Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

St. Francis Prep Closed as Swine Flu Hits Queens

By Conor Greene

As the number of people across the globe infected with swine flu continues to grow, officials at St. Francis Preparatory High School – the epicenter of the outbreak in Queens – have closed the building until Monday in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the number of infected people worldwide had risen to 132 confirmed cases in 11 countries. In the U.S there have been 91 reported cases in 10 different states, including 51 confirmed cases in New York State.

Among those infected was St. Francis Prep senior Toni Ann Abruzzino of Ozone Park. Her symptoms began with a “really bad cough” during the week and came to a head last Thursday night. “Thursday in school all the kids were going home sick and were all over the nurse’s office,” she said. “I went to my [softball] game and felt fine, but when it got home it really hit me. I stayed home from school on Friday, and there were rumors going around schools. Saturday was when it came out that swine flu was going around prep.”

She said it was “kind of shocking that it was at my school… It was scary but they said it was a mild case that we have.” Still, a mild case translated into several days of suffering for Toni Ann. “It’s just taking a while and has to run its course. It’s on and off, some moments I feel fine, then I get a headache. I’m just waiting for it to get over… I hope everyone gets better.”

Toni Ann is “very close friends” with some of the students who recently returned from Mexico, and had contact with one traveler before coming down with symptoms. “They didn’t get sick, so it’s weird how it all happened,” she said. “It’s not their fault. Of course it’s from Mexico so it’s kind of on them because they went, and they feel like people think it’s their fault but it’s not.”

During a conference call on Tuesday arranged by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills), St. Francis Headmaster Brother Conway said the decision to close until Monday was to give enough time for all cases to be identified and for students and faculty to recover. “The guidelines set by the Department of Health indicate that if we do add this time, it should provide adequate time for any students who are ill to recover,” he said. “Students are going to be told they need to keep up with their studies – this is not a vacation.”

“We’re hoping and praying that this passes quickly so next week we can get the students back into classes,” added Brother Conway. The process of cleaning the school, located at 6100 Francis Lewis Boulevard, began last Friday afternoon (April 24) and was completed by the end of the weekend.

The first sign that something was amiss came on Thursday, when about 100 students were absent, said Brother Conway. At the same time, “flocks of kids going to the nurse’s office, all reporting the same symptoms.” Because of the number of students complaining of the symptoms, the nurse, Mary Pappas, immediately contacted the city Board of Health to inform them of the possible outbreak.

Students continued to arrive at the nurse’s office the following day, with about 150 total visits between the two days. Brother Conwaycalled that number a “significant amount” compared to a typical school day. He defended the school’s decision to remain open Friday since students that day seemed to come down with symptoms later in the morning. “It wasn’t like they were lined up outside the nurse’s office as soon as we got here. I don’t know if closing on Friday would have done anything but I can’t predict that,” he said.

Brother Conway also responded to criticism that parents weren’t properly notified about the situation. “I don’t know how they could feel left in the dark,” adding that updates were constantly posted on the school’s Website. “I don’t think parents should feel they were left out of the loop.”

While there have been some reports of parents critical about the school’s response to the outbreak, Colleen Abruzzino said she doesn’t think officials could have done anything more. “They always do the right thing and really care about the students,” she said. “I don’t think they knew what they were dealing with either. I don’t think anybody knew until we realized these kids came from Mexico.”

According to a health alert issued Tuesday night by the city Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 44 cases of swine influenza among students and staff at St. Francis Prep. The illnesses “appear to be no more severe than usual seasonal influenza, and all patients we know of are recovering, with the overwhelming majority having had mild illness.”

On Wednesday morning, Gov. David Paterson announced that three new “probable” cases of swine flu were identified upstate. In addition, two cases are suspected at two Brooklyn Catholic schools. As a result, St. Brigid in Bushwick and Good Shepherd in Marine Park will be closed for the remainder of the week.

Officials say that one of the Brooklyn students has a sibling at St. Francis Prep. The CDC is stressing that this is a “rapidly evolving situation” and urged residents to stay alert for updates.

The decision not to close all area schools drew criticism from Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) whose district includes St. Francis Prep. In the letter, sent to Mayor Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, Avella notes that “many parents are deeply concerned that schools in this area remain open despite the extensive and close connections between St. Francis Prep and the rest of the area schools.”

“While I am aware that the [city DOH] has recommended to keep schools open unless there are more than a few confirmed cases of swine flu in any particular school, many of these parents believe that the Department ofHealth and the Board of Education should close the public schools in northeastern Queens for the rest of the week in order to attempt to control the further spread of this virus,” wrote Avella. “Given the deep interconnectedness of St. Francis Prep and the rest of the schools in this area it seems only prudent that the City consider taking this step.”

