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City Should Have Required Evacuations Ahead of Sandy, Canarsie Locals Say

By Joe Parziale | November 16, 2012 8:38am

CANARSIE — Residents along Canarsie's devastated waterfront are slamming the city for underestimating the threat of floods before Hurricane Sandy

The city assigned Canarsie to Zone B — rather than the more vulnerable Zone A — and did not require residents to evacuate.

“Jamaica Bay is in their backyards,” said Tony Herbert, a community advocate who met with residents last Sunday. “The bottom line is they should have been in Zone A to begin with so that they could have at least protected their belongings even if they weren’t going to leave.”

Rows of houses just east of Paerdegat Basin were hit by a flash flood that destroyed many basements and first floors.

"We all felt unprepared," said Barnatte Valace, 60, who owns a two-story home on Paerdegat 8th Street with her husband, Bertram.

"The truth is a lot of us might have still stuck around if the evacuation was mandatory, just to stay and protect our homes," Valace continued. "But I know that a lot of people here, especially the renters, would have packed everything they could carry and gotten out of here."

Neil Blair, who also owns a home on the block and recently lost his construction job, said it could take him years to recover from about $30,000 in damages, including a sunken foundation, a flooded car and destroyed power tools.

Blair said he would have evacuated if he had been in Zone A, but the lack of warning from the city threw him off guard.

"If they tell us, 'Get out,' we're going to get out," Blair, 48, said. "If I knew water was going to wash out my block like a tidal wave, I wouldn't have left my tools and my car sitting there waiting to be destroyed."

The city's Office of Emergency Management defended Canarsie's Zone B designation, based on models established by national experts.

The city first created the zone map in 2003, using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supplied to the city by the Army Corps of Engineers, OEM spokesman Christopher Miller said.

The city changed the map after Hurricane Irene last year to include the Rockaways, City Island and Hamilton Beach in Zone A. Officials will consider making more changes in the future, Miller said.

"The National Hurricane Center has started to look at larger and slower moving storms with new 2013 [Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes] models," Miller said. "OEM will take the new data into consideration when determining whether evacuation zones for [the] 2013 hurricane season need to be modified."

Canarsie residents are also upset by what they see as a lack of response so far from FEMA.

Janice Mann, 52, whose Paerdegat 8th Street apartment filled with water nearly up to the ceiling, said she filed a person damage claim with FEMA the same day as the storm and got a full denial for "insufficient damage."

“Almost everything I owned is on the street corner waiting for sanitation to come pick it up,” Mann said. “Bags of clothes, all my furniture, washer and dryer — all that’s worth nothing?”

Valace, a nurse who lives with six family members in her Paerdegat 8th Street home, also said FEMA has been slow to respond.

"They told me it was two weeks before anybody could even come take a look,” Valace said. “I need help now.”

A FEMA representative said the agency does not prioritize claims based on whether people lived in Zone A or Zone B.

"The various maps and zones put forth by both the city and the National Flood Insurance Program have absolutely no bearing on how requests for government assistance are treated," said FEMA spokesman Bill Rukeyser. "Our job is to get everyone the maximum amount of assistance they're entitled to, and the zones don't come into play when making that decision."

Canarsie homeowners said they need to rely on FEMA for aid because they never bought flood insurance, which they said costs about $2,000 a year in their neighborhood. And renters said they were disappointed not to get any help finding temporary shelter.

Michelle Carson, 30, had just moved out of her parents' house into an East 80th Street basement apartment before Hurricane Sandy's floods came pouring in.

"All I got [from FEMA] was an application for a small business loan," Carson said. "I'm going to fight tooth-and-nail until I get help from somewhere."