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Rotterdam Junction flood victims sue state

Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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Cars are submerged on Lock Street in Rotterdam Junction on Aug. 31, 2011, a
day after flood waters receded after Tropical Storm Irene roared through the area.
Cars are submerged on Lock Street in Rotterdam Junction on Aug. 31, 2011, a day after flood waters receded after Tropical Storm Irene roared through the area.

— Nearly five dozen Rotterdam Junction property owners have filed a civil claim against New York, claiming the state Canal Corp.’s failure to adequately prepare for high-water events along the Mohawk River led them to incur more than $4.6 million in damages from flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

The lawsuit accuses the subsidiary of the state Thruway Authority of negligence because it failed to take appropriate action following a massive flood that wreaked havoc on other riverside communities in June 2006. The claim listing 57 property owners from the hamlet in western Schenectady County says the state had “voluntarily assumed the duty of controlling, operating, monitoring and maintaining the waters” by constructing structures and operating them within the Mohawk’s watershed.

“As a result of the negligent actions and omissions of [the Canal Corp.] … including but not limited to failing to properly monitor, maintain, control and operate the canal; and failing to properly monitor, maintain, control and operate the locks within and along the canal, this water was unable to properly drain from the watershed and was caused to back up and flood the areas surrounding the Mohawk River Basin, the Erie Canal and ultimately the lands and properties of the claimants,” states the 15-page lawsuit filed in the state Court of Claims Tuesday.

An official with the Canal Corp. declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

The lawsuit also indicates that the state incorporated a task force and sponsored numerous studies following the 2006 flood. During that event, severe flooding along the Mohawk caused massive damage in the Montgomery County villages of Fort Plain, Canajoharie and Fonda, among other waterfront communities.

That flooding led to state legislation that created the Canal Flood Mitigation Task Force, a group of 13 agencies that were to meet at least six times and issue a report. But the task force never convened before the 2011 flood struck, damaging riverside property in both Montgomery and Schenectady counties.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has spearheaded studies of the Mohawk River Basin in the wake of the 2006 flood. The agency continues to work on a program incorporating more than a dozen soil and water conservation districts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among other related agencies.

But solutions to flooding along the Mohawk have been slow in coming.

In February, the Canal Corp. announced a $34 million flood mitigation project that included a number of improvements to the eight moveable dams along the river that will allow them to better handle future flood events, like the ones that occurred in 2011.

Built during the early 20th century, the moveable dams between Fort Plain and Rotterdam are designed to create navigable channels along the Mohawk during warm weather months. The dams are then raised during the fall to allow the movement of ice or debris during the winter and early spring.

Each section of the dam consists of an upper and lower “pan.” The lower pans are affixed into uprights secured by concrete “shoes” at the bottom of the river; the upper pan can be raised or lowered to regulate the depth of the river.

The upper pans of the dam structures were raised in advance of Irene in August 2011. The lower pans couldn’t be lifted on short notice and were left in place, creating areas where debris collected.

The debris-choked dams contributed to the raging Mohawk River overflowing its banks and carving new channels in areas where it hadn’t flowed for centuries. In Rotterdam Junction, a wall of water cascaded down Main Street, inundating low-lying areas of the hamlet.

Some areas remained flooded days after the river receded. Homes along Isabella Street and Scrafford Lane were left at least partially submerged for six days.

Damage figures compiled by the Rotterdam Public Works Department were bleak: 52 homes sustained damage up to the first floor, while 32 others were flooded up to the second floor. Many homeowners maintain the flood could have been prevented by the state with proper oversight by its agencies.

“It’s foreseeable,” said Paul DeLorenzo, one of the attorneys representing property owners in the claim. “It’s part of their duty.”

 
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