A Look Into Blind Brook’s Flooding Issue in Westchester

Those acquainted with Mendota Avenue will know of the flooding issues the Indian Village neighborhood faces.

Mendota Avenue in Rye was aptly named. Translated from Sioux, it means “where the waters converge.” Indeed, they do.

Blind Brook runs in the shadows.

Normally slow moving, serene, and shallow, the brook can be an inspiration for landscapers; an ornamental footbridge was modeled after a famous Monet Impressionist painting. But when a heavy rain falls, which in this age of climate crisis happens in shorter and shorter intervals, Blind Brook is ruinously unforgiving. Water rushes over its banks and converges in backyards, basements, and ground floors of Mendota Avenue and several other streets in the flood-prone neighborhood known as Indian Village. In a flash, the roads turn to Venetian-style canals navigated by first responders in rowboats.

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As the water recedes, people return to their sodden homes and go through the grim ritual of assessing the damage. A pattern of rain, ruin, and rehabilitation has played out for decades, long before hurricanes were given names.

Frustration over Indian Village’s chronic flooding was eloquently expressed 13 years ago by longtime resident Peter Sinnott, who told a reporter after a heavy rainstorm: “We have experienced over ten storms under five to six administrations… we [just] had a 100-year flood; on August 28, 2011 we had another 100-year flood; on September 6 a 50-year flood; and on September 8, a 10-year flood.…It’s 2011, let’s finally do something about it.”

Westchester is synonymous with high-end real estate and yet an astonishing 20 percent of the county’s residential and commercial property has about a one-in-four chance of undergoing a severe flood in the next 30 years, according to First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research and technology firm. At risk are 36,446 homes.

Of course, this hardly comes as a surprise to people who live on the edge of any of the county’s spindly streams, including another aptly named rivulet — Troublesome Brook in Greenburgh, which was cited in a 1959 New York Times article as “one of Westchester’s worst flashflood trouble makers.” It still is.

Phil Reisman
Phil Reisman photo by Stefan Radtke

A pattern of rain, ruin, and rehabilitation has played out for decades…

Many property owners have lost patience with oft-repeated but largely disappointing “flood mitigation” proposals that follow every catastrophic storm — things like better dams, sluice gates, dredging projects, and retention ponds. Conceding that flooding is inevitable, they are taking the time and trouble, not to mention expense, to protect their homes by raising them eight feet or so above the flood plain. In 2021, after Hurricane Ida dumped more rain in one day than Arizona probably gets in a year, at least 12 homeowners in Rye applied for home-elevation permits, according to the city building department. As of this writing, three homes on Mendota Avenue were in the latter stages of being raised.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency typically pays 75 to 90 percent of the cost of home elevation. Last year in the village of Elmsford, where chronic Saw Mill River flooding has long demoralized residents of Babbitt Court, six home-elevation applications were submitted carrying a total project cost of $1,456,000, according to Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner.

Lifting houses is increasingly a 21st century answer to keeping out the water. But it is also costly — and not a sure bet that FEMA will foot the bill.

“There is never enough money in the grant program to meet the demand,” says Thomas Song, a FEMA resiliency specialist. “So, the programs are competitive.”

Even the smallest flood-related projects cost a small fortune — a prime example being a county-owned pedestrian bridge at Bronxville Lake that was destroyed by Ida. The replacement span is contractually priced at $583,511, or about $39,000 per foot.

As it stands, government funds are insufficient. County Executive George Latimer admitted as much when he said the county probably needs 10 times the $49 million proposed in the capital budget for flood mitigation in 2024. The county, he said, “desperately” needs help from state and federal agencies. Be that as it may, a beleaguered FEMA seems to be one disaster away from going broke — a fact which has fueled a proposal by New York legislators to create a $75 billion flood superfund through a tax on Big Oil.

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Meanwhile, back at Indian Village, the fight goes on to thwart Blind Brook and its predictable surliness. Word has it that a six-bedroom house on Meadow Place that has flooded many times was recently put under contract for $1.595 million after being on the market for only two weeks.

The new owners hope to raise the house.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

Related: Reflecting on the Highs and Lows of 2023 in Westchester

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