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A victim of Riverhead flood -- and red tape

Displaced Ivory Brown revisits her Horton Avenue home

Displaced Ivory Brown revisits her Horton Avenue home in Riverhead, a victim of flood followed by fire. (March 30, 2011) Credit: Randee Daddona

It's spring and Ivory Brown should be spending weekends deciding which colorful annuals she wants to plant in her yard.

Instead, she's living among relatives' homes, storing clothes here, picking up clothes there as she works two jobs to pay the mortgage on a home where she'll never live again.

A year ago, a three-day monster of a storm pushed cascades of floodwater into Brown's neighborhood on Horton Avenue in Riverhead.

Muddy water flowed fast and deep, circling Brown's home, swallowing her car, and pushing up through the basement to claim several inches of her newly refurbished ground floor.

What's followed has been a year of hardship and unexpected joy. And of finding a way to make it through the day, every day, until someone, somewhere makes a decision that will let Brown move on with her life.

"It's the uncertainty that pulls you down," Brown said last week, sitting in the living room of a sister's house. "Sometimes I cry and sometimes I pray," she said. "I don't pray for material things, I pray for hope and strength. I thank God for family because that's what keeps me going."

After the water subsided, Brown salvaged as much as she could before the mold moved in. But neither she, nor her elderly father, Abraham, 81, could move back in.

Last January, while Brown and other displaced Horton Avenue residents waited for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for the Town of Riverhead, for Suffolk County to help, her house burned down. Town officials have said the fire may have been started accidentally by squatters.

It virtually destroyed the home that Brown, 55, and her late husband, Robert, whom she met in grade school, built on property owned by his family.

Today, eight Horton Avenue homes remain empty. Some of Brown's neighbors moved back after the flood, but a rising water table and the community's history of flooding keep them on edge.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Tim Bishop and county and town officials have been pushing FEMA for a decision on funds that could help move residents to higher, safer ground -- as the town did with other neighborhood homes years ago.

But even that won't come easy for Brown, whose insurance company denied her claim for flood damage to the home.

"I can't afford to pay rent because I am paying a mortgage," said Brown, who works days as a custodian and evenings as a health care aide. She's spent a year living between her sisters' homes because she doesn't want to be a burden.

Brown remembers her home, with the new deck and the new roofing. Six of her grandchildren kept their bikes there. Her sisters, her father, her children came together for holidays and for barbecues there.

Before the flood, spring meant planting flowers and Easter egg hunts in the yard. It also meant a big birthday party for Brown's father, who is now recovering from an illness in a nursing home.

Summer meant barbecues and bicycle riding. Fall meant grandchildren -- the youngest is now 5 -- trick-or-treating throughout the neighborhood. And winter meant Christmas Eve, the biggest gathering of all, when children and grandchildren would spend the night, waking up to a raucous family breakfast before church.

Last Christmas, the family, with help, managed to get six bicycles to replace the ones destroyed by the flood. "After the grands opened their presents, I called out their names, one by one, and my daughters rolled bicycles, one by one, from the kitchen into the room," she said.

She claps her hands, giddy at the memory. Later, her mood changes. "I had a dream about my house," she said. "I was in the kitchen, picking up pots and pans; my daughter was in the other room, picking up clothes."

She said the dream changed her mind about returning to the wreckage of her home. "I haven't been in a while because it makes me sick to my heart to go," she said.

"I have to go through what's left and have a good cry," she said, holding her 8-week-old great-grandson. "Then maybe I can let it go."

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