After floodwaters rushed into 4 Washington Ave. when tropical storms Irene and Lee hit here 10 years ago, homeowner Meredith Anker chose to raise her home in the historic Stockade neighborhood by 7 1/2 feet.
Looking back now, the process to raise and protect her home from the nearby Mohawk River seems like a blur.
But that hardly describes the arduous, years-long process of elevating the home through the New York Rising program, said Anker, who underwent five project reviews by the Schenectady Historic District Commission.
The building had also flooded after a fierce winter storm in 1996, and Anker opted to elevate and move the home rather than sell it. Contractors had to change the footprint of the house.
The floods caused by Irene in late August and early September of 2011 are viewed by many as defining events for the city’s flood-mitigation efforts. Anker, who received $300,000 in grant funding plus $100,000 of her own money for the project, is satisfied with the end result of her move.
“Now that it’s done, I’m glad I did it. But the difficulty of going through it, I’m talking years,” Anker said. “If I had known what it was going to be like to go through this, I would never have done it.”
Before she undertook the project of elevating and moving her home, referred to by many as “the house on the hill,” Anker said her fear of flooding caused her to move furniture to the second floor whenever the river rolled.
“It was just a lot of anxiety,” she said. “And now this year, when there were a couple of flash-flood warnings in the river, I didn’t really worry. It was great.”
But apart from the project at 4 Washington Ave., nothing has changed physically to reduce the risk to Schenectady homeowners, said Bill Nechamen, who served 31 years with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, including 16 years managing the statewide flood plain management program.
Nechamen, a city resident who retired four years ago and still does consulting in flood plain management, said there have been many studies and good ideas, particularly the ongoing mitigation proposal Schenectady is pursuing to try to move 21 homes on Ingersoll Avenue to higher ground through federal funding.
They’ve been deemed the Stockade homes most vulnerable to flooding from the Mohawk.
“That would certainly reduce risk,” the retired state official said of that proposal, “but as of today, nothing physically has changed to change the risk.”
Hazard-mitigation grant projects take time because the engineering and review processes are slow, he said.
The complications of historic reviews, as experienced by Anker for her home in the Stockade, only add to the challenge, Nechamen said.
The federal government will not spend money to reconfigure a historic neighborhood if there are other options.
“They’re going to need to do archaeological reviews, and I don’t think they could put a shovel anywhere in the Stockade without coming up with something that they’re going to find and have to review. So it’s a slow process, but it’s also a very unique process, this idea of what we call ‘managed retreat.’ Actually moving structures away from the risk has not been tried very often.”
There isn’t much more that the city can do to move things along, Nechamen said.
“People talk about let’s fix the river,” Nechamen said. “But there’s only so many things you could do. The only ways to reduce flood risk are to keep the water away from people or to keep the people away from water.”
The former is extremely expensive.
“You’re talking about dams, and reconfiguring dams, and you’re talking about flood walls and levees. They are extremely expensive and take a long time to build,” he said.
Flood walls or levees require a local commitment from the city or county to match federal funding, which Nechamen estimated “would probably at least be $5 million toward that cost, and we’d also be on the hook for maintaining it.”
“Plus, you would no longer have a view of the river, which is certainly one of the amenities of the Stockade neighborhood,” he said.
“Another aspect of it is that, if you build a flood wall or a levee, you’re cutting off part of the flood plain, and the water has to go somewhere. And that somewhere might be across the river in parts of Scotia.”
Taking no action is not an option, he said.
“The Mohawk River has always flooded. It flooded before the Erie Canal went through it. It has flooded since and it will continue to flood,” Nechamen said.
Irene was not a record flood in the Stockade, considered by the U.S. Geological Survey to be about a 30-year event, or about a 3% probability every year.
If it were a 100-year event, with a 1% probability every year, the water would have been about a foot and a half higher than it was.
Also, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency measures flood risk, the agency doesn’t look at ice jams, whose risks are even more severe than those of an Irene-type event, Nechamen said.
