Riverhead flood victim offers hope to those hit by Sandy

Standing on the front porch of her home, Standing on the front porch of her home, Linda Hobson talks about the flooding on Horton Ave which forced her and numerous neighbors to move out of their homes. (April 4, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Joe Epstein

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Linda Hobson didn't live near the shore. But her house on Horton Avenue was in a Riverhead neighborhood so prone to flooding it was dubbed "The Bottoms."

Over several decades, the town -- in a series of programs echoed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's post-superstorm Sandy plan to use federal funds for buying properties repeatedly damaged by floodwaters.

It's unclear which federal program Cuomo intends to tap for funding. And while Sandy victims, rightly, have had plentiful help, Hobson and her neighbors at one point felt they had to threaten a lawsuit to get aid.

Horton Avenue residents had one advantage, however. Their home values were computed at pre-flood 2010 prices, before the housing market crashed. That's one more reason Sandy victims might not be receptive to Cuomo's efforts.

The goal in Riverhead was to let the wetlands win, as they did in March 2010 when a severe rainstorm damaged homes at the bottom of Horton Avenue for the last time.

Hobson returned to inspect her home -- by boat -- four days later. Two weeks later, she began scrubbing mold with a brush and a mixture of bleach and water.

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But the spores outpaced her efforts. "It dawned on me that I wasn't going back home, not ever," Hobson said Monday.

The social worker knows that so many Sandy victims are now going through -- fighting mold, scrambling for housing, and battling depression and despair. "My heart breaks because some of them are not going to be able to go home either," she said.

It has taken almost three years and a coordinated effort by town, county, state and federal officials to help displaced residents.

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Riverhead has begun buying 12 homes from Hobson and nine other property owners, using monies from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. So far, they've closed on seven.

Riverhead and Suffolk applied jointly for the grant, which passed through the state's office of emergency management. The town also plans to use federal funds, supplemented by local monies, for drainage and other improvements.

Hobson said it was hard leaving Horton Avenue, where many of the families -- descendants of farm workers who migrated to Long Island from Virginia -- were related.

The house built by her parents, and passed down to her, was demolished last year. And once-close neighbors are now scattered.

"We used to talk every day," she said. "Now I see people downtown and we talk, but it is not the same because we can't keep up with each other like we used to."

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But as Hobson wants Sandy victims to know there is life after the flooding. "The hardest thing was thinking, 'Where am I going to go? I've lost everything, what am I going to do now?' " she said.

She recently closed on another house in Riverhead, and is engaged to be married. One of her new neighbors will give her away.

"There were people here who cared for me, comforted me, lifted me up," she said. "That's important for people hurt by Sandy, too. It's so hard, but you need to keep your head up, keep your faith."

Hobson still visits Horton Avenue every week.

"My life was here, my childhood was here and I can never leave that behind, so I'll probably still be visiting 15 or 20 years from now," Hobson said.

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"I stand and I look at where my house was," she said, "and I marvel at the resilience it took for us to get from that storm to where we are now."

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