Irene: Storm adding insult to injury
Schoharie County battered once again
COBLESKILL A new round of evacuations turned the village of Schoharie into a ghost town Wednesday and gave the village of Cobleskill a taste of flooding as the Cobleskill Creek overtook Route 7.
The creek overwhelmed the Schoharie County Sunshine Fairgrounds, routing a slew of emergency workers on hand from last week’s flooding disaster and sending them to the Cobleskill Firehouse to set up a new base.
Several businesses were inundated with flood water in the Cobleskill by Wednesday afternoon, making travel practically impossible and trapping students at Cobleskill-Richmondville schools and patrons at a Super 8 Motel.
Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond spent most of Wednesday patrolling the county’s roadways and said if he could, he’d voice a message to Mother Nature: “Give us a break, we’ve had all we can take.”
People were getting to “wits end” in the county as water filled roadside ditches and overcame roadways and in some cases worsened damage Hurricane Irene left, including on Route 30 in Blenheim.
Wednesday’s mess was courtesy of Tropical Storm Lee, remnants of which caused widespread flash flooding across the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, according to AccuWeather.com.
Schoharie County officials began urging residents to consider moving to high ground early Wednesday before evacuations started at about 10 a.m. in the towns of Blenheim and Broome and in the villages of Schoharie and Middleburgh. By then, Main Street in Schoharie was practically void of people, save a few who were working on flood cleanup.
Christine and Larry Mickle were working at the Alley Cat Diner when they heard a young man drive by in a truck and erroneously shout “get to high ground, the dam broke,” apparently referring to the Gilboa Dam, which is undergoing a $350 million rehabilitation.
“It really set off a panic,” said Larry Mickle, who hadn’t heard any call for evacuation by about 10 a.m.
The Gilboa Dam and 20-billion-gallon Schoharie Reservoir it holds back have been on the minds of residents since Hurricane Irene drenched the region.
Damage from Irene put the dam’s early-warning sirens out of commission. The county used its reverse 911 system Wednesday morning to issue a voluntary evacuation order because the sirens were not functioning.
The sirens are used to warn people to get out of the flood zone if the dam is in danger of being breached. One of the sirens — situated near Priddle Road in Esperance — was swallowed up by the Schoharie Creek altogether and officials can’t find it.
“It’s a big concern,” Christine Mickle said of the Gilboa Dam. She said she is concerned for the safety of her children and grandchildren living in Schoharie.
In response to the voluntary evacuation, New York City Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Michael Saucier stressed that the decision of local officials had nothing to do with the stability of the dam, which was characterized as safe in a report on Saturday. The DEP operates the reservoir and dam.
He did acknowledge that the sirens were not working Wednesday and have not been working since Irene hit. “We’re in discussions with the county to address that,” Saucier said.
Crystal Doyle, 24, of Cobleskill, returned to her hometown Wednesday from work in Schenectady and realized she couldn’t get home. She parked her car at the Walmart on Route 7 east of the village and walked toward the bridge over the Cobleskill Creek before turning back.
“My flip-flops broke, and the water was almost up to my waist,” said Doyle, who was taking it in stride.
“I think this is just ridiculous, and nature needs to stop,” Doyle said.
Esperance hit again
Heavy rainfall also produced spillover onto roads and property Wednesday in an already saturated Esperance.
The Route 20 bridge in Esperance remained open Wednesday evening, despite town officials saying they have discovered a structural flaw that stems from an extensive crack.
“We’re sending an engineer in to evaluate it at this time,” town Supervisor Earl Van Wormer said Wednesday afternoon. “At this point in time nobody seems concerned enough to know what it means. If that means they’re going to close it soon, I don’t know.”
State Department of Transportation engineers need to come in and inspect the bridge, Van Wormer said.
Portions of Route 20 in Esperance were closed incrementally throughout the day Wednesday, but some motorists encountered washouts before roads were closed.
Road crews in Esperance were letting some people drive through Route 20, telling one driver at a blocked off portion to do her best, as “a lot of those roads are washing out.”
