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Power off for many, but no flooding so far (photo gallery)

Monday, October 29, 2012
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A traffic light was knocked down by high winds Monday night at the intersection of Brandywine Avenue and Union Street in Schenectady.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
A traffic light was knocked down by high winds Monday night at the intersection of Brandywine Avenue and Union Street in Schenectady.

— High winds from Hurricane Sandy walloped the greater Capital Region, knocking out electricity for tens of thousands and causing outages that a utility company spokesman said could last for days.

Sandy’s winds reached sustained speeds of up to 40 mph in some areas, with gusts expected to top off at roughly 70 mph. Predictably, the wind wrecked havoc on power lines, plunging more than 22,000 National Grid customers into darkness as the massive storm system brushed by the area Monday evening.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella urged those without electricity to anticipate delays in getting their power restored. Though the utility had more than 2,500 workers fanned throughout state, the breadth of the storm means its damage was felt through a large geographic area.

“We’re trying to tell customers to expect a multi-day event,” he said Monday evening. “We think we’ll see some damage that will take several days to repair.”

Stella said the utility will continue to seek help from outside the region to help repair infrastructure battered by the storm. But he said crews will need to wait for winds to die down this morning before making some of the repairs, meaning parts of the region could remain without power for a protracted period of time.

By Monday evening, more than half of National Grid’s 6,283 customers in Hamilton County were without power. Saratoga Springs was also hit with a large swath of outages, with more than 3,100 customers or roughly a quarter of the city in the dark.

Strong wind gusts in the Spa City blew over a decorative fiberglass horse that was tethered to a heavy concrete base outside the Saratoga Springs Public Library. Staff indicated the horse was not damaged and has since been stowed for the winter.

Fortunately for flood-prone areas in this region, the high winds were not joined by the heavy rains that some initially feared. Though the Catskills were expected to get upward of three inches of rain Monday, the greater Capital Region — including the flood-prone areas of the Schoharie Valley and Mohawk River — were not expected to see the type of massive precipitation that blew in with Tropical Storm Irene last year.

“There will be some rises,” said Joe Villani, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany. “But we’re not expecting any flooding at this time.”

Villani said the storm veered west into New Jersey and was expected to follow a path that would deliver a deluge-like rain over parts of Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Storm surges striking the New York City area caused tidal flooding in Poughkeepsie and parts of Columbia County, but did not have much of an impact on the Albany area.

Officials throughout the Mohawk River watershed weren’t taking any chances though, especially after the one-two punch of flood damage delivered by Irene and Tropical Storm Lee last year. For the first time ever, agencies banded together to draw down the water levels at major reservoirs in the days before Sandy arrived.

As a steady mist began to stream into the Schoharie Valley just before noon on Monday, representatives from the New York Power Authority, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York Power Authority gathered to reassure residents in the Schoharie Valley that they did everything that could be done in advance of the storm.

Water levels in the Schoharie Reservoir, held back by the Gilboa Dam that’s undergoing major reconstruction, were lowered to provide about 390 million gallons of space to store water from Sandy. The Schoharie Reservoir was drained down to 89 percent of its 17.6 billion gallon capacity.

“We have a team that understands the suffering, understands that we still haven’t recovered and understands that we can’t let our people down,” said state Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, during a news conference at the Blenheim-Gilboa Visitors Center before the storm hit Monday. “We have to take every measure possible in advance,” Lopez said.

To the north, the Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage hydroelectric facility drained its lower reservoir to its lowest possible level. The upper reservoir was left with roughly 5 billion gallons of water in it — a response to the New York Independent System Operator’s concern over the state’s ability to jump-start the power grid in the event of widespread damage downstate.

“We are fully prepared. Nothing more can be done,” said Lynn Hait, NYPA’s manager for central New York.

State officials also took added measures along the Erie Canal system on the Mohawk. All of the movable gates that can form dams from Scotia to Little Falls were pulled from the water by Monday, leaving extra capacity in the event of runoff from the hurricane.

The move also lifted potential impediments along the river that gathered debris and obstructed its flow during last year’s storms. Canal Corporation officials also closed the entire system down on Monday, including the passage up to Lake Champlain.

Sandy also wreaked havoc on air transit. Though the Albany International Airport remained open for emergency flights throughout the storm, nearly all of the outbound flights were canceled by late afternoon.

Spokesman Doug Myers said more than 50 flights were canceled, leaving the airport mostly empty by evening. Airport workers scrambled to buckle down equipment Monday as the wind speed started to crank up.

“We’re preparing for it,” he said.

Concern over the impact of the storm also prompted massive closures and cancellations at various schools and universities around the Capital Region. Many counties pre-emptively declared a state of emergency in anticipation of damage from Sandy. Schenectady County was among those that declared an emergency, but it was rescinded before 9 p.m.

Storm shelters opened up throughout the region, with emergency officials fearing the worst. All of the school buildings in Schoharie County and a pair of fire companies were ready to take refugees from the storm.

The lack of flooding was a relief for many along waterways throughout the region that remain battered from last year’s storms. There’s roughly $20 million in state and federal funding available for Schoharie County stream and creek repair projects alone, but this work is still in the planning phase.

“That means a lot of the streams are in much worse shape for handling storm events than prior to Hurricane Irene,” said James Tierney, DEC’s assistant commissioner for water.

 

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