Experts & Laymen Weigh in on Floods & Disasters

by Harold Wolfson

(September 27, 2007) Malcolm Shaker, a retired social worker and unscheduled speaker, drew both surprise and applause from disaster experts and audience members attending the Local Summit’s September 18th meeting at the Nautilus Diner on “Community-Level Response to Disaster” when he pointed out that local government has an unused weapon to lessen ruinous flooding such as occurred last April.

That weapon, he said, is “the power to tax or not tax.”

Mr. Shaker, with no emergency handling credentials, but a keen interest in the problem of local flooding, said that we all know that one reason for the rise in flooding is that there is less permeable land available to soak up storm water.

He asked how many in the audience had homes with paved driveways. Many hands went up. He said that was part of the problem.

“Local government has a stick and a carrot,” noted Mr. Shaker. “Government can tax residential or business property owners who have or are planning paved parking lots, driveways, patios and other areas.” (This approach is among the recommendations in a recently released study by Malcolm Pirnie.) “Conversely, it can reduce taxes for those who bring land back to permeability,” added Mr. Shaker.

“We can also give tax benefits to people who plant new trees that will soak up water,” he said.

Mr. Shaker said he believes a disaster is waiting to happen at the huge residential development rising at the former driving range on Weaver Street. “This is the highest land in town,” he said. “Storm water is going to run directly off its paved areas and flow directly downstream to Larchmont and Mamaroneck.”

Preparing for Disasters: Individually and Collectively

The Rev. Deborah Tammearu is president of WINDER, a new disaster planning organization.
The Summit’s program, organized and chaired by Dave Currie, senior director of resource development of Larchmont-Mamaroneck United Way, also included featured speakers: Tony Sutton, Westchester County’s commissioner of emergency management; Rosemary Calderalo, executive director of the Hudson Valley Region 211 Information and Referral Service; Rev. Deborah Tammearu of St. Thomas Episcopal Church and president of the newly founded WINDER inter-faith disaster planning organization; and Judy Myers, Westchester County legislator.

Mr. Sutton pointed out that the key to surviving future disasters is the willingness of every individual to be personally responsible for his own preparedness. Having a working flashlight, a battery-powered radio, potable drinking water, non-perishable food and other necessities are all part of personal disaster planning. “Governmental and other help will all take time. We have to be able to take care of ourselves for at least three days.”

He indicated that when “push comes to shove” safety nets are primarily local. He pointed out that one of the single biggest successes in the handling of the initial phase of the local floods last spring stemmed from the County having undertaken an incident command training program for local fire and police departments two years earlier. When the floods hit, “the training kicked in.”

Mr. Currie of the United Way said that future disasters can include not only flooding but hurricanes, truck tankers spilling fluorine on a nearby parkway, terrorism, fire or a nuclear event. He said the community and the county does well in responding to a disaster’s immediate emergency phase because they practice. But there is slippage in the longer recovery phase. With this in mind, “It is important for the community to develop the coalitions and capacities to carry out recovery phase procedures more effectively.”

Rosemary Calderalo, of the Hudson Valley 211 organization, said her group serves seven counties and is a 24/7 informational and referral service with a staff of specialists trained in securing help in times of crisis, as well as for everyday living problems. The national 211 service in Louisiana was one of the few organizations to “anchor a human services network in the Katrina hurricane disaster.”

During the recent local flooding, 211 was able to refer some 600 phone calls for help to the Village of Mamaroneck and to other organizations, including the Hispanic Resource Center, which was designated by Westchester County to handle case management.

Rev. Tammearu said one of the goals of the new WINDER organization is to plan so that in future disasters there is a minimum of victims running randomly from organization to organization to get help and to reduce redundancy of services. The WINDER group will work to “coordinate community and faith-based organizational assistance in a disaster,” she said. “We want to help people grow up and be prepared.”

County Legislator Myers said that one anti-flooding measure being studied by Westchester was the possible use of ponds and lakes that can be drained before a storm and then filled with storm water to be released later in a controlled way. Another measure could be the use of larger culverts to let an increased flow of water pass through to Long Island Sound. A third measure, studied by the Army Corp of Engineers, could be the possible acquisition by eminent domain of critical private land for flooding mitigation.

NY State Assemblyman George Latimer was at the meeting and said that one of the key questions in disaster planning is: “Will the structure of society hold when disaster strikes? Will people still follow the rules? For example, will people in Orienta follow the blue evacuation route signs when they are warned?” He said the state must marshal its capabilities to work with county and local governments so that solid plans are in place when disaster strikes. “We’re trying to play out doomsday scenarios and work backward in terms of anticipating.”

The Local Summit, which sponsored the presentation, is an informal community council that works to make the community a better place to live for everyone. Its regular public meeting takes place the third Tuesday of the month at 7:45 a.m. at the Nautilus Diner. Harold Wolfson is on the board of the Summit.