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Erie Canalway: Storms' damage to canal system pegged at $83.8M

Sunday, August 26, 2012
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Chief lock operator Joe Wolff, left, and lock operator Paul Malmborg reflect on the flooding recently at Erie Canal Lock 10 in Cranesville.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Chief lock operator Joe Wolff, left, and lock operator Paul Malmborg reflect on the flooding recently at Erie Canal Lock 10 in Cranesville.

— Nothing could have prepared Lock 10 for the pummeling it would take in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene a year ago.

The storm surge that blasted down the Schoharie Valley dumped into the Mohawk River, turning the normally docile waterway into a raging torrent that scoured away just about anything in its path. Debris swept down the Mohawk choked the lock's movable dams, creating a blockage that forced the river to seek a path of less resistance.

Joe Wolff, the chief operator of the lock at Cranesville and a 34-year veteran of the state canal system, was in the newly repaired lock house when the call was made to evacuate the facility. When he left around 6 p.m., the water was already up to his shins.

And conditions only got worse from there. By the time the Mohawk crested, its waters had risen more than 12 feet over the lock gates.

"All of these lights were filled with water after the flood," he said pointing up at the second story of the small building near the gates.

The trees that once shielded the lock park from Route 5S were uprooted and swept away. The Mohawk also scoured a new channel south of the lock through a park that had just been restored after being devastated by a flood in June 2006.

The foundation of a power house also used for storage was scoured away, allowing the river to upend the entire structure and smash it into a roughly 30-foot deep gouge taken out of the park. The house was thought to be somewhat of a safe haven, since it never came close to being flooded during the 2006 event.

A shed stowing the lock's lawn mowers was washed downstream, as was a generator tethered down to a concrete slab. The lock's work crane was ripped away by the raging river and destroyed.

The flood had ripped away so much material betweeen the lock and Route 5S that Wolff and co-worker Paul Malmborg couldn't even get to the facility from the south side of the river. For nearly a month, the two had to park on Route 5, cross the train tracks and then scale the catwalk across the dam to reach the lock.

But Irene was only the beginning of the lock's troubles. Less than a week later, a tornado ripped across the lock area, shearing roofs from several buildings and carving a path through the trees on the opposite side of the river.

Then Tropical Storm Lee struck. The combination of the three weather events left the badly battered lock area looking like a war zone.

"Lee did as much devastation as Irene," recalled Malmborg. "It took out everything that Irene left."

More damage

Of course, Lock 10 wasn't the only one damaged by the floods. Lock 9 downstream in Rotterdam Junction was just as battered, with a nearly 50-foot long section of the Route 103 bridge over the movable dam structures washed out.

Lock houses were lost at three locks within close geographic proximity to the Schoharie Creek junction with the Mohawk. Steel beams supporting the chains that connect to the moveable dams' top pans were effortlessly bent during the storm.

"They were bent straight down like they had a knuckle in them," Malmborg said. "That's just crazy to bend steel like that."

In total, the Canal Corporation estimated that it incurred $83.8 million in damages from the two storms. About 75 percent of that cost —or $62.8 million —should be recovered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The nearby state Thruway also sustained damage, even though not nearly to the degree of the canal. The Thruway Authority estimates the highway suffered $9 million in damages, with more than 90 percent of this cost being paid for thorugh federal funding.

Amazingly, Canal Corporation workers and various contractors were able to repair the locks in time to allow boat traffic trapped by the flood to head home before Thanksgiving. Considering the damage that was done, Wolff considers the quick recovering nothing short of incredible.

That's especially considering that the lock facility didn't have any clean water or electricity during the immediate aftermath. Workers relied on generators and a bit of ingenuity —they managed to find clean fresh water to wash away the mud from a nearby stream —to get the job done.

"We made it work somehow," he said.

Only work is far from over. The park near Lock 10 remains closed to the public and in need of many more improvements before it will open again.

The once lush green grass and groves of trees has been replaced by a pock-marked wasteland. There are three deep ponds where the Mohawk carved a new channel that will eventually need to be filled.

Though the locks are functioning now, Canal Corporation officials acknowledge more work needs to be done. They estimate they'll have all the damage repaired sometime before 2014.

"I knew we were going to get some high water, but I never envisioned the destruction we ended up getting." Wolff said.

 
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