Queens pols call on Paterson to declare city a disaster area

By Anna Gustafson

Queens elected officials called on Gov. David Paterson to declare the city an official disaster area in order to land federal funding after a massive storm wreaked extensive damage throughout the borough, leaving one person dead, tens of thousands without power and uprooted trees on homes and blocking streets.

“In 15 minutes last night, the winds came through our communities and did so much harm,” Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said at a press conference in MacDonald Park, where nearly every tree in what is one of Forest Hills’ most popular parks was uprooted or snapped in half. “There are trees on homes, in the street, traffic is at a standstill. There is so much devastation. We are calling upon the governor of New York for help.”

Koslowitz and a number of other elected officials, including Councilman Dan Halloran, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), Councilman James Gennaro — who had no power in his home because of the storm — and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras signed a letter asking that the governor make the declaration, which would allow the borough to be able to receive federal funding. State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) and state Sens. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) too have called on the governor to do the same.

Officials do not know yet how much the storm cost Queens, but U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) said it would cost millions of dollars solely to repair the damage done in MacDonald Park.

“This looks more like Jurassic Park than MacDonald Park,” Weiner said.

Paterson said he offered Mayor Michael Bloomberg assistance from state agencies immediately after the storm, and state Department of Transportation workers are helping city workers clear the massive debris from the roadways. Trees have caused major traffic delays throughout Queens, and about 20 percent of roads in the Auburndale-Flushing area are impassable, according to Halloran. The Long Island Expressway was completely shut down for part of Thursday night, and what was normally a 10-minute trip on the Grand Central Parkway became a two-hour venture because of downed trees on the highway.

Aline Levakis, 30, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was killed when a tree fell on her car parked on the side of the Grand Central Parkway near Jewel Avenue at about 6:50 p.m. Thursday, according to police.

Forest Hills resident Ryan Sumner spent six hours trying to get from the Queensboro Bridge to Forest Hills.

“You really think of the name Forest Hills when you see all these downed trees,” Sumner said.

“I have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide teams of federal inspectors to determine the extent of damage in the three boroughs,” Paterson said in a prepared statement Friday. “As part of the federal disaster process, both the individual boroughs and the state must reach a threshold of damage before any federal assistance can be requested. The New York State Office of Emergency Management will take the first step in the process tomorrow and begin the damage assessment working in partnership with the New York City Office of Emergency Management.”

After the storm caused tens of thousands of Queens households to lose power, including 10,000 in the Flushing power grid, according to Halloran, hundreds of people have flooded Queens officials’ offices with phone calls for help. In addition to calling City Council, state Assembly, state Senate or congressional offices, officials asked residents to call 311 so the city can document the damage in order to receive more funding from the state and federal governments.

Legislators too called on residents to look out for one another.

“After we had trees that have fallen on people’s homes and winds that have ripped off rooftops, it is so important to check on our neighbors,” Crowley said. “We need to continue to work together as a community.”

Many Forest Hills residents stood in shock Friday in front of homes devastated by the storms, including Maria Salvo, who has lived in her house on Ingram Street near 68th Avenue since 1967. Two huge uprooted sycamore trees fell on her house and two other homes, crushing her front awning and landing on her roof. The trees did not break through the roof nor shatter any windows.

“I was in the basement when it happened, and it sounded like an airplane fell on the house,” Salvo said. “I was so scared to go see what it was. I couldn’t sleep all night.”

Marc Barbiere, who grew up in Flushing, drove all night from Virginia to Queens to make sure his 91-year-old grandmother, who lives next to Salvo, was alright. Luckily, she was, though her house is damaged.

Asha Devi, of Kew Gardens, said she was startled to see the massive tree that had come down in front of the Russell Sage school on Austin Street in Forest Hills. The school had an early dismissal because of the damage, said Devi, who picked up her brother at the school Friday afternoon.

“I was pretty shocked when I saw it,” said Devi, a graduate of Russell Sage. “The uprooted trees everywhere are causing problems. We had trouble on the Q23 bus because of the trees everywhere, the driver was basically just stopping wherever people wanted him to.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected]al.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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