Ginnie Shaknis lives in an apartment building on the border of Forest Hills and Rego Park, near the intersection of Yellowstone Boulevard and Alderton Street.
In August and September of this year, her home flooded — once, twice, three times. Her furniture was ruined. Her wood floors warped and stank. Wall plugs stopped functioning.
Her friend and neighbor, Arline Maisel, has had to come over on numerous occasions to bail water out of Shaknis's apartment with a five-gallon Shop-Vac. Once, she said, she drained the place of nearly 200 gallons.
"Water comes up through the kitchen sink, through the bathtub, everywhere," Shaknis said. "And it's filthy, dirty brown water. Lately it's been happening every few weeks. I put bags of clay over the drains to slow it down. I don't know what I'd do if I wasn't a sculptor."
"All due respect, 311 does not work." - Karen Koslowitz
Maisel put it succinctly. "She lives in fear of the rain."
Shaknis is not alone. Far from it, in fact. At a meeting hosted by City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and Community Board 6 Thursday night, she was in good company.
After hearing dozens of complaints from homeowners and businesses, Koslowitz brought representatives of the Department of Environmental Protection to the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Shouting from a packed crowd and forming a line more than 30 deep, residents painted a grimy picture of their lives underwater.
"It's going to make somebody sick," said Ron Green, a Yellowstone Boulevard apartment owner. He described his last-ditch efforts to stop sewage from backing up into his home through the toilet, a nightmare he's suffered through three times this year. Despite stuffing a towel in his drain and sitting on two cinderblocks on the lid, Green was unable to prevent a flood of feces from pouring into his bathroom.
"You cannot have shit flying every which way from the pipes in your house," he said. "Firehoses of shit into my apartment is not acceptable."
Edward Coleman and Mark Lanningham of the DEP first gave residents a primer on the kinds of sewers Forest Hills uses. The drainage pipes in the area are prepared for storms that drop 1.5 inches of water per hour, a standard set before 1960. Those kinds of storms, they said, only happen once every five years.
In unison, the waterlogged residents told Coleman exactly what they thought of that schedule. They not-so-politely disagreed. Groans and eye-rolls. Dismissive hand gestures.
At one point, Coleman suggested that residents call complaints in to 311. The suggestion was immediately met with a chorus of boos so emphatic they're usually reserved for when the Red Sox come to town.
"All due respect, 311 doesn't work," Koslowitz said. "For these kinds of problems, 311 does not work."
As Koslowitz tried to calm the unruly crowd, questions came, screamed, loudly, angrier and angrier.
Lanningham insisted that the purpose of the meeting was to marshal the complaints of Forest Hills into an orderly stack, so that the DEP could figure out the best course of action, be it cleaning catch basins or investigating other capital projects. He warned that anyone expecting a solution, easy or arduous, was likely to be disappointed.
Coleman added that catch basins — a point of major concern of residents — were cleaned on a three-year schedule. The revelation was deeply unpopular. It was called insufficient by people who thought it should happen monthly. It was called a lie by those who didn't believe that it happened as often as every three years.
After quieting a chorus of yells, the meeting finally came down to one crucial question.
"What can I do to stop people's houses from flooding?" Koslowitz asked into the microphone. An answer came, but not from Lanningham or Coleman. It was shouted from the seats.
"Pray for no rain."