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Help for Horton Avenue: Feds finally chip in with disaster funds

Homes are partly under water on Horton Avenue

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

The heavy storms of late March that put 15 homes on Riverhead's Horton Avenue under water have been declared part of a federal disaster after all, meaning more than $6 million in reimbursements will flow to Suffolk governments - and just possibly, a permanent fix for Horton Avenue is in sight.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency late Friday reversed its previous denial of New York officials' request to combine the March 29-30 storm that flooded homes with a storm earlier in the month that had been declared eligible for disaster funds.

In its appeal, New York deluged the federal disaster agency with data from the National Weather Service, arguing that all the severe storms and flooding in March were part of one big weather phenomenon. And its congressional delegation worked intensively behind the scenes for the disaster declaration, even lobbying the White House.

"All too often, we hear about government at its worst. This effort has been government at its best," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), flanked by state and local officials and Horton Avenue residents, said at a news conference Saturday at Riverhead's Town Hall.

Horton Avenue resident Linda Hobson, who was rendered homeless by the flood, burst into tears, Bishop said, when he called her yesterday morning with news of FEMA's change of heart.

"We have worked so hard to get this appeal through," she said at the news conference.

Horton Avenue's homes have been flooded so often over the years that a group of residents has filed a notice of claim against the Town of Riverhead for failing to address drainage problems. FEMA's decision, for the first time, makes those homes eligible for federal aid known as "hazard mitigation grants."

Those are funds awarded after a federally declared disaster for projects that reduce the likelihood of future damage. The grants may pay for levees, flood walls or retrofitting of buildings, but also are used to elevate flood-prone buildings or simply to buy out and demolish homes in unsafe areas, converting the land to open space.

More than $15 million will flow to New York State for grants linked to the March storms. And while the FEMA grants are competitive, Horton Avenue is on the radar screens of key decision-makers, officials said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has offered to try to swap county-owned parcels elsewhere in Riverhead for the flooded Horton Avenue sites. Fifteen homes were affected by the floods, and nine of those remain unoccupied.

"If we can get the property, and the town is able to help these people get relocated [by obtaining mitigation grants], we might have a package," he said. Suffolk, meanwhile, will be competing for grants from the same program to pay for beach replenishment, he said.

The $6 million in FEMA reimbursements to county and local governments for expenses related to the March 29-30 storm comes in addition to $34 million already authorized for the storms and flooding that pounded Long Island from March 13-15.

Hobson left her Horton Avenue family home of 50 years to go to work March 30 and only returned days later by boat to retrieve a few belongings from the waterlogged mess it had become.

Since then, she has lived in five different places, organized her neighbors to press for government aid, and met at least once a week with town, county and federal officials seeking a resolution.

"It's been a long haul," she said wearily.

Shirley Coverdale of the Long Island Organizing Network hailed the FEMA breakthrough yesterday by noting that it was raining on Town Hall - for the first time in weeks - as they spoke.

"I'd like to believe these are showers of blessings, but I also believe they are prophetic," Coverdale said, warning that there is still much work to be done before Horton Avenue's problems are solved.

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