Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tornado hits, killing trees, damaging homes

The Brooklyn Paper

This story was reported by Matthew Lysiak for The Brooklyn Paper and by Associated Press reporters including Verena Dobnik.

A rare tornado ripped through Bay Ridge early Wednesday, uprooting trees, damaging homes and cars, and knocking out subway service during the morning rush hour.

The related storm whipped through the rest of Brooklyn, wreaking havok.

Residents were awakened between 5:30 and 6 am by the sound of car alarms, thunder, and trees crashing down to the ground as the powerful wind and rain storm attacked.

Tornadoes have hit New York City before, but not often. The National Weather Service had records of at least five, but none was as strong as Wednesday’s twister, which had winds as high as 135 mph.

The service had only sketchy details on the last reported tornado sighting in Brooklyn, in 1889.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Jeffrey Tongue, a Weather Service meteorologist.

In Bay Ridge, the worst area may have been Ovington Avenue between Ridge Boulevard and Third Avenue. Some of trees on the block were ripped out of the ground, while the few trees left standing had large limbs pulled off.

Spectators in awe of nature’s wrath crowded emergency crews. Others gathered at the busy intersection of 68th Street and Third Avenue, taking pictures of the a large tree that uprooted an entire square of sidewalk.

Few streets escaped damage.

“I have lived here for 38 years and this is one of the worst I remember,” said resident Henry Putko. “The storm came through and just ripped up everything in its path.”

The roads weren’t the only things affected. The R Train was temporarily shut down, as were several subways lines in Downtown Brooklyn.

“One big rain and it all falls apart,” said Ruby Russell, 64, as she sat waiting on a train in Brooklyn. She had been trying to get to Manhattan for three hours.

State Sen. Marty Golden asked Gov. Spitzer to proclaim Bay Ridge a disaster area because of the weather and, more specifically, the “tornado and flash flooding that ripped through the area.”

“I have witnessed the significant damage caused by the winds and flash flooding which requires a rapid and coordinated response,” Golden said. “It’s imperative that the governor acts quickly and does the right thing for these communities so that the people have access to all resources and financial assistance.”

One man standing by his car surveyed the damage done by a falling tree while waiting for the fire trucks to get to his street.

“This kind of wind looks like it was a tornado,” said Anjan Rau, as his car sat smothered by a giant branch. “I hope my insurance is going to cover this.”

There were no immediate reports of injuries, and Community Board 10 was out on the streets getting estimates of the damage, according to the office.

Keeping the subways dry is a challenge, even in regular weather. On an average day, hundreds of MTA pumps remove 13 million gallons of water from the system.

Public officials called for improvements in the drainage system after a similar rain-related shutdown in 1999, and the MTA made some changes after another round of paralyzing tunnel floods in 2004, when the remnants of Hurricane Frances washed out the subways for hours.

The city’s sewer and stormwater drains can handle steady rain, “but when it comes to these very intense, high inch-count rain events, over a short period of time, it is very difficult,” said Michael Saucier, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd said the city is spending $300-million per year upgrading its piping systems and has been gradually building a more robust stormwater drainage system to replace the old combined sewers that handled wastewater and rain.

Is it Bay Ridge Syndrome?

By Matt Lysiak
for The Brooklyn Paper

The recent violent crimes in Bay Ridge, and general lack of information available to the public about them, have caused some residents to call this reporter out.

“Enough with the Harry Potter stories,” one of my faithful readers told me. “Do your job and find out what is going on with all of this violence in my neighborhood.”

Do my job? Alright, I’ll just put on my Magnum P.I. flora-colored shirt, run to the crime scene, and get to the bottom of the crime wave. (Cue “Murder She Wrote” theme song.)

But seriously, this isn’t easy. “The police aren’t saying much” didn’t sit well with my reader.

“Then what the hell IS your job?” he asked. “My neighbors are in the dark and people are beginning to think the worse.”

The man had a point. The recent wave of violent crimes has been followed with little of no information. But whose fault is it, the police for not keeping the public in the know, or the local media for not digging enough?

That question may be debatable, but the belief that the community is desperate for more information is unquestioned.

Residents have been on edge this summer about the two violent crimes only weeks apart.

First there was the masked intruder who, according to police, raped an off-duty police officer at knifepoint after breaking into her Brooklyn apartment on June 20.

Then popular real estate broker Magdy Okelly, 51, was found stabbed to death at his 100th Street home in the Fort Hamilton section of Bay Ridge on July 19.

No arrests have been made, and police have remained tight-lipped.

This silence has fed into that cyberspace bastion of free market rumor mongering — the local blog — which echoed the sentiments shared by my readers.

It’s been Yellow Hooker’s observation that bloggers have a tendency to be sensationalist an are sometimes uninformed. Still, more often than not, they have their finger on the pulse of the community vibe.

Last week the blogger (or citizen journalist as some prefer to be called) who wears the moniker “The Bay Ridge Rover” ( accurately described the current atmosphere of paranoia.

