Downtown Port Jefferson is coping with longstanding flood concerns, which could intensify in coming years.
During an April 5 climate resilience forum at Village Hall, local architect Michael Schwarting reported that the village’s blend of low-lying topography, subsurface water bodies and rising tides will likely produce even greater flooding risks. [See story TBR News Media website, April 13.]
“Those three things interact with one another to cause the problems that we’ve been having in the past, are still having and will have in a worse way, according to predictions,” Schwarting said.
— Photos by Aidan Johnson
Mike Lee, former mayor of Port Jefferson who served from 2005 to 2007, is now ringing the alarm over the village’s flooding problems. In an exclusive interview, Lee chronicled the area’s historic water challenges.
Before the 19th century, nearly all of the existing downtown was a salt marsh. The tides would flood the marsh twice daily, giving the area its name, Drowned Meadow.
Lee considers the waters running in and around Port Jefferson an inherent feature of the area’s natural character. And while the land was eventually renamed Port Jefferson, its natural essence remains unaltered.
“It’s easy to change the name, but it’s hard to change the terrain,” Lee noted.
An elaborate underground stormwater drainage network serves the area, Lee explained, describing the covert system built around the 1930s as “one big tunnel” channeling stormwater from all directions toward Port Jefferson Harbor.
The area’s patchwork of hills exacerbates the flooding problems downtown as the stormwater flows downward into the low-lying areas.
As downtown developed over time, the impermeable surface area multiplied exponentially. For a place originally named for its flooding issues, development slowly removed vital escape routes for floodwaters to discharge naturally.
“There’s too much restriction” now within the drainage system, Lee said. “So much of the area that would have the normal penetration of water has been [converted] to roofs, parking lots, driveways, roads.”
He added, “It doesn’t have the natural absorption.”
During major flood events, the stress on the stormwater network is most pronounced near Port Jeff’s fire station on Maple Avenue, one of the lowest elevations.
“This is what we’ve come to,” Lee said in the Port Jefferson Fire Department’s garage, pointing to an amphibious high-water rescue vehicle the department requires to leave its station. “I call it ‘The Drowned Meadow Express.’”
“If you’re going to serve the public, you have to be able to get through the puddle,” he added.
Lee indicated that while the fire department has coped with the flooding challenges over time, its current headquarters building is becoming increasingly untenable.
During a May 1 public hearing on code possible changes for the Maryhaven Center of Hope property on Myrtle Avenue, multiple residents proposed relocating the fire station to higher ground.
Lee, an ex-chief of PJFD, concurred with this assessment. “As an emergency service, how can we not be capable of serving the public,” he said.
Lee suggests there are other ways to help resolve the water challenges. He proposed that developers “stop doing what you’re doing,” in terms of increasing impermeable surfaces.
Up the easterly hill at Port Jefferson Country Club, the village recently received a $3.75 million grant from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency in hazard mitigation funds to help stabilize the East Beach bluff.
Lee suggested policymakers explore similar grant opportunities to address flooding.
“I think if FEMA is going to put money into infrastructure, it should do it where it affects everybody,” the former mayor said.
Despite centuries of water troubles, Lee maintained the village could overcome some of its challenges with proper governmental initiative.
He encouraged officials to give flooding the appropriate attention, concluding that on the list of local priorities, “It should be right on the top.”