2013-04-19 / Columnists

School Scope

Where Was The Water Line Again?
By Norman Scott

We are in the eighth week of reconstruction in the damaged areas of our home. Wherever one goes, conversations almost always turn to “that night.” Everyone wants to share stories. Certain patterns emerge. Like the general feeling that the bay side got hit harder than the beach side, with more and more people saying, “If they are rebuilding the wall in the 120s WHY NOT BUILD IT HIGHER?” My response is often, “first put in check valves on the storm sewers emptying into the bay.”

And that takes me back to the 1992 Nor’easter which hit the day after they finished the sewer job on my block (which I watched avidly over months, concerned about the pitch of the line and how far down it had to go as the water emptied into the bay). That day the bay waters seemed to be coming back up the storm sewer lines onto the streets. My wife’s car, which we had put on the street across from PS 114 the night before because the tar on our street had just been put down that day, was flooded and cost almost $2000 to repair. (It never ran quite right again.) During the storm I managed to reach some project manager and asked if they put in check valves that would close down the backflow if the bay rose above the sewer exit pipe. “This is a once in a lifetime storm,” he said. “We don’t really need them.” In the new normal, 20 years is a lifetime.

I imagine the same thing happened again with Sandy. Streets flooded in the morning tide and the storm sewers were slow to empty, though as low tide came in they began to work so that by 11 a.m. the streets were cleared and we could walk to the beach. As we walked we kicked away leaves blocking the sewers so water could flow down. How naïve. Later that afternoon with the rain whipping, I walked down my block kicking leaves off the sewers. Three hours later, looking down into my giant swimming pool in the den, I felt like a total idiot.

So and was an early sign, even earlier in the day, of bay side flooding. I attended a meeting in Far Rockaway a few weeks ago and was chatting with some of the bigwigs from the city, I men- tioned check valves and one of them said, “You are the second person to mention that,” and he wrote a note to himself. Not that I think what seems like a reasonable thing to do will actually happen. With the waters driving over the sea wall, check valves wouldn’t have made much of a difference in Sandy, but in lesser storms like the ’92 Nor’easter, they might. I may not know what I’m talking about, but check valves, which may be a low cost item, are worth checking out.

Last month we had 25 people over for the Passover Seder. The two and five year olds were happy racing up and down the stairs and crawling under the tables. All the adults wanted to see the water line, most of which was obliterated as the sheet rock disappeared. Fifty seven inches above ground level, thank you, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

As the people began to arrive, the two construction guys who were in the fifth week of practically living with us, were still working downstairs and of course all the guys wanted to see the work, turning me into a tour guide. The women were perfectly happy to have me open the door to the den and point out how the water had gotten within two inches of where we were standing. Two inches from ruining our living area. The reaction? A deep shudder. Of course we were lucky compared to so many others.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of split level older homes in Rockaway. Ours was built around 1960, which makes it the newest house on my block. So when the basement filled to the top of the rafters, the ground level garage, laundry room, den and bathroom filled to the same level, which was 57 inches at around 9 p.m. on Sandy night. That all 57 inches was gone by the next morning is a miracle of the tides which both giveth and taketh.

I was at a party in Manhattan a few months ago. My friend’s husband is a leading climatologist, one of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. He wanted details of the flood. “That wasn’t a hundred year storm,” he said, “it was a thousand year storm.” Phew. But does the new normal translate that into twenty years?

Norm blogs at ednotesonline.org

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