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Resilient residents not giving up on Horton Avenue

Porter Trent surveys the flooding on Horton Avenue.

Porter Trent surveys the flooding on Horton Avenue. (April 2, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

Ivory Brown put a new roof on her house. Added new windows. A new floor in the living room. She fixed up the kitchen. And added a brand new deck to the back of her home on Horton Avenue in Riverhead, confident that after decades of water flooding the neighborhood, the problem had been fixed.

Brown was at work in Riverhead Town Hall on Friday as her father and two of her brothers worked to clear the home of as many possessions as they could. "She did all of this work," her brother, Clarence Trent, said, as her father, Abraham, 90, sat in a chair nearby. "She invested all of this money, and for what?"

The family was one of almost two dozen who had to evacuate their homes March 30, after two days of hard rain did more than flood basements on a street that sits low on the water table, in the middle of a natural bowl.

The water flowed, and kept flowing, rising in some residences to 10 feet above street level, leaving Horton Avenue looking more like Horton Pond, complete with the occasional boat carrying journalists taking pictures of the scene.

More than a week later, there's still water on Horton Avenue. In basements. And in empty lots that look like smaller tributaries of the waterway that once filled the lower portion of the street.

Trent and his brother worked hard for days after the water had receded, cleaning the new wood floor in their sister's living room. It sparkled. And so did the floor in the refurbished kitchen.

But then Clarence walked over to a nearby door and flung it open to reveal a staircase to the basement - that was more stagnant-smelling water than stairs. And outside sat three cars and a motorcycle, destroyed by the floodwaters.

Down the avenue, another family of Trents was working to clean up the home their elderly parents have lived in for almost 50 years. The cellar was covered in muck and floating debris. And the driveway was filled with salvaged possessions, including a turkey deep-fryer.

"The family has been here for decades and I've never seen flooding like this," said Stan Trent, who worked even as the cloying smell of kerosene permeated the air in the cellar. "What everyone is asking is what happened? What is going to happen next?"

Homes on Horton Avenue have been flooding for decades. Town officials said that during the 1960s, ponds in the area were filled in before homes were built atop them. Between 1978 and 1986, officials said, the town moved or tore down 27 homes on the west side of the street.

On Friday, Stan Trent, with an assist from his sister, Yvonne Green, could still reel off names of some of the families who'd once lived where a catch basin constructed during the 1980s now stands:

A house belonging to an aunt, now deceased, was moved to higher ground on Horton; a house belonging to the Trents (no relation) moved to an area called The Greens.

Two years ago, the town finished yet another drainage project aimed at easing flooding in the area: a second catch basin south of a new traffic circle where a reconfigured Horton and Osborne avenues meet. That basin, via an underground culvert, was supposed to handle overflow from the older catch basin.

On March 30, however, both basins overflowed.

"They were working but clearly they weren't enough," Sean Walter, Riverhead's town supervisor, said Friday. "We probably need a third basin even farther south to handle water in the area, but even that probably wouldn't be enough."

Walter, who said he planned to walk the neighborhood this week and talk to residents, said that the town can't afford a new drainage project. He said that Riverhead has spent about $200,000 in overtime and equipment working to drain the lower part of the avenue.

But he, along with county and federal officials, isn't giving up on Horton Avenue. "I am trying to put together a public-private partnership so we can do whatever needs to be done to help," he said. "There are families on Horton Avenue who are real native Riverheaders, who have been there for decades. We're going to need something like an extreme makeover situation."

Meanwhile, homeowners - many of whom said they'd prefer to stay rather than have their houses moved - are doing what they can.

Esaw Langhorne is already battling mold and mildew in a trailer he owns and rents to a family that, for now, is living elsewhere. "I've got to get in there," he said, "with some bleach and mildew-resistant paint."

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