“Even more unsettling than the recent robbery-homicide of local businessman Okelly in his home is the lack of information surrounding it,” declared the Rover. “A public completely in the dark has ramped up speculation regarding the circumstances surrounding Okelly’s murder, and the still unsolved sexual assault of an off duty police officer — all of which took place less than a month apart.”

The “Rover” is right about the rumors. The void in information has opened the door to speculations of everything from organized crime, to roaming street gangs, to a prostitution ring.

This blogger’s final analysis may be a smudge Orwellian, but it does touch on the overall chatter still heard in local coffee shops. “Bay Ridge’s latest incident, in what’s been an unnerving series of violent crime, claims another victim — an informed community,” concluded the Rover.

The growing frustration over the lack of information is understandable, and no one gets it more than this reporter.

As for the question of who owns responsibility, Yellow Hooker’s believes that while both the police and the media can always do more to dig for truth and keep the public informed, there is something far worse than no information — the wrong information.

Sometimes prudence is the better route, and in the case of these two crimes, it appears that there just isn’t a lot of information immediately available (especially for public consumption as far as law enforcement is concerned.

In the meantime, residents are doing this community a service by holding local law enforcement, as well as this neighborhood reporter’s feet to the fire.

Matthew Lysiak is a regular contributor to The Brooklyn Paper

Kitchen Sink
The hot weather has brought out the critters. Raccoon sightings have been on the rise over the last two weeks with the hot weather, and loose garbage, to blame. …

A condo occupying the first and second floors of two attached buildings, at 8622 Parkway and 15 Bay 29th St., is on the market for $15 million. …

Nice wheels. A vintage Soviet army surplus Dnepr motorcycle outfitted with a sidecar has been recently been spotted (and photographed) parked outside of Skinflints, at the corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue by Bay Ridge’s newest blogger “Right in Bay Ridge”. …

Our pal Anna Yeo was just named to the Dean’s List at Binghamton University, congrats to you Anna.

Neighbors demand arborcide

By Matt Lysiak
for The Brooklyn Paper

While residents in Brooklyn Heights are trying to save a tree threatened by their co-op board, here in Bay Ridge, neighbors are looking to cut one down.

A White Birch — planted in the backyard at 1026 Bay Ridge Parkway some 30 years ago — has grown into a 60-foot monster whose shedding seeds have been wreaking havoc on gardens and ponds, and terrorizing residents for several years, at least according to neighbors who reside under its hefty shade.

“For years now I’ve been tolerating it, and tolerating it, and tolerating it, but now I am sick of it,” said 85-year-old resident Bill Horne. “Heck, I am not going to tolerate it anymore.”

The White Birch is known to arborists as an elegant tree with triangular leaves and bright creamy white bark. The tree’s mature fruit is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds that are carried by the wind — to the great consternation of nearby neighbors.

Horne says that the seeds have become such a nuisance that it has drastically altered his quality of life.

“I used to have a pond with some fish in it, but the seeds would fill the pond,” said Horne. “They hit me when I come out of my car, clog my drain when it rains, and you wouldn’t believe the sweeping I have to do.”

“It is an absolute nightmare,” added Horne.

Horne also believes that planting the white birch tree is illegal in Brooklyn, but calls to the Parks Department told a different story.

“Almost anything you plant on your private property we don’t take a position on,” said a Parks rep. “It would only be illegal if it was planted near the sidewalk.”

Planting a tree in the back yard is legal, but a resident would need a special permit to plant a tree in the grass between the sidewalk and the road, since that passes over public property, according to Parks.

Legal or not, neighbors want the tree to come down.

Another neighbor, who lives on the other side of the massive birch, has also been living under the tree’s ominous shade.

“It is a pain in the neck and a mess,” said Anne McClellan. “It sticks to everything and people don’t want to be outside.”

Making matters more complicated, the antagonizing tree is owned by none other than the president of the Bay Ridge Community Council, Bob Cassara.

Cassara, who was interrupted while on vacation with his family in Florida by The Brooklyn Paper to be questioned about his foliage, says his neighbors are barking up the wrong tree.

“I am well aware that two of my neighbors are unhappy about the tree seeds,” Cassara said. “If it is that much of an issue for them I am willing to cut the tree down, but I think it would only be fair if we each paid a third of the $1,000 it would cost.”

Horne thought the deal seemed, in a word, shady.

“Some deal for us,” said Horne. “He expects us to pay to have a tree removed that is on his property — that is crazy.”

Compromise may not be in full bloom, but that isn’t to say Cassara hasn’t tried to pass the olive branch.

Cassara added that he recently made an attempt to appease his neighbors by having the lower branches trimmed.

He also admits the seeds may be a bit of a nuisance, but believes the beauty of the tree more than compensates for the inconvenience.

“That tree is really something beautiful,” said Cassara. “There just aren’t many like that big White Birch.”

Over the past few weeks, neighbors in Brooklyn Heights have been trying to save an 80-year-old elm tree outside the Mansion House co-op on Hicks Street. The co-op board voted on July 18 to remove the tree rather then spend $8,000 to reroute electrical pipes tied up in its root system.

