Riverhead flooding forces residents' evacuation

Homes are flooded on Horton Avenue in Riverhead, Homes are flooded on Horton Avenue in Riverhead, Wednesday afternoon. (March 31, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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When the little lake on Horton Avenue started swelling Tuesday, Ivory Brown was nervous.

Several hours later, she and many neighbors were fleeing a flood that overwhelmed drainage systems and reached as high as the window sills of a handful of homes, climbing living room walls in their Riverhead neighborhood.

The flooding, which one town official described as the worst in Riverhead in at least 30 years, also forced the evacuation of 10 residents and left town officials with the perplexing problem of where to pump the water without creating new problems in another part of the town.

As they surveyed the surreal scene Wednesday, town board members John Dunleavy and Jodi Giglio said much of the water had come from nearby farms - and declared it was time to look at ways to limit rain runoff from the fields that have defined the town for generations.

"It's coming from the farms," Dunleavy said. "We have to do something."

Thousands of acres of farmland in Riverhead have been preserved through the purchase of development rights. And farmers are not legally required to prevent rain from running off their land onto town roads. As Riverhead has grown, more and more people are living near farms, and are impacted by flooding.

Joseph M. Gergela III, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, acknowledged farms do contribute to flooding problems, but said controlling runoff is not a simple issue.

Farmers are federally exempt from most Clean Water Act provisions that regulate storm water runoff, and "right to farm" laws exempt them from many town regulations.

Farmers can limit storm water runoff by installing retention ponds, tile drainage fields or grass-lined channels that funnel excess water to a pond or woods. But such measures are strictly voluntary in New York State unless the property is a concentrated animal feeding operation - for instance, a horse farm with more than 150 animals, or a poultry farm with more than 1,500 ducks.

Federal and state storm water regulations typically aim to limit erosion and reduce pollution from contaminants and sediments swept up by rainwater as it washes over paved surfaces. So while municipalities and new construction developments must comply with rules intended to limit runoff, farms face fewer constraints.

Gergela said sumps take up valuable land that would otherwise be used for cultivation, and that it would be "overkill" to require farmers to control storm water runoff like that generated by this week's extraordinary volume of rain.

"With eight inches in 36 hours, it's impossible for that soil, which is already saturated . . . to take in that amount of rain," said Sandy Menascha, a vegetable and potato specialist with Cornell Cooperation Extension of Suffolk County. "No matter what the growers did, there was going to be runoff. . . . If things are really saturated, that groundwater comes up and there's nowhere for it to go."

State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), touring the Horton Avenue area with town Supervisor Sean Walter, called the damage "unbelievable" and said he would seek disaster assistance for residents who lost homes and cars.

When Walter got back to town hall, he could see hoses coming out of its basement and one in the building department across the street pumping out water.

The floodwaters also overwhelmed Ivory Brown's French drain system, the one that cost her several thousand dollars to install. As the water began coming through her basement walls Tuesday, it became clear she and her 90-year-old father would have to leave.

"We didn't have time to get clothes or anything. I grabbed my dad and his medicine and I went," she said.

Brown's son, Tramaine, and a neighbor helped them get through the water - by then waist-deep - to dry land. "I was afraid he would have a heart attack," she said of her father.

Later, the Riverhead Highway Department needed a payloader bucket to get the 10 other people out of flooded homes and trailers along Horton Avenue.

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With Jennifer Smith

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