By Rich Bockmann
Many Hollywood films have at the center of their plots the destruction of a great metropolis at the hands of Mother Nature, and in 2011 Queens came closer than any year in recent memory to resembling a high-budget disaster flick.
As the year started, the ground was still covered with the snow that had been dumped by a blizzard in the waning days of 2010, and as the piles of snow melted away many in the borough were starting to gripe about the city’s response, or lack thereof, which left residents stranded for days as they waited for the roads to be plowed
City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) came forward with a claim that two city Department of Transportation and three city Sanitation Department employees assigned to Queens had confided in them that they were asked by supervisors “to take their time” plowing roads because the “mayor’s office doesn’t care about them.”
Two more major snowstorms in January blanketed some parts of the borough with more than 24 additional inches of the white stuff, and as the weather warmed city officials turned up the heat on Halloran’s clam of a snow slowdown.
In June, the city Department of Investigation released a report concluding the councilman’s claim did not hold water.
“In toto, Mr. Halloran’s information about city employee statements contributed no actual evidence about a possible slowdown,” Investigation said.
Speaking of water, the period of June, July and August was the wettest since the National Weather Service began keeping records at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in the late 1940s.
“For JFK and LaGuardia, there were two systems that came in before Tropical Storm Irene and recorded a lot of rainfall,” said NWS meteorologist David Stark. “A couple of weeks before [Irene], a system came in and a thunderstorm sat over the area for a couple of hours. They really spiked up the numbers for the three-month period.”
That freak thunderstorm unleashed flash floods on Cross Island Parkway and battered some neighborhoods with hail Aug. 1.
“I’ve never seen hail that big in New York before, said Glen Oaks Village Co-op President Bob Friedrich. “It was as if somebody had a case of baseballs and dropped them on the lawn.”
Snow, rain and hail can be expected around these parts, but almost everyone was caught by surprise Aug. 23 when the ground started to shake.
Just before 2 p.m., a 5.9-magnitude quake struck near Richmond, Va., and the reverberations sent people across Queens scampering out of buildings. The ground shook for about 20 seconds, and flights at both borough airports were grounded for a little less than an hour. The city’s subways and the Long Island Rail Road kept moving on a normal schedule.
Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who is also a trained geologist, said the last earthquake to make a direct hit on New York was in 1884, when a 5.3-magnitude quake struck just off Brooklyn but left hardly any devastation in its wake.
In the lead-up to Irene, Queens battened down the hatches and low-lying areas such as Broad Channel and the Rockaways were ordered evacuated — a first for New York City.
When the tropical storm struck Queens in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, it battered both the shores and the mainland with rain and heavy winds.
“Between the storm and the high tide, everything’s ruined,” said 69-year-old George Zach, who was one of many Broad Channel residents whose basement flooded during the storm.
Homes were destroyed in Broad Channel, Hunters Point saw flooding, enormous trees in the borough’s northeastern corner were uprooted and across the region homes were left without electricity, but by and large there seemed to be a consensus that Irene failed to deliver on the “storm-of-the-century” chaos hyped by 24-hour media coverage leading up to its arrival.
Many believed Mayor Michael Bloomberg had over-reacted in ordering the evacuation, weary of receiving the type of criticism levied at him during the Dec. 26 blizzard.
As of press time Tuesday, Queens had experienced neither a tsunami, tornado nor volcanic eruption, though there were still four more days left in 2011.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.