has risen in southeast Queens, so have more houses and apartment complexes. According to EQUAL, this development has overcome the capacity of the storm sewers in the area, and some residences are being built where no sewers exist. So advocates want to see better maintenance of existing sewers and catch-basins, the construction of more basins in areas that now lack them, and the implementation of green infrastructure to capture stormwater.
In 2011, DEP finished a $62.8 million reconstruction project at 99th Avenue and 110th Avenue in Jamaica and Saint Albans that included the installation of three miles of new storm sewers, two miles of sanitary sewers, 287 catch basins and 242 manholes were installed.
Additional projects will come with heavy price-tags, no small burden for an agency that’s managing massive projects to maintain the city’s aging water and sewer infrastructure. But the flooding also has a financial impact for homeowners like Oliver. “With this flooding,” he says, “not only is it affecting my quality of life, but now if I want to sell and this is deemed a water flooding back up area, who’s going to buy it? ”
He adds: “People talk about their mortgages being underwater, but we’re literally underwater here.”