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Editorial: A drenching reminder to keep improving

Brookhaven Highway Department workers pump water on Boyle

Brookhaven Highway Department workers pump water on Boyle Street in Selden after heavy rain left it flooded, snarling traffic Wednesday morning, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The storm didn't even have a name.

Rain of biblical proportions lashed Long Island Wednesday morning, another historic weather event in a region weary of making that kind of history.

It produced images we've seen before, and some we've never glimpsed. It generated tales of woe and stories of heroism. It reminded us that we might be battered but we're also resilient, and we're getting better at responding to Mother Nature's fiercest jabs.

The torrent should highlight the limits of our aging infrastructure and strengthen imperatives to keep it strong, with fallback options as failures mount. The work will be costly, but it must be done.

We've had rain before, but not like this. More than 13 inches fell in some places in a few hours, easily eclipsing the state record for a 24-hour period. The flooding was severe -- and often in places, like the middle of the Island, that had not experienced that before.

Roads and parking lots became rivers and ponds. Portions of 11 major highways and innumerable smaller roads were closed, all at the same time. Most Long Island Rail Road branches had delays or cancellations and the Port Jefferson line was shut down east of Huntington. For a while, you really couldn't get there from here, unless you had a kayak.

Basements that never had seen a drop filled with water, thousands lost power, hundreds of cars were stranded, boats were overturned and shellfishing areas were closed due to bacteria from all the runoff. One person died.

Some of the images were striking -- like trains running at the Bay Shore station while cars in the parking lot had water up to their windows. And kids with nets wading through streets in West Islip looking for -- and finding -- fish from backyard ponds.

As happened with Irene and Sandy, the blizzard called Nemo and the wildfires that ravaged central Suffolk County, the storm again highlighted the work of our first responders. The North Babylon Fire Department deserves special commendation for rescuing the occupants of as many as 50 cars stuck on the Southern State Parkway in North Babylon. Ironically, the firefighters ferried drivers to safety with the same brush trucks used to fight wildfires.

Just as Sandy taught us that we must strengthen our coastline, this downpour exposed more of our vulnerabilities. That much rain in that short of a period is always going to overwhelm drainage systems designed to handle just a 5-inch storm within 24 hours. But where we can act to make a difference, we should. In West Hills, for example, a redesign project on Jericho Turnpike kept a chronically flooded part of the roadway open. Reports Wednesday of sewer backups in Bay Shore and septic failures elsewhere remind us of the need to make sure those systems are sound.

We live on an island with a high water table. Life here will always be precarious to some degree. And predictions by climate scientists that extreme weather will only become more frequent are disquieting. But that should be a spur to action.

We got through this one. Again. Now we must continue to improve our infrastructure and keep our emergency response services in peak form so we're not paralyzed once more by the natural disasters that inevitably will follow.