More than 15 inches of rain in five days was more than Herkimer’s infrastructure could handle, according to Robert Vandawalker, director of emergency services for Herkimer County.
Vandawalker was one of several local and state officials to address a packed town hall meeting at the Polish Community Home Wednesday evening.
Herkimer residents were encouraged to attend the meeting to receive information on recovery efforts and to ask questions.
“Van Hornesville was devastated,” Vandawalker said. “In Little Falls an underground aqueduct blew out in the middle of stores. This was an anomaly. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Sunday prior to the major flood that struck area communities, the town of Fairfield was hit hard by flooding when 5 inches of rain fell in about 45 minutes.
“It was a small cell,” said Vandawalker. “If you went a half mile in another direction, they had only light showers.”
During Friday’s flood, “I really thought we would have fatalities,” said Vandawalker.
In Danube, the town highway crew used a bucket loader to rescue people from a house that was being moved by the force of the water.
The county is currently waiting to find out if it will receive federal disaster aid to help recover from last Friday’s flood.
Two teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been out conducting an initial assessment of the damage in the area with one team looking at major structural damage to homes and the other at public structures. When it came to public structures, “In the first two or three towns, there was more than $10 million in damages,” Vandawalker said.
The declaration for housing damage is handled separately. FEMA crews were checking hard hit areas to see how much major structural damage had resulted from the floods.
Once FEMA determines there is enough damage for the county to qualify for aid, Vandawalker said, “It’s up to the President and FEMA. It could take seven days to 15 days. I think we have the numbers.”
He cautioned residents not to assume that FEMA would provide aid to cover all their losses. It would cover essentials such as furnaces, hot water heaters and electrical entries.
“FEMA does not cover things outside your home,” he said. “It does not cover yards, driveways or gardens. FEMA is not to make you whole. FEMA is temporary assistance to get you on your feet.”
If federal aid is made available, local residents would have to apply to receive a number and FEMA would have staff available to help residents apply for assistance. FEMA workers would also visit houses to assess damage.
If residents replace or repair appliances, Vandawalker said, they should document everything with photographs and hold onto receipts.
Page 2 of 3 - He said the first step for residents seeking assistance would be to fill out a Small Business Association loan application.
“It’s a very complicated process,” said Mike Sprague, regional director for the New York State Office of Emergency Management. “The SBA loan application is the key into the system. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a loan, but it gets you into the system. If you don’t fill it out, you’re closing yourself off from assistance.”
Village officials recounted their experiences the day of the flood.
Fire Chief John Spanfelner said reports of flooding throughout the village came in at about 4:30 a.m. and crews were dispatched to evacuate residents and man pumps. He requested help and 10 additional crews arrived by 7 a.m. to help with pumping. More crews arrived Saturday to help pump out cellars and pumping continued Sunday. There was additional flooding Monday and the Little Falls Fire Department brought in additional line to help with pumping in the Harmon Field area.
“We used every resource we could get,” said Spanfelner.
Street crews were also out early, according to Department of Public Works Superintendent Peter Macri. He said workers had removed debris from the usual problem areas Thursday, but by 3:30 a.m. there was some flooding and by 4 a.m. the situation was deteriorating as Bellinger Brook was rising.
At 4:16 a.m., water was hitting the base of the bridge and it was soon spilling over. Workers tried to access the bridge to remove the debris which came from Brookwood Park and beyond, he said, but the debris “created a silt and gravel dam.” DPW workers tried to dislodge the dam and one piece of equipment was nearly pulled into the water.
At that point, Macri called for an excavator. The deck of the bridge had to be removed in order to clear the buildup.
On Saturday morning, Macri had a call from the state to ask if he needed help. “I said we needed all the help in the world,” said Macri. By 8 a.m. DOT had arrived with workers from as far away as the Buffalo and Rochester area and trucks lined up from Harter Street to state Route 28.
“Within a day all the tributaries were cleaned out and widened,” he said.
A storm on Sunday brought more flooding, not because of debris, but because of the amount of water.
He said there was concern about the flood control dike behind Harmon Field. A portion of the levy had been washing away over several years. “We were going to put the project out to bid this week,” he said.
Repairs have now been made and Bellinger Brook is about 80 percent cleaned out. Macri said he also contacted the New York State Canal Corporation and argued the water level in the canal needed to be lowered. It finally was.
Page 3 of 3 - Codes Enforcement Officer Dave Kuehnle said crews have been tagging houses to give an initial assessment of the amount of damage to the structures.
Property Maintenance Officer Richard Cancellino said crews are working to get to all the debris that has to be picked up. “We should be all through the village by late Friday,” he said. The large dumpsters will be emptied and replaced as needed, but Cancellino added they would not be left on a long-term basis to avoid abuse.
Residents expressed concern about ponding water in backyards, inadequate storm drainage in some areas and concern about what would happen if the request for federal assistance is denied.
Vandawalker noted a number of outside groups have offered to come in and help homeowners with cleanup.
Herkimer County Legislature Chairman Vincent Bono praised local crews and thanked those who came in from outside the area to assist. He reminded those in attendance to document damage and any repairs.