Some roads off Route 20 were even worse. Several of their shoulders had eroded from last week’s floodwaters.
By Wednesday evening, Shun Pike, Junction, Priddle, Creek and Ragan roads and Steuben Street were closed. In addition, portions of Old Route 30 and Route 30A near Sloansville were flooded over.
Though Cobleskill took on some flood water last week, rainfall late Tuesday and into Wednesday pushed floodwater deeper into the village.
The overflowing Cobleskill Creek wouldn’t let people in or out of the busy downtown, and officials had Route 7 blocked off at Walmart on one end and further to the west of Grand Street at the other end.
A culvert on Route 7 was blown out, as well, trapping the Cobleskill Firehouse that was turned into the new emergency operation center, Schoharie County spokeswoman Karen Miller said.
Flooding was also reported at SUNY Cobleskill, where the creek passes along it southern boundary. Classes were cancelled Wednesday afternoon and are not expected to resume until at least Friday, according to college spokesman Scott Silversten. Students in the lower levels of five dormitories were relocated, Silversten said, and the Curtis Mott Engineering Building was evacuated.
Despite running out of orange barrels and cones and police cars to block off roadways in the county, Miller said emergency responders were taking it in stride.
“They’re doing great,” Miller said. “They’re out there doing what they’ve got to do. Everybody’s giving it their best.”
Water was beginning to recede by late Wednesday afternoon, but students in the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District were held in their buildings until parents were able to pick them up. Classes were cancelled for today, but about 15 students were expected to be housed overnight because their parents could not get to them because of flooded roads, according to district Superintendent Lynn Macan.
“We kept them busy with games and movies and activities and dinner,” Macan said. “They were well amused and very well cared for.”
Schoharie County had portions of 59 roads in 10 different towns still shut down earlier this week because of Hurricane Irene. That list was growing Wednesday afternoon, Miller said.
Burtonsville firefighters were monitoring the bridge over the Schoharie Creek throughout the day Wednesday as logs, wood, pumpkins and other debris left on the shores of the creek last week began to float downstream.
Roadside ditches were overflowing on Burtonsville Road in the town of Charleston at the height of Wednesday’s rainfall.
In Montgomery County’s already beleaguered town of Florida, residents spent Wednesday nervous about any rainfall, said town Supervisor William Strevy.
“We’ve had our shelter open twice, but it’s closed right now,” he said. “But if the need should arise, we’ll open it again. The people in Fort Hunter are very nervous to say the least.”
Several homes within the hamlet were completely lost to Hurricane Irene last week. Residents of damaged homes spent the last week cleaning up debris and airing out belongings and entire floors.
“I know that they’re anticipating getting back in their homes, and this weather is just kicking them while they’re down,” Strevy said. “It’s very depressing. We were just starting to see the upside here with the debris cleanup.”
Farm help sought
Regional agricultural communities could soon receive emergency services and resources they need to recover and rebuild their devastated farmlands following Hurricane Irene.
U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, along with Reps. Chris Gibson, Maurice Hinchey, Paul Tonko and Bill Owens, introduced on Wednesday legislation that would authorize $10 million to support the Emergency Conservation Program and the Emergency Watershed Program.
“Irene had a devastating impact on our farms, ruining crops, killing livestock, damaging infrastructure, putting our local rural economies in peril,” said Tonko, D-Amsterdam, in a news release. “We need to do everything we can to provide the resources that will help our agriculture industry recover and rebuild.”
The Post-Irene Emergency Farm Aid Act would fund the Emergency Conservation Program, which provides emergency funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to repair farmland damaged by natural disasters. Conservation practices include removing debris, restoring fences and conservation structures, and providing water for livestock.
The act would also fund the Emergency Watershed Program, which helps conserve natural resources by relieving imminent hazards to life and property caused by severe weather and natural disasters. The watershed program addresses debris-clogged streams and channels, undermined and unstable stream banks, jeopardized water control structures and public infrastructure.