Porter Trent, 78, who's lived in his home on Horton...

Porter Trent, 78, who's lived in his home on Horton Avenue in Riverhead for 50-years, stands in his flooded basement Friday. He said he's never seen flooding like this since he's lived there. (April 2, 2010) Credit: Photo by James Carbone

Riverhead Town might have to declare a dozen flood-ravaged houses along Horton Avenue uninhabitable when waters from Tuesday's storm finally recede, town board member James Wooten said Friday.

While no decision has been made, residents worry they might never be able to return to their homes.

"I don't know where I'm going to go from here," said resident Ivory Brown.

"It's the not knowing - that's the problem," said her daughter, Tarshea. "You don't know where you're going to live. You have a home that you worked for. You can't go there."

The board began discussions Thursday on the possibility of condemning the houses as part of a major flood-control project, but Wooten said that would require months of study.

"We'll have to evaluate the flood after it subsides," he said.

Town supervisor Sean Walter said it would be cheaper to condemn the homes than build a massive drainage system to control runoff from nearby farm fields. Officials have said it is unclear how, and by whom, homeowners would be compensated should their homes be condemned.

The 20 or so residents are prepared for the worst. Linda Hobson, a resident and community activist, acknowledged the modest houses would likely have to be razed. "We will have to rebuild," she said. "We don't know what's going to happen."

Under bright sun and blue sky, residents of the south end of Horton Avenue walked in waders Friday, worried about the strong smell of fuel oil in the air.

Porter Trent, 78, who has lived there for half a century, has been pumping out his basement since Tuesday. "It's never been this high," he said sadly.

The area has been getting a lot of attention since it was swallowed by the flood. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) was there Friday morning; residents said he promised the Federal Emergency Management Agency would come Monday to assess the situation. Town officials said they would try to get FEMA funds to reimburse residents if homes must be condemned.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation has been taking samples of the ugly brown water, which residents and town officials say is contaminated with fuel oil and sewage. Further tests will be done once the water is gone.

Town highway department pumps have been pulling out more than a thousand gallons a minute since Tuesday. Officials expect to finish Monday.

Bishop and the First Baptist Church of Riverhead have started a fund to aid residents who have lost their clothing, furniture and, possibly, their homes.

Pastor Charles A. Coverdale asked his congregation to donate soap, food and clothing, and he is organizing the Horton Avenue Flood Fund. Checks and donations can be left at the church, at 1018 Northville Tpke.

Standing on her property Friday, Hobson said she hoped to get into her house this weekend. "We want to go in and get our clothes out. There's not much we can salvage."

An empty fuel oil tank floated in the front yard; the DEC had emptied the fuel from it earlier in the week. Her own fuel tank was in the backyard, tilted against the house.

Horton Avenue residents - many related by family or marriage - are scattered across the town, living with friends or family, waiting to learn when - if ever - they can return.

"We will do whatever has to be done," said Porter Trent's wife, Marie. "You have to keep on living. You can't give up."

Questions remain

As Horton Avenue in Riverhead continues to drain, a number of key questions must be resolved in the weeks and months ahead. Among them:

Who pays for the damage to a dozen houses and trailers on the south side of the road, and who ultimately will be held responsible? Or will it be considered an act of God, for which no one is legally responsible?

What is the condition of the land where the waterlogged buildings now stand? Officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County Health Department will be testing the land and groundwater to see what contaminants remain after the surface water is drained away.

Is it possible to control flooding from hundreds of acres of farmland that drains down Horton Avenue? If so, would it be cost-effective to spend significant sums of money to deal with what might be one horrendous rainfall that occurs every 20 or 30 years?

Will the area be declared a federal disaster area? If so, can Federal Emergency Management Agency funds be used to help the individual homeowners on Horton Avenue?

Will the Riverhead Town board decide to condemn the homes along Horton Avenue that were destroyed by the flood? If so, will that set a precedent for future disasters?

Will the town's building or zoning codes for the Horton Avenue area have to be changed to respond to this week's flood?

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