2002-09-21 / Columnists

From the G-Man

By Gary G. Toms

A Deadly Trade-Off

Hey people! Being a columnist, many people approach me on a daily basis to inform me of certain situations that are taking place in the Rockaway community. Sometimes I meet a bunch of kooks who try to convince me that the "Mother Ship" is going to land right behind the diner on Beach 116 Street. At other times, I meet people who have such startling information and insight about things that are happening in Rockaway, that they merit attention and investigation. I have recently met with several people who fall into the latter category, and I felt so strongly about the information they provided that I was forced to write this column.

In documents I received from local historians and environmentalists, it clearly shows that there is a strong probability that the Rockaway peninsula will be hit by a large-scale hurricane at some point in the future. Storms and storm patterns over the last century, which are meticulously outlined in the documents, have had a devastating effect on Rockaway. Some of those include: the hurricane of 1938 - Sept. 21; the hurricane of 1939 - Aug. 19; the hurricane of 1943 - Oct. 1; and the hurricane of 1944 - Oct. 20. These were just a few in the list of many hurricanes that hit Rockaway during the 1900's.

As alarming as the statistics were, nothing was more alarming than when one of the historians stated the following.

"If a category 4 hurricane were to hit Rockaway, the place would be leveled. It would be a catastrophe. The level of damage done to the peninsula would be unimaginable. We're not equipped to deal with it, and with all of these homes being built on the peninsula as of late, I don't think one person, or developer, is taking the matter seriously. I know it has never been addressed in a public forum, like a community board meeting, and we have to start discussions on this. The threat is too great to ignore."

Two prominent doctors, formerly of John's Episcopal Hospital South Shore and Peninsula Hospital Center, also noted their concern for the community, but for totally different reasons. As in the case of the historians and environmentalists, they agreed to speak to me if I agreed to conceal their identity. They knew they would face repercussions from their medical colleagues as a result of what they were about to tell me.

"I have been a medical professional for half of my life. I have worked in the emergency room of Peninsula Hospital, and I can tell you for a fact that Rockaway has the single highest rate of asthma, respiratory disorders, and cancer in New York City."

I asked the doctors why this was the case, and they did not hold back when answering.

"Rockaway has areas that are nothing more than toxic dump sites, and they have been for a number of years. This is having a tremendous effect on residents of the community. You factor in the jet fuel being inhaled from planes out of JFK, and you can clearly see that there are serious health risks involved. We should not be building homes in these areas without conducting proper tests to ensure the public's safety, and no one is doing this. As a health professional, that concerns me."

The discussions prompted me to contact the offices of State Senator Malcolm Smith and Assemblywoman Michele Titus. Both offices informed me that they had heard of the claims that were being made, and were in the process of obtaining detailed reports and data on the subjects.

"I have been briefed on the cases, and I am taking the matter very seriously, said the State Senator.

Smith also submitted a letter to the Department of Health's Antonia C. Novella, citing his concerns.

I have nothing but the highest praise for these people for coming forward with this vital information. While many may consider what they said to be vague, there is no disputing the historical data and action by current legislators. These issues have not been addressed, and are not being addressed, for some strange reason.

One reason may be because the situation has gotten so out of control, with the true number of cancer-related cases and deaths in Rockaway, that someone decided that it would not be in the public's best interest to know about them. Their way of thinking is, "Why start a widespread panic throughout the community, when we may have the opportunity to fix the problem?" Yeah, right. The problem has existed for years, and all of a sudden they're going to correct it? They're a bunch of fools!

Another reason why no one may be saying anything about these monumental environmental and health issues is because it would destroy Rockaway's opportunity to become "Hamptons West," as described by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Just imagine how much money would be lost in the Arverne-By-The-Sea development deal if most of the buyers found out that these state of the art homes would be reduced to nothing in the path of category 4 hurricanes. Imagine what would happen to the enormous housing boom if data were released that proved Rockaway was indeed a cluster point for asthma, cancer and other deadly diseases. I think we all know quite well what would happen.

I find it hard to believe that certain decision makers were not aware of these potential dangers. I wonder what the Beechwood Organization, and its developers, would say if they were asked, "Would your homes be able to withstand the force of a category 4 hurricane?" or "In terms of construction, what type of reinforcement is used in the event of a major hurricane?" They'd probably have a field day with this question. "Would you be as determined to build homes in Rockaway if the area was proven to be an asthma or cancer hotspot?" My point is either research was done and simply ignored, or no one bothered to do any research at all.

I find it hard to believe that any of the people I spoke to would have any reason to lie to me or make this stuff up. They were extremely afraid of what could happen in the future if these issues were not addressed. The information is out there to validate the claims of the doctors, historians and environmentalists. Just do the research before you say they are full of crap! You might be surprised at what you find.

I'd hate to think the decision makers are so hard up to see the "Rockaway of old" that they would actually put profit before people's lives. Let's be clear about this. I'm not saying steps shouldn't be taken to make Rockaway better socially or economically. I'm all for that. However, if you're going to do that, make sure you cover all the bases and address all the issues of concern. Don't act like you're trying to keep stuff on the "DL" (down low) and hide issues of serious concern in order to make a damn profit or create a "Hamptons West."

The fact that no one is discussing these issues leads me to believe that this may indeed be the case. Many people always thought that New York would never be subject to an earthquake, but in recent months tremors have been felt as far as upstate. This being the case, I'd say a category 4 hurricane is more than a possibility. To take the attitude, "We'll worry about it when it happens," is simply stupid, and people may die as a result of this thinking. If a report is issued in the coming year citing Rockaway as cluster for asthma or cancer, it is a given that others will run the risk of dying as well. If it comes to this, the decision makers will forever have to live with the fact they put profit before people, which is the deadliest of trade-offs.

See you next week!

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