DEP CLAIMS STORM SYSTEM IS NOT TO BLAME
By Conor Greene
Many homeowners whose properties were damaged during the 2007 floods are livid that the city is claming it’s not responsible for their losses.
Comptroller William Thompson announced last week that the city has denied flooding claims filed by property owners and businesses in the wake of three torrential downpours in April, July and August 2007. The announcement came after an investigation by the city Department of Environmental Protection “found no basis for holding the city liable.”
“Unfortunately, DEP’s report and that agency’s findings leave my office with no alternative but to deny these claims,” said Thompson in a statement. “Under the existing law, we are unable to provide the relief that was requested in these claims. I deeply regret that we are not able to provide claimants with better news regarding this unfortunate incident.”
In its report, the DEP “indicted that the extremely heavy rainfall on those days overwhelmed the existing sewer systems in the affected areas.” Department crews “responded to the flooding in a timely manner and took appropriate measures to relieve the flooding conditions.”
As a result, victims such as Bruce Saffran of Forest Hills have been left with little recourse other than to file a lawsuit against the city. The torrential rainfalls in August 2007 sent four feet of water sweeping through Saffran’s ground-floor apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard, destroying virtually all of the family’s possessions.
“The city is letting us down tremendously,” said Saffran, who was forced to flee the apartment with his wife and young son after the water rushed into his apartment. To make matters worse, the bathroom sink and toilet overflowed at the same time, sending raw sewage into the home. “The floods poured through the lobby and came racing through the apartment, knocking furniture every which way. I was scrambling to get out, get my wife out, call 911 while carrying my son out literally upstream through water,” he said.
“This backup came from the sewers, so everything was covered with a layer of fecal matter. It was just a nightmare. You walk in and there’s nothing left,” said Saffran, who estimates the damages ran close to $100,000 – not to mention items that can’t be replaced, including wedding and baby photos. “We lost everything we owned, literally.”
Saffran said he “wasn’t shocked at all” by the city’s determination it isn’t at fault after receiving a letter from the DEP almost two years ago that denied any responsibility. However, he says the city installed a larger storm drain on his block within months of the flooding – which shows that officials realized the infrastructure wasn’t up to the task. “That tells me they knew there was a problem,” he said.
Since several individuals and business owners filed claims with the city seeking enormous amounts of money, Saffran suspects the city decided to simply deny all claims and deal with each individual lawsuit one by one. “I’m not trying to gouge anybody, all I want is to be made whole, and I made that clear from the get-go,” he said. “It’s not like I jumped on the back of a bus that had just rear-ended somebody.”
The city’s decision not to compensate flood victims was also met with criticism from local politicians including Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, whose district includes the hard-hit neighborhoods of Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale, and Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who called the city’s decision “callous.”
Crowley (D-Middle Village) said the neighborhoods “are still feeling the repercussions” of the storms and faulted the DEP for failing to ensure the horror faced by homeowners isn’t repeated in the coming months.
“Given that the [DEP] has yet to adequately address the infrastructure issues, these community members remain vulnerable to future disaster,” said Crowley. “With the raining season here, I share their fear of the potential impact of future storms. My constituents need to know that their tax money is going towards their security such as pipelines and sewage systems that will not collapse in the face of another storm.” She said the city infrastructure, which was designed in the 1920s, “does not come close to meeting the security needs of the community.”
Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) said years of negligence by the city was to blame. “The city has known for years of inadequate sewer infrastructure and regular, widespread flooding, and the city must take responsibility for failing its most basic municipal obligations – to keep raw sewage from flooding into people’s home when it rains,” he said. “It is outrageous that the city will not only not fix this problem, but actually refuses to provide restitution for those who have had their homes damaged.”
Lancman, whose own home was flooded by untreated sewage, questioned why Mayor Bloomberg is “focusing all of his time on building baseball stadiums… but doing absolutely nothing for residents of Queens whose homes and streets are flooded when it rains.” He noted that the mayor didn’t use any of the federal stimulus money to upgrade the borough’s drainage system.
Patricia Donovan, whose on 74th Street near Penelope Avenue in Middle Village was damaged in both July and August, was also upset but not surprised to learn that the city had rejected her $16,000 claim. She has no doubt the blame rests with the city and said she has dealt with flooding problems since 1996.
“I’m tired. I’ll move next time. I can’t stay here anymore,” she said. “It’s not worth it. It’s going to happen again and I’m really tired of it. I don’t see anything being done… I shake when a storm is coming. It’s a horrible way to live.”
Angela Runza, whose home on 78th Street in Middle Village sustained about $40,000 worth of damage, faces a different problem in the aftermath of the 2007 flood – her insurance carrier has dropped her, forcing her to switch to a much more expensive carrier. “I had raw sewage in my basement twice,” she said. “It was the most disgusting thing, horrible. It was the worst experience of my life. All my neighbors, everyone in my area had floods.”
After her house was flooded for the second time within a month, Runza says she checked with her broker before filing a second insurance claim and was told she wouldn’t be dropped by her carrier, Travelers Insurance. Nonetheless, she eventually received notice he was being dropped because she filed two claims within two years. “I wouldn’t have put the claim in for another $5,000” if she knew she would be dropped.
Runza said that she wasn’t aware that flood victims could turn to the city for help, so she wasn’t one of the nearly 1,150 Queens residents who filed claims with the city after the two major storms in the summer of 2007. However, despite Thompson’s announcement, she has no doubt that the city is responsible for the damages.
“I’m shocked, because at one of the town hall meetings they said they were responsible, and now they’re saying no,” she said. “How can it not be a city issue? To have raw sewage floating in people’s homes is disgusting. I really feel the city should do their part.”
Victims of the July storm had until April 15 to file lawsuits against the city, while victims of the August flood have until May 5.