The state Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is stressing that the elderly and frail population is especially at risk of contracting the flu. “If you
are not feeling well, we’re asking you to visit your doctor, not your dad in a nursing home or your grandmother who gets home care visits,” said Carl Young, NYAHSA president. “Our nursing homes and senior service staffs are following strict infection control programs, and the public’s compliance will be of enormous help.”

Meanwhile, officials at St. Francis Prep are continuing to navigate through this “very difficult time,” said Brother Conway. “With a very large school like this, we’re taking everything day by day and even moment by moment,” he said.

After Years of Erosion, Jamaica Bay Marshes Make a Comeback

By Conor Greene

In honor of Earth Day, Rep. Anthony Weiner announced last week that 50 acres of Jamaica Bay’s marshland has been restored, reversing years of erosion.

Already, 50 acres of the bay’s threatened marshland has been restored, and another 100 acres are slated for restoration in the coming years, as the congressman plans to make the issue of wetlands preservation a top issue. “Jamaica Bay is going back to the birds more and more each year,” said Weiner (D-Forest Hills).

The bay’s 26,645 acres of marshes suffer as buffers that help mitigate waves, wind and floods and reduce damage to surrounding residents. The salt marshes are home to 91 species of fish, 325 species of birds and 214 species of special concern, including threatened and endangered species.

Experts have concluded that rising oxygen levels in the bay have caused the marshes to erode at an ever-quickening pace. According to Weiner, much of the blame for the rising oxygen levels rests with four nearby wastewater plants, which dump more than 250 gallons of nitrogen-rich wastewater into Jamaica Bay everyday. This kills delicate marsh roots and retards re-growth.

To make matters worse, the rate of loss has been increasing over the past few decades. Between 1924 and 1994, more than 1,800 acres of salt marsh disappeared, at an average rate of about 26 acres a year. However, the rate of loss increased between 1995 and 1999, with 220 acres of salt marsh disappearing at an average rate of 44 acres per year.

To combat the quickening salt marsh erosion, Rep. Weiner helped fund a $16 million Army Corps of Engineers project in 2006 to rebuild Elders Point East. As part of that project, engineers rebuilt 48 acres of marshland, adding more than 240,000 cubic yards of beach and transporting more than 750,000 native marsh plants including Saltwater Cordgrass, Salt Meadow Grass, Salt Grass and Rush into the depleted area. Weiner now calls that effort “a major success story” as recovery efforts now outpace marsh erosion for the first time by 15 acres.

“These marshlands are the very foundation of this ecosystem. They are a haven for insects, attract clams and support fish and birds,” said Weiner. “For years, concerned residents and environmentalists have warned us that they are disappearing. We can now say that the marshlands are coming back.”

To ensure the marshes’ survival, Weiner has announced two key upcoming projects that will help restore the marshland, as well as a four point plan to save the marshes. Both projectsare expected to commence next year. First, Elders Point West, located in the north-central part of the bay, will be rebuilt at a cost of $10.6 million. Building on the successes of the restoration projects at Elders Point East, the next step is building up 34 acres of marshes with 200,000 cubic yards of sand. Engineers will replant native Saltwater Cordgrass onto the restored land.

The second project is the restoration of Yellow Bar Hassock, located in the center of Jamaica Bay, west of Broad Channel. Due to erosion of the beach foundation, the salt marsh habitat here has been converting to mucky peat and mudflat at an estimated rate of six acres a year. The rising saltwater was drowning the marsh habitat and National Parks Service officials have projected that Yellow Bar will be completely lost by 2020.

Using Elders Point East as a model, the Yellow Bar Hassock design proposes building up to 60 acres of marsh with 250,000 cubic yards of sand. Within this new elevated marsh foundation, engineers will replant existing salt marsh plant hummocks to spur growth. There currently is no final cost estimate available for this project.

These projects will coincide with Weiner’s four-point plan,which includes reducing nitrogen in the bay by 60% in 10 years, including a 20% reduction in the next three years. Under the plan, Weiner will provide $9 million to fully fund the Yellow Bar Hassock and Elders Point West projects and study restoration options for other sites around the bay. In addition, federal stimulus money will be used to retrofit four sewage plants surrounding the bay. Finally, the plan doubles the number of Saltwater Cordgrass and Salt Marsh Plan Hammocks to be replanted in the two upcoming projects.

Gateway National Recreation Area attracts 10 million visitors a year, making it the third most popular park in the country. While great strides are being made to restore the wetlands, Weiner noted that there are other factors jeopardizing the marshes, including global warming and rising ocean levels, meaning they likely will never return to their natural state.

