December 5, 2012

As our region continues to recover from the devastation of superstorm Sandy, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have rightly said that the city and state need to update their infrastructure to deal with the increased likelihood of future flooding. Bloomberg even based his endorsement in the presidential race on President Obama's position on climate change.

It is regrettable that it takes such a dramatic and deadly event to focus the minds of political on a long-standing and growing problem.

In southeast Queens, flooding is a fact of life. While Noah's flood lasted for 40 days, our flooding has been going on for more than 40 years. Even a minor rainstorm causes water to rise in our basements, yards and streets. Some residents have bought canoes so that they can paddle to higher ground when the rains arrive.

The prospect of a storm drives residents out of their homes in the middle of the night to move their cars to safer sites. People with more means have invested in pumps and other preventive measures. Others simply clean up the mold and sewage as best they can.

Yet, with a few exceptions, the same political leaders who responded so well to Sandy have largely ignored the plight of neighborhoods like Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans and Springfield Gardens.

In fact, public policy, such as it is, has only worsened the problem. Overdevelopment was allowed without any provision for the extension of sufficient sewer lines to those neighborhoods. Natural drainage areas like swamps and streams were covered over by builders, with little done to provide alternative ways to siphon off water.

Consequently, the water table has risen significantly ever since the city stopped pumping the wells of the old Jamaica Water Company. Add climate change to this equation, and it is clear that the flooding problems in our area will only worsen unless aggressive action is taken.

True, some are working to fix these very serious problems. Our leaders have joined with the city's Department of Environmental Protection and state and federal officials to make sure that 1,500 tons of debris were removed from area storm drains. Some basins had been clogged for so long that grass and small shrubs had begun to grow up through the grates.

New drainage initiatives have been added to the city's capital plan, and several pilot projects designed to lower the water table are in the works.

However welcome, this action is not enough to solve the problem. A responsible response would include:

l Finishing sewer infrastructure development in areas that have gone decades without it.

l Accelerating and expanding the use of green infrastructure techniques — like green roofs and blue belts — throughout southeast Queens. Two pilot projects are underway. But there is room for a much more extensive approach, such as using effective and environmentally friendly strategies that will also create local jobs.

l Lowering the water table by renewing well pumping, installing reverse seepage basins and planting even more trees.

Cuomo has called for us to "build the city back smarter." The human, emotional and financial costs of Sandy have been staggering. We need our leaders to remain focused on these issues — and not just for a few more days and weeks, but for the next many months and years.

After all, we now know how vulnerable our infrastructure is when confronted by a dramatic and deadly event like Sandy — or the much less dramatic but persistently worsening situation in southeast Queens.

Being New Yorkers, we know that we can do better than just keep our fingers crossed and hope it doesn't happen again. If we can fix it here, we can fix it anywhere.

Phillips-Kong is a leader in Our Lady of Light Roman Catholic Church in St. Albans. Oliver is a leader in the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jamaica. Both are leaders in Empowered Queens United in Action and Leadership, an affiliate of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

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