Howard Beach votes on how to shelter the area from future storms

By Sarina Trangle

Few elections invite the community to cast their votes in cash, but that is how the NY Rising Howard Beach Committee organized its vote this week on which proposed storm protection initiatives the neighborhood supported most.

With paper dollar bills in hand, Howard Beach residents stuffed money into ballot boxes serving as referendums on projects ranging from bolstering the West Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department to an initiative that would dispatch flood mitigation auditors to private homes.

After the money is counted, the committee will use the fake bills as a barometer of community backing while crafting a comprehensive plan for spending the Howard Beach Committee’s $18.3 million budget.

“We want to hear from you so that we could have a full representation of what the community would like,” committee Co-Chairwoman Frances Scarantino said.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program to distribute grants to badly damaged communities. Howard Beach was among roughly 45 areas that established committees to lead their neighborhoods in spending the money.

The group hosted an open house at Russo’s on the Bay Monday to outline several potential projects it hashed out with guidance from Tom Jost, a senior urban strategist with the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm, and Kaye Matheny, a principal with consulting company HR&A.

The committee focused on protecting the edges of Howard Beach, where Spring Creek and the Shellbank and Hawtree basins function as flood paths.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has received $50 million in federal funding to landscape the southern part of Spring Creek Park into a storm barrier.

North of the Belt Parkway, the city Parks Department has applied for a $50 million grant from the U.S. Interior Department to perform similar work.

Jost said government agencies quickly backed the Spring Creek projects because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been studying that area for years.

Because there has been little analysis of the basins, Jost said the committee considered directing $2.5 million toward a study of how beneficial adding tide gates to the waterways would be and the feasibility of building a berm along Charles Memorial Park. The group proposed putting money into elevating the parkland, which rests between the two basins, as a way to generate more support from the government.

John Calcagnile, co-chairman of the committee, said he was initially skeptical of “soft” proposals to mitigate flooding by altering the landscape by piling up dirt and adding plants. He came to embrace the Spring Creek work as a potential catalyst for tide gates.

“I’ve experienced everything from a moon tide to a nor’easter to Irene to Sandy, with 7 feet of water in my basement. So my immediate focus has been from Day 1 hard protection,” Calcagnile said. “If you look at what’s happening now, we never really had this focus on our area.”

Beyond mitigation work, Matheny said the committee had studied spending $2.5 million to $3 million outfitting the Catholic Charities’ senior center gym, at 155-55 Cross Bay Blvd., with flood prevention technology and transforming it into a relief hub.

The committee also explored funding a business resiliency program to assist entrepreneurs with navigating flood insurance, applying for government aid and offering small amounts of money to fund mitigation work.

Matheny said there was not enough money to finance a similar program for homeowners, but the committee proposed counseling, auditing and education services designed to help residents assess whether it would be most economical to pay higher insurance rates or take various steps to protect their homes.

While studying the proposals, Dolores Bevilacqua said she wanted to avoid work on localized initiatives, such as improving the storm drains in the Coleman Square section of the neighborhood.

“We all shared the pain of what happened two years in a row,” she said. “This should benefit everyone.”

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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