Animal Rights Activists Rally for Angel

By Conor Greene

A group of animal rights activists gathered on the steps of City Hall on Sunday to hold a protest and vigil for Angel, a 13-year-old Collie that was wrongfully euthanized by the New York City Animal Care and Control.

The beloved pet was euthanized just hours after being picked up by AC&C after escaping from the Astoria home of 94-year-old Jane Guardascione earlier this month. Guardascione was left devastated after learning her companion had been euthanized, even though city policy requires animals to be held for at least 72 hours.

Now, City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has launched a probe into whether AC&C has improperly euthanized or adopted out other animals before 72 hours. Under the law, only severely injured or sick animals can be put down sooner. However, many animal activists are certain that Angel wasn’t the first animal euthanized within 72 hours.

In response, Avella has submitted a formal request for all AC&C records regarding euthanizations, length of stay for animals brought to shelters, physical examination as well as records concerning owner notification. He also wrote directly to AC&C and the city Department of Health regarding the circumstances surrounding Angel’s death.

“It was extremely startling to learn of the unfortunate euthanization of Angel, which has caused a tremendous amount of grief for Ms. Guardascione, who saw the dog as a true companion,” said Avella. “In this instance, there appears to be a complete breakdown of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s policy to keep strays for at least 72 hours by NYC AC&C. As a result, I feel it is absolutely necessary to investigate the practices and procedures of NYC AC&C… to find out exactly what is going on at NYC AC&C to prevent this tragedy from happening again.”

Among the 100 or so individuals who attended Sunday was Kathy Schnurr of Bayside, who is certain this isn’t the first time AC&C improperly euthanized an animal. “We’ve been aware of [problems] for a while, and for no apparent reason they put this dog down, so Angel brought it to a head” she said. “It’s definitely happened before without a doubt.”

Schnurr said the activists are awaiting the results of Avella’s information request before deciding how to proceed. “We need to let them really know what is going on. Hopefully this will be the last we’ll hear about any dogs being euthanized like Angel. We’re still waiting to hear the details from his [information request]. Then we will definitely rally behind him.”

Unfortunately for Guardascione, any reforms that come will be too late. “Something needs to be done. I still feel terrible,” she told the Daily News during Sunday’s vigil.

In a statement following the euthanization of Angel, AC&C officials expressed their “deepest sympathies” to the family and said that Angel was put down to prevent additional pain. “Because of her deteriorating condition and advanced age of over 13 years, the vet made the decision to euthanize Angel in an effort to prevent any additional suffering,” it read. “It is our goal to avoid euthanasia unless we deem it absolutely necessary.”

Each year, AC&C handles an estimated 43,000 animals rescued from city streets, of which about 15,000 are euthanized. It urges animal owners to make sure their pets are licensed and microchipped.

State Will Choose Developer for Fineson Center

By Patricia Adams

In January the New York State Housing Finance Agency issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Designation of a developer for the Construction of Affordable Senior Housing at the Bernard Fineson Center. Responses from interested parties were due to the State on February 27. According to Community Board 10 Chair, Betty Braton, no decision has been made as to a designated developer as of yet.

Several of the applicants contacted CB 10 prior to the submission of their responses to the State. Among them are Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in a joint venture with The Arker Companies, Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development and PSCH Inc.

Allen AME Housing Corp. & the D &F Development Groupand CMC Development subsequent to submitting their re-sponses to the State also contacted the Board.

While CB 10 has no vote on the matter however, according to Braton, the Board is appreciative of the fact that the Metropolitan Council/Arker group contacted the Board immediately after the release of the RFP to solicit input from theBoard before developing its response to the RFP. It was alsothe first group to provide detailed information about their pro-posal prior to its submission to the State. The Board also stated that Catholic Charities provided detailed informationprior to its submission and made some changes based on theBoard’s input.

There is no confirmation as to when the State will actually make a decision about awarding the bid. Sources say that thestart of the process could begin within a month, but there is noannounced deadline for the selection process as of now.

The process will follow the basics outlined in the Request forProposal (RFP). Generally, after the designated developer is selected that developer is required to perform any alterations and renovate the building according to plans and permits, as well as get all the financing in place.

According to the RFP, the current population of residents will be moved to new living facilities no later than June 30, 2009. The application process for new residents will begin once a marketing strategy is set into place. Residents of CB 10will have preference on 50% of the unassisted units. That does not necessarily mean that all residents of the other 50% will be from elsewhere. Depending on who is in the lottery pool, it’spossible for more residents of the local area to be among the winners. The new facility will also include a component for 20 residents served by the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD). The residents of these units will be seniors selected by the agency that serves them.

Estimates on the completion time for the project is probably well over a year considering the amount of work needed to be done on the building.

The Forum will continue to advise our readers about the progress of this project as developments unfold.