Harrison to challenge Vito again

By Matt Lysiak
for The Brooklyn Paper

The campaign may only be a few hours old, but the gloves are already off.

Two years after Democrat Steve Harrison lost to Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge), the Bay Ridge lawyer is looking for another shot at the conservative law maker. He said this week that he would again be a candidate for the seat representing Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

He and Fossella have already begun to set the tone for the debate, and it looks like it is going to be war — literally.

Harrison plans on using the war in Iraq as his rallying cry to counter the hawkish Fossella.

“I am running because I believe we have to build a majority of Democrats in Congress to stop this ill-conceived war,” said Harrison. “I absolutely believe the war in Iraq was wrong, and I would prefer to not even use the term war on terror.”

In 2006, the city’s lone Republican congressman held onto his seat with 57 percent of the vote, beating the under-funded Harrison.

Harrison made the announcement that he was again taking on Fossella at a press conference at Staten Island’s Arthur Von Briesen Park on Thursday. The announcement came two weeks after Harrison formed the Staten Island–Brooklyn Civic Association, a group dedicated to bridging the divide between Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The divide Harrison will now have to bridge is 14, as in the number of percentage points that separated the two candidates in 2006

Like Harrison, Fossella also plans to center his campaign on his opponent’s stance on the war, and his camp already isn’t pulling any punches.

“‘Surrender Steve’ may be the only person left in America who doesn’t believe that we’re fighting a war on terrorism,” said Fossella political director Georgea Kay. “Harrison’s denial that terrorists are trying to murder us explains why he opposes the ‘Terrorist Surveillance Program’ and other key tools that are keeping Americans safe.”

But Harrison bristles at the notion that Iraq had anything to do with terrorism, and wants to know why his opponent supports a policy he believes was doomed from the start.

“What are we doing in Iraq?” Harrison asked. “Saddam is dead, we found no weapons of mass destruction, and we know that Iraq didn’t attack us — we need to get out.”

Kay believes that Harrison’s position, and problems with the term “war on terror,” would fit in better at a Grateful Dead concert then in a seat partly responsible for national security.

“I can guarantee you that Brooklyn residents don’t share Harrison’s tie-dyed view of the world,” said Kay. “If Harrison doesn’t believe that we’re fighting a war on terrorism, Brooklynites can’t trust him to keep us safe.”

The issue of war may be driving this campaign, but there are also some practical matters that need to be taken care of — namely, money.

Harrison said the last election taught him a valuable lesson on economics. In that contest, he began his fund raising months behind his opposition. Harrison ended up raising a mere $109,000, while Fossella’s war chest overflowed with more than $1.3 million.

“In 2006 I learned how essential money is to a campaign, especially for the last month,” said Harrison. “This allowed Fossella to wage a campaign of distortions, and we had no way of responding.”

Fossella’s camp had its own take on campaign ethics.

“It’s taken Harrison less than four seconds to begin his campaign with negative attacks and smears and nothing positive about the future of our community and nation.”

In the last election Fossella ran ads on cable television and radio, while Harrison couldn’t afford mass mailings. Harrison’s pleas to the Democratic National Campaign Committee, which underwrites many congressional races, went unheeded, as did his appeals to the local party.

“I think I was viewed as a sacrificial lamb last election,” said Harrison. “That won’t be the case this time.”

Earlier this year, The Brooklyn Paper reported that the DNC would be putting a bull’s-eye on “ethically challenged” representatives — naming Fossella as one such target — by infusing cash into his Democratic challenger’s campaign.

Ridge resident is the next Idol

By Matt Lysiak
for The Brooklyn Paper

A local actress may have what it takes to be America’s next American idol, or at least cash in a little on Aiken-mania.

Bay Ridge’s Dawn Barry-Hansen recently landed a role in the new Off-Broadway musical. “Idol: The Musical.”

The show, playing at the 45th Street Theater in Manhattan, is a satire of the television show “American Idol” and, particularly, the worship of Clay Aiken, one of the its more famous finalists).

Barry-Hansen will play the role of a dance teacher, which isn’t much of a stretch considering her experience.

“When I read the role I felt like it was written for me,” said Barry-Hansen. “I have choreographed shows in Bay Ridge since 1975, so my role is quite true to life.”

This is hardly Barry-Hansen’s first time in the limelight.

She practiced her craft as long time member of Bay Ridge Narrows Community Theater, where her many talents were hard to miss.

“Dawn is really a great talent,” said Narrows Community Theater Vice President Ann Gubiotti. “Not only can she act, but she is also a talented dancer, chorographer, and she also recently made her directorial debut at the Narrows Theater.”

The curtain opens to the public on Aug. 12 and is billed as “a satirical musical comedy that focuses on the outrageous and delusional fan base of the hit television show,” by the musical’s web site.

“It is really a great show with a very talented cast,” said Barry-Hansen. “I must admit I do watch American Idol, but this show is really for everyone.”

The 45th Street Theatre is located in Manhattan at 354 West 45th St., between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Tickets, priced $60 (general admission) and $25 (students), are available by calling (212) 868-4444 or by visiting

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