For the families on the corner of 90th Avenue and 183rd Street in Hollis, storm clouds mean it’s time to pack up and run.
Summer’s flash rainstorms may only be a slight inconvenience for most New Yorkers, but here, and other low-lying neighborhoods in Southeast Queens, summer rains result in massive floodings, sometimes trapping residents upstairs in their attics and sweeping away valuables.
“I had twelve feet of water,” said Amrita Bhagwandin, who lives in the neighborhood. “The outside water, it’s seeping through the walls of my house. I felt like I was going to drown in here! I had to climb up the stairs to the second floor.”
In the past five years, Bhagwandin’s house has been severely flooded twelve times and she’s had to toss away almost every belonging she moved in with. Now, whenever she hears it might rain, she immediately leaves her home and stays with her sister-in-law.
“It’s too terrifying to stay in my own home,” she said.
Though many residents blame the flooding on the city’s sewage system — manholes popping off and overflowing with water are not unusual sights — the problem is actually the land that most of Southeast Jamaica sits on.
LIVING ON FLOODED GROUNDS
Underneath about 100 feet of topsoil, Jamaica sits on top of a massive aquifer system that spans most of Queens and Brooklyn all the way into Nassau County.
The aquifers, a geological formation that captures and holds groundwater, was created during the last ice age by massive glaciers that used to cover much of the Northeast.
Typically, cities that sit on a vast aquifer have the ability to install wells and extract clean drinking water from the ground and keep the water table at levels that won’t flood neighborhoods. The deeper the well, the purer the water – though the cost rises exponentially.
Most of Nassau County, for example, pumps their water from the Lloyd Aquifer, the largest and deepest of the aquifers which runs just above the bedrock and goes down to 1,400 feet below sea level. Yearly costs for Nassau’s water pumping is over $20 million a year, according to state records.
But Lloyd is a “confined aquifer”, separated by a 250-foot thick clay sheet from the upper aquifers, which swell during any kind of heavy rain and spill over on the land through the city’s sewage system and natural springs, like putting a running hose into a filled pot of water.
York College’s sub-basement is also being flooded from the rising water table that seeps through cracks in the basement’s concrete slabs.
“You don’t have to take a boat to get there, but you can see water trickling, it’s a few centimeters that you can visibly see,” said Associate Professor of Earth and Physical Sciences at York College Nazrul Khandaker, referring to the flooding in York’s basement.
Constant flooding forced the administration to raise electric conduits from beneath the floors to above ground, just in time before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in 2012, and the slipshod response from County officials to fix the problem have prompted the college to be more proactive.
A number of solutions have been proposed, including creating a man-made lake behind the school and pumping the floodwaters in to fill it.
“That was a wild idea,” said York College’s Vice President for Administration Ronald C. Thomas.
Another solution included pumping the water into a dry location across Liberty Avenue behind the Health and Sciences building and use a series of pipes to let flood water leach out into the topsoil and out through Jamaica Bay, the marshy island area south of JFK airport, but the plan was untenable for a variety of reasons.
“The current plan calls for waterproofing the existing basement,” said Thomas. “All-in-all we have a temporary solution that will continue to hold until the basement is finalized.”
“The best thing to do is use the water,” said Khandaker.
But that proves problematic because several years ago officials discovered that the groundwater is contaminated and must be filtered and treated before it can be safely pumped out into the city’s sewer system.
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Starting in 1887, the Jamaica Water Supply Company (JWS) was in charge of pumping the aquifer for drinking and sewage. For the next 100 years, JWS operated 68 wells throughout Brooklyn and Queens. JWS pumped over 58 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer and kept the water tables stable.
In 1996, JWS (a subsidiary of Connecticut-based electric group Emcor) was sold to New York City and the Water Authority of Western Nassau for $178.8 million.
Since then, water for Queens and Brooklyn has been pumped in through the same pipelines that bring water from the Croton Watershed in upstate New York, and all the wells in Queens were shut down. The drinking water supply system is now safe and separate from the old groundwater supply system and the aquifer.
But since pumping the groundwater kept Jamaica neighborhoods dry, the closing of the wells resulted in a slow, steady rise in the water table over the past 15 years. The result has been increased flooding during even light rains, when water would seep through the topsoil and overwhelm the aquifer.
In 2005, officials re-opened five wells to alleviate the flooding, but the mere 3.8 million gallons pumped per day was too little for the torrential rains during the summers.
Basements continued to flood because of non-consumption, according to Khandaker, and after officials discovered the groundwater was contaminated, city, state and federal officials had difficulty agreeing on who should do what and where the funds would come from.
Officials concluded that between 1969 and 1992, the Westside Corporation, a storage company located next to one of the JWS wells, was distributing dry-cleaning supplies including a large amount of perchloroethylene (PERC), the same chemical that the EPA found in the groundwater being pumped out by the five wells.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the state’s attorney general, he sued the now-defunct Westside Corporation and several suppliers in federal court to recoup the cost of the cleanup and remediation efforts, but the case fell apart after several years of litigation.
And residents in Jamaica were left behind, continuing to see their basements and sewage back up.
A number of pumps were built next to the Westside Corporation site, and residents saw some relief during the summer storms in 2012, but were only used for three months.
“This is part of the frustration with the state,” said State Assemblyman for Jamaica William Scarborough, who has long been an advocate to fix the flooding, but argued that state lawmakers are dragging their feet. “They pumped for three months, and they helped tremendously in that area to reduce the groundwater.”
But the state ordered the pumps to stop because they were only using it to clear the toxic plume of water underneath the Westside Corporation.
“It was very frustrating for us,” said Scarborough. “We want to get the new commissioner to reopen the wells to give us some real relief.”
Former Commissioner Carter Strickland of NYCDEP released set initiatives to help alleviate flooding problems in the region in 2013. The DEP is planning to install seepage basins and extend sewer systems.
The DEP estimates that the seepage basins could have the potential to draw 2 million gallons of water out of the ground per day. In order for the basins to work, a pipe must be driven into the ground and into an aquifer to collect water. This water is then directed through a series of pipes towards a storm drain. According to DEP, the city’s 10-year capital plan includes more than $100 million for high-level storm sewers in southeast Queens.
“The city’s sewer system protects public health and promotes economic growth, which is why we have invested more than $383 million over the last 10 years to continue to extend sewers throughout Southeast Queens,” Strickland said.
“The project makes sense in the long run,” said Chester James, who’s home in Jamaica has been flooded so many times he keeps sandbags on the perimeter of his home year-round. “We’re getting sewage backed up into our basement every time it rains. It’s not the most pleasant thing at all. We’re the ones who clean it up, not the politicians.”