On top of that, climate change is resulting in more intense precipitation and more concentrated rainfalls in the Northeast, he said.
The former state official points out that the area of SUNY Schenectady County Community College, on the lower part of State Street from Erie Boulevard, and to the Western Gateway Bridge is also a flood-prone region that needs to be evaluated.
Nechamen said there are proposals to build recreational facilities on the college property well into the flood plain.
“That has to be evaluated very carefully, because the last thing we want to do is build things that are going to increase risk and the expense of having to clean up after the next flood,” he said.
Irene and Lee pushed Schenectady to look into serious solutions for flooding in the historic Stockade, according to John Garver, a Union College professor of geology.
“Bear this in mind: If this was a normal run-of-the-mill town in the Midwest, for example, FEMA would say, ‘You guys have got two options. We’re just going to move your houses, or we’re going to buy them and demolish them.’
“But because this is the historic Stockade, one of the longest-inhabited areas in the country, with a number of historic homes, it’s exceedingly complicated, and therefore there’s a premium to trying to preserve that historic fabric.
“And that’s one of the reasons it’s taking some time, frankly. We want to preserve that historic fabric and that historic feel, and literally those historic homes.”
In the storms’ aftermath, the Schenectady Fire Department came and pumped out basements and the city’s general services carted away garbage and a tremendous amount of ruined belongings.
Gloria Kishton, chairwoman of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation and a resident of the Stockade since 1975 (but not in the flood plain), recalled the on-the-ground efforts of the city, FEMA and good Samaritans such as herself and her husband.
“After it happened, the next day was a beautiful, sunny September day, and people just came out and started helping,” said Kishton.
“People had to throw a lot of their possessions out. Anything that was in their basement or even on our first floor, because the water went up to, basically, a kitchen countertop on the first floor.”
After the initial shock of the storms set in, power outages ruined refrigerated food and people needed to charge their cellphones.
But on portions of State Street, Kishton said, some businesses had power and allowed people to charge their phones.
“It was my experience that people were very generous and helpful,” Kishton said.
Some homeowners walked away from their properties and others arranged for professional companies to come in and clean.
“They couldn’t cope with it, or for a variety of reasons they did not do anything at all,” she said. “And so there were some houses that were purchased by other owners who did the rehabilitation after the flooding.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy was in the first months of his tenure when the storms occurred and still ranks it among the top three challenges of his administration, including budget difficulties the city faced in his earliest years.
“But the city had a good management team in place,” McCarthy said of former longtime Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen, and late former Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who dealt with various concerns at the state level during his career.
“We took it one day at a time,” McCarthy said of Irene. “We monitored the weather reports and we watched the river. There were other issues with just heavy rain that caused problems in different parts of the city. But we worked through it. Then the cleanup started, so we put the crews out and really moved a massive amount of material.
“Unfortunately, then we got hit with Lee [more than a week later] and we went through the whole thing again. And that actually had the higher water levels than the one the week before. We saw flooding down around the community college, and bridges were closed.
“In the grand scheme of things, we had a fairly good response, and generally the city bounced back fairly quickly and our power outage from the first storm was more intermittent.
“It’s the type of thing you hope you never have to go through. But I would match our response with any of the other communities, and the team we had in place did a pretty damn good job,” McCarthy said.
Assistant Fire Chief Don Moreno said the rapid escalation of the storm’s water, prompting quick decisions, and some residents’ refusal to leave their homes that were close to the river were among the biggest challenges and what he remembers most.
Floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene also breached the city’s sewage pump station in a historic building, and a state DEC consent order required Schenectady to bring mechanical components above the flood plain.
Work got underway this past December on replacing the station along the Mohawk River.
The present facility, the most important one in the city’s entire system, collects between four and six million gallons of waste each day, from not only the city but also the village of Scotia and industrial parks in Rotterdam and Glenville.
Multiple efforts for an update on the pump station project were unsuccessful last week.