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FLOOD: Water level set record in Fort Plain flooding

Otsquago Creek reached more than 7 feet higher than ever before

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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From left, state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Thayer, county Emergency Management Director Adam Schwabrow and State Emergency Management Office Regional Director Shannon Green-Finegan tour flood-ravaged Abbott Street in Fort Plain on July 3.
From left, state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Thayer, county Emergency Management Director Adam Schwabrow and State Emergency Management Office Regional Director Shannon Green-Finegan tour flood-ravaged Abbott Street in Fort Plain on July 3.

— People familiar with Fort Plain have been saying they’ve never seen the Otsquago Creek get as high as it did Friday, and a review of the evidence in the aftermath proves them right.

Though it’s jumped its banks in the past, the flood that tore through dozens of homes in the village surpassed the creek’s greatest flood on record by more than 7 feet, a federal scientist said Wednesday.

The death of an elderly resident and massive damage that befell the Montgomery County village of about 2,300 people prompted a visit Wednesday from U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who called for quick action on the part of the federal government while standing where flood victim Ethel Healey’s home was picked up by the creek and carried downstream.

With the sound of heavy machinery in the background, Schumer gathered on Abbott Street with members of Healey’s family and said they called his office to arrange for a news conference so they could help highlight the dire need for help in the struggling community.

Despite losing the matriarch of the large family — Healey had seven children — the relatives selflessly put themselves in front of the cameras to help out the community.

“She must have been some special person,” Schumer said.

Calling for help for Fort Plain was one reason Healey’s family members sought attention. They also wanted to thank all of the first responders who headed toward — not away from — the disaster zone to help.

Joe Healey said gratitude was due to those who prayed for the family to find his mother’s body.

“We ask for your continued prayers as we, along with many others in our little town of Fort Plain, continue to deal with this unimaginable tragedy,” he said. “My mother was such a wonderful, caring, loving woman with a great sense of humor and so full of life.”

Healey said his mother’s selflessness was evident the day she died. He said her neighbor Jeremy VanValkenburg ran to her house to help her get out, but she told him to secure his children and family before coming back for her, Healey said.

“In a matter of minutes the water came so fast that Jeremy could not get back to Mom,” Healey said.

Ethel Healey’s grandson Michael Sheely said volunteer firefighters, Fort Plain police, Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies and state forest rangers all deserved recognition for risking their lives and for their tactful interaction with the grieving family.

“The work and dedication to our family is to be commended,” he said.

A small shed with an American flag was all that was left of Ethel Healey’s 1,000-square-foot modular home.

There was little time for residents to evacuate Friday — police officers knocking on doors when the water was rising were suddenly cut off themselves. Unable to get off Abbott Street, residents headed up a small hill behind the road and had no choice but to wait for the water to recede.

There’s no gauge monitoring the Otsquago Creek, a waterway that funnels rainfall from a 60-square-mile watershed through the village and into the Mohawk River.

The watershed reaches as far as Springfield in Otsego County and collects water from more than 20 other streams.

There was a gauge from 1949 up until 1989, according to Gary Firda, a surface water specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s N.Y. Water Science Center in Troy. It’s unclear why the gauge was removed — all that remains is a foundation, Firda said.

During that 40-year period when there was a gauge, the greatest flooding recorded, in 1981, put the Otsquago Creek at 12.2 feet and 10,400 cubic feet per second of flow, Firda said.

Without a gauge, hydrologists go to the field and measure high water marks.

Firda’s survey Tuesday put the creek’s height on June 28 at 19.6 feet, roughly seven feet, four inches above the creek’s highest-recorded flood.

He said there’s more mathematics and geometry to pursue, but he estimates the flow of the water at 28,000 cubic feet per second, more than twice the force and volume of the 1981 flood.

The creek’s height Friday exceeded both the disastrous June 2006 flood and tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. In all three floods, it was the Mohawk River, not the Otsquago Creek, that caused the greatest damage to communities, Firda said.

He said the USGS is often “beating the bushes” to find partners willing to put up part of the cost of maintenance for gauges, which cost roughly $15,000 each year to maintain.

Often, the National Weather Service, once a gauge is set up, will establish a flood forecast site there, making use of the data and forecasts to issue warnings for possible flooding, Firda said.

Had it been set up in Fort Plain, it might have given residents a few hours of warning they could use to move their cars to higher ground or bring valuables to upper floors, Firda said.

The savings an early warning would generate, he said, would pay for the gauge.

After housing nearly 100 people off and on — 90 people ran up to the Fort Plain Central School District’s Harry Hoag Elementary School when new flooding threatened on Monday — the Red Cross announced the emergency shelter had closed Wednesday.

All those who stayed now have a place to go, a manager at the shelter said Wednesday.

The relief agency will shift to mobile operations and continue bringing cleaning materials and meals to the streets, where dozens continue trudging through mud and tossing ruined possessions out on the curb.

The Red Cross is accepting donations. People willing to give are asked to text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Contributions can also be made online at www.redcross.org.

Also Wednesday, 250 National Guard members arrived in flood-affected areas of the Mohawk Valley to help clean up, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced.

They brought with them more than two dozen heavy vehicles including bucket loaders, excavators and dump trucks to help local communities put roads back together, according to the announcement.

More then two dozen military police soldiers were sent to the city of Oneida to help law enforcement there.

Roads remained shut down in Herkimer, Madison and Montgomery counties, but some have opened in those counties and in Cortland, Essex and Chenango counties, according to the governor’s office.

Hundreds remained without electricity and gas service Wednesday in Fort Plain, Herkimer, Utica, Rome and Oneida.

An old railway bridge continued teetering over the Otsquago Creek in Fort Plain. Fort Plain Police Chief Robert Thomas said there were plans being made to remove the bridge and to address the failing slope along the creek opposite Center Street.

Despite the disaster, the village went forward with its Fourth on the Third event, an annual Independence Day celebration.

Attendance was spotty in the sweltering, 89-degree heat earlier Wednesday, but locals predicted people would show up in great numbers at dusk for the fireworks and bonfire.

Wiles Park, near Harry Hoag Elementary School, was filled with the smell of barbecued chicken and kettle corn.

The park was set up with several bouncy-bounce attractions and a Teddy Bear Town filled with plastic orbs for kids to play in.

Martin Kelly, who was handing out schedules at the park’s entrance, said the event provided “an opportunity for some happiness.”

“It’s like the glue that holds us together, the camaraderie, the community. We are Fort Plain; we will come back just like we did in ’06,” Kelly said.

 
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