Far beyond the idyllic waterfront communities of the imagination, residents of Bellmore and Merrick are huddling together under the auspices of the NYRising Community Reconstruction Program with a cogent plan in mind to reconstruct their communities to make them safer and more resilient in the face of storms such as superstorm Sandy slamming them with deadly tidal surges.
Those surges destroyed hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives and homes when the storm hit, and many still wait to receive funding from insurance or the government to rebuild.
So when close to 30 residents last week at Norman J. Levy-Lakeside School in Merrick broke into small groups to discuss how to conceptualize a new community that can respond to sudden disasters in the future, it was purely about survival of their communities.
After opening remarks of this third-of-six planned public meetings from Joe Baker of Merrick and Dr. Larry Eisenstein of Bellmore, co-chairmen of the Bellmore- Merrick district NYRising CR Plan, residents got to work in six small groups to brainstorm and envision ideas in areas such as housing, economic development, natural resources, health and social services, infrastructure, community planning and cultural resources that have been identified as central to survival.
“This is a plan about resiliency, about preparing, responding, recovering and thriving in the face of such weather hazards” in the future remarked Trent Lethco, a consultant from ARUP Consultants assisting the state in the plan. “What would a conceptual plan be, for example, where do we as residents want it to go?” he asked, offering material ideas toward the more-pragmatic discussions to take place among the groups.
“We want to find out what might be a good plan for the South Shore communities” in responding more aggressively, where to go in the event of another storm that is absolutely safe, how to communicate with one another so no one is left behind, how to fight back against the water and flooding of our homes, he said.
Co-Chairman Baker reiterated to residents in attendance that state Governor Andrew Cuomo called for “this bottom-up approach to get reactions and opinions from the community.” From the opinions and reactions the thrust is to cull and shape them into a realistic reconstruction plan the co-chairmen can use to apply for an $11 million grant to implement as many aspects of the plan(s) as can be done.
“$11 million may only be a starting point” of the amount the communities could get if residents could provide workable visions on how to create a safer community, Dr. Eisenstein noted.
As much an inspirational plan for a more resilient community as a workable one, residents were presented with successful models of other communities in the country that have indeed created safer, more resilient neighborhoods and communities, at least one of which withstood the surge of superstorm Sandy.
Several government agencies would need to be “on board” for any redesigns of the neighborhoods to have a chance to survive, noted Dr. Eisenstein. It took several New York City agencies five years to agree to build the Hunterspoint, Brooklyn, project, for example. It was a plan that married natural shrubs to concrete that enabled the project to finally flourish.
The plan called for Hunterspoint to withstand a 100-year flood at 7.25 foot surge levels. But superstorm Sandy pushed that limit almost immediately, with water rising 9.5 feet. “Green infrastructure absorbed the surge to reduce flooding throughout the community,” and the community has bounced back, to continue to thrive in the midst of real danger.
Trees and shrubs were strategically placed along the waterfront and boulevards to absorb and deflect water away from critical assets and vulnerable areas, such as hospitals, schools and low-lying areas or parks. The redesign has now proven its workability in warding off any future surges.
Critical areas such as community centers, doctors’ offices, gas stations, pharmacies and libraries can be identified as among a community’s assets, places where residents can go to get needed supplies, for shelter or for light and electricity to run equipment in the face of critical failures brought by surges.
Randy Shotland , a Merrick committee member of the group headed by Baker and Eisenstein, told this website he went to Hofstra University, where he plugged in and stayed for days, as his business dictated. Communities need more of these types of failsafe community infrastructures, he said, in which residents don’t lose electricity or it is quickly restored, as examples of what any concrete reconstruction plan must entail.
At the first meeting of the NYRising CR Plan at the Acqua Restaurant in Merrick in September an idea was floated to remove housing from all lower-lying areas that flood. Neal Yeoman, another Merrick member of the committee, said then houses near the bay did not flood, while those closer to Merrick Road were flooded. “When the swamps were filled in to build housing a long time ago, builders actually raised the elevation” closer to the bay, he said.
Mix of ideas
Ideas being discussed among residents when asked to group into three-to-six residents apiece were precisely the types of ideas Dr. Eisenstein had hoped to hear in pursuit of the grants. ‘I’m hearing a lot of good thoughts here tonight,” he told this website, as he walked among the groups. “This is good turnout in terms of the quality of the discussions.” Group leaders shared their thoughts on housing, economic development, natural resources, health and social services, infrastructure , community planning and cultural resources toward the end of the evening.
Among them were road grade changes, such as elevating roadways to go in and out of neighborhoods, which would also keep traffic open for major access. Tree management would be essential to prevent them from falling onto poles or pulling wires down – in addition to not planting trees at all. Home gas issues included putting high-pressure check valves in place of low-pressure valves, which would keep water out of the gas systems.
Committee member Alison Frankel
Other ideas stemming from the groups included streamlining permits for raising houses and how to obtain funding for them. Develop centers or clearinghouses where such information is available all at one place, one leader said. Another thought was to change laws requiring gas and electric meters to be installed on the second floors of homes.
Develop buddy systems from ages 18-to-65 in schools and institutions to nurture contacts for communications in the event of another flooding, another group leader announced. One idea that received reaction focused on residents educating themselves on what the flood levels were of their homes to take appropriate action, such planning proper evacuations or building up their elevations. Current Hempstead Town flood planners are available for actualizing such elevation plans.
Find warehouse facilities or buildings such as libraries with permanent generators that store freezers, refrigerators and defibrillators. Also, a central location can be developed to provide shuttle services.
Julie Marschella, a Merrick member of the committee and a leader of one discussion group, raised the notion the Town of Hempstead changing land zoning to include more mixed use, such as businesses on the ground floor and residential apartments above to provide for better economic development. She also talked of more open walking spaces in downtown areas – often known as smart growth, using Sayville and Babylon as examples of villages that had incorporated such planning into their neighborhoods.
Shelters for residents with no relatives in the communities were still another idea approached. Dredging the bays, building flood walls and using natural barriers such as vegetation along canals was also submitted.
Also included in the committee for shaping a conceptual plan to receive funds to rebuild Bellmore and Merrick are Ali Frankel, Neil Yeoman, John Fabian, Eileen Casazza and Joanne Bo. The fourth public meeting has not yet been set, but a final plan has to be in place by March to move forward to the state for consideration for funds.
Baker told residents as they left they could also email their ideas to email@example.com.