By Arthur H. Gunther III
Whatever fate brings our way in “Frankenstorm,” know that inevitability is just part of the equation. Count human folly as well.
The Rockland-Lower Hudson Valley area has survived major storms, thank you, usually because there wasn’t then as much completed growth, and there have always been residents with common sense, volunteer firefighters and others, and paid police and other professionals on the job.
Yet all this history has barely been absorbed by officialdom, much of whom has never seen a mall, housing development, shopping strip or big box store proposal it could resist. Hokey ribbon cuttings herald these so-called taxpaying rateables, but a few seasons down the line, lack of planning brings additional taxes in flood relief and reduced quality of living for all. And the additional rateables prove costlier than what they bring in. Unwise planning, or the absence of planning, fuels any perfect storm nature brings.
And it has brought us plenty. Hook Mountain, the state park in Upper Nyack, never recovered from the worst NYC-area storm on record so far, the 1938 New England hurricane known as the “Long Island Express,” which killed nearly 800 people. The Hook’s beach and docks were wiped away, never to rebuilt by the park system.
In 1954, we had Hurricanes Carol and Edna, but they brought mostly temporary flooding. Power losses were relatively few, because in those day s of early housing development construction, old woods were completely bulldozed, and it took decades before vegetation in the utility rights of way grew tall enough to interfere with wires.
Further along in the 1950s, there were Hurricanes like Connie and Diane, then Donna in 1960, which brought winds in the Lower Hudson Valley over 100 mph. By the time Gloria came in 1985, though it arrived at low tide (unlike the present nor’easter), it came with with heavy rain and much power loss. By then, our area had seen many of nature’s flood plains filled in for housing, shopping and commercial development. Downstream silting of major streams rivers and streams accelerated as new building took place. Floyd in 1999 was more trouble than it should have been because so many trees were in the utility rights of way. In 2011, we had Irene, which witnessed major flooding, but which if it had hit in the 1940s would barely have caused any worry.
These days, with few places for the water to go, with underground burial of utility lines more a pipe dream than reality, with flood retention ponds inadequately maintained, even major rain squalls that are not storms bring frequent power outages that cost a fortune to repair, passed on to the ratepayers.
Yet those customers, and every taxpayer, could have been spared such cost if right after World War II, municipalities in Rockland and throughout the Lower Hudson Valley had had the foresight to plan for less but orderly growth, permitted only when adequate resources were put in place (water, sewer, flood relief, sufficient tax base). Strip shopping should have been largely disallowed in favor of rebuilding village downtowns and improving hamlet centers, to reduce vehicle traffic and promote a sense of community.
Major rivers and streams like the Hackensack, Pascack, Nauraushaun and Minisceongo in Rockland should have been protected against silting. No development should have been permitted in their floodplains. Builders should have been required to post 10-year bonds against failure of what has often proved to be inadequate storm drainage systems.
As a third-generation Rocklander, I can tell you that in my 1940s-1950s childhood in Sloatsburg, Nanuet, Tallman, Spring Valley and Hillcrest, we had two power outrages of about three hours each. In Blauvelt where I have lived for 39 years, we had three in the first 35 years and six in the last four, one lasting five days. Each rainstorm has us worried. Power lines here are compromised by tall trees that each season are lightly trimmed by expensive contractors when they should be severely pruned or taken down and no tall vegetation allowed in their place.
All these storms prove costly to taxpayers and utility customers, who bear the brunt of the expense. Our wonderful volunteers and paid professionals are put in harm’s way when better planning might prevent such folly. Each new storm brings promise of relief -- “we will do better next time,” but yet you see rampant development in some areas such as Ramapo in Rockland and ever more low areas compromised by filling in for construction.
Let us pray that this “Frankenstorm” brings less havoc than predicted, but let us also admit that both government and the citizenry have literally long failed to seek the proper raincoat. Mother always told us to wear our raincoats.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.