Roughly 8,000 people remained without electricity in Schoharie County on Wednesday as officials — whose longtime seat of county government was wiped out by Hurricane Irene — scrambled to establish aid centers so people could get help.
More than 150 people were living in emergency shelters three days after being evacuated when floodwaters started surging into populated areas.
Officials on Wednesday reported that major pieces of critical infrastructure — including the Gilboa Dam and, downstream of it, the Blenheim-Gilboa powerhouse and its dam — withstood the record-breaking floodwaters.
The Enterprise Products/Teppco pressurized propane pipeline, however, was found to have been unearthed by the flood in two locations. The pipeline — which ruptured and started spewing propane last year in the town of Broome, forcing the evacuation of a three-mile area, and leaked and caused a massive explosion that killed two people in North Blenheim in 1990 — is shut down between Oneonta and Selkirk while Enterprise Products representatives continue helicopter flyovers to inspect what they can.
Crews still couldn’t get to some parts of the pipeline to inspect it on Wednesday because of road and bridge closures, but Enterprise Products spokesman Rick Rainey said engineers have found no issues or leaks in the eight-inch steel pipeline.
The Schoharie County Community Action Agency is expecting to have supplies available in the village of Cobleskill today, agency Director Phil Alotta said. Plans on Wednesday were to have an office in Wohl’s Plaza, near the Red Apple Buffet, and SCCAP’s office at 795 E. Main St., stocked with emergency supplies.
Alotta said the agency is gathering items like diapers, infant formula, water, non-perishable food and cleaning supplies to be made available to flood victims. The agency site will also serve as an information center where people will be able to get contact information, brochures and other assistance if SCCAP can’t provide it.
“There’s a lot of need out there,” Alotta said.
It’s unclear yet exactly how much help for individuals will be forthcoming from the federal government, and a financial assistance fund was started Wednesday with its first donation. Before they left for home, dozens of emergency workers from Ohio took up a collection out of their own pockets and raised $950 to start off the fund.
“There’s a lot of people from out of town here trying to help” said Alotta, who, after touring the county, described what he saw as “utter destruction.”
There will be no administration fees taken out of the help fund, so all money donated will go directly to victims, he said.
People who want to donate can write a check to Schoharie County Community Action Program Inc., put “flood fund” on it and mail it to SCCAP Inc., 795 E. Main St., Suite 5, Cobleskill, NY 12043.
Those with questions or in need of directions to the SCCAP site can call 234-2568.
Also, the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York began gathering and distributing food and disaster cleanup kits to areas devastated by the flooding.
Red Cross spokeswoman Caroline S. Boardman said crews were getting assessments from local officials to make sure they find the spots where help is needed.
An as-yet uncounted number of roads and bridges remained closed in Schoharie County, and residents in the vicinity of the Schoharie Creek are being urged to boil any water they use, including well water, county spokeswoman Karen Miller said.
Officials held a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the Cobleskill Fairgrounds, where the county has been operating since its buildings were badly damaged by the storm. The site was filled with emergency officials representing numerous agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the SPCA and others.
County officials gathered at their command center Wednesday and hailed President Barack Obama’s expedited disaster declaration for the county that took on major rainfall from Irene.
“The president’s declaration is an absolute blessing for our county,” Miller said.
The declaration will quicken federal assessments of infrastructure and enable federal officials to position aid centers where people will be able to seek help. FEMA was in the process of seeking sites to establish those centers on Wednesday, Miller said.
The county has put together an assistance site for those in need of service from the Office for the Aging, Social Services and Mental Health. It’s located at the county Annex Building near Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 30A in the town of Schoharie, off Exit 23 of Interstate 88, Miller said.
Mental health counseling is also being made available at the Esperance firehouse from 5 to 7 p.m., or those in need of these services can call 231-6722 and, after hours, 877-369-6699.
Schoharie County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harold Vroman said officials confirmed for him that Interstate 88 bridges over the Schoharie Creek are safe to cross and the Gilboa Dam is secure.
The county, working with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, installed several sirens throughout the Schoharie Valley after engineers said the 90-year-old Gilboa Dam didn’t meet modern design standards. One of the gauges officials rely on to determine how much water is spilling over the dam failed Sunday, and that lack of information sparked the emergency action plan and evacuations throughout the Schoharie Valley.
The Gilboa Dam holds back about 20 billion gallons of water. Were it to fail, the flooding would extend far beyond the typical Schoharie Creek flood zone.
Engineers use specific parameters, including the amount of water spilling over the top of the dam, to determine whether its stability is at risk. When the gauge went out, that information was no longer available, so officials initiated further evacuations. That forced residents already evacuated to the Schoharie Central School and to the Elks Lodge off Route 30 in Esperance to be uprooted again for a second evacuation Sunday.
Some residents earlier this week said they never heard the Gilboa Dam flood siren in the village of Schoharie. But Vroman said the siren undoubtedly saved lives in the tiny creek side community off Priddle Road in Esperance, where entire homes were crumbled and carried away by the raging Schoharie Creek.
The Gilboa Dam flood siren near Priddle Road was wiped out, Vroman said, but nobody was injured there.
Downstream from the Gilboa Dam, the New York Power Authority took preventative actions at its Blenheim-Gilboa Pump Storage Project prior to the massive flooding, NYPA spokesman Michael Saltzman said.
NYPA did not produce power from the hydroelectric facility in the period leading up to the flood, he said. Doing so would have sent more water — housed in a 5-billion-gallon reservoir atop Brown Mountain — into the lower, 5-billion-gallon reservoir that spills into the Schoharie Creek, making the flooding worse.
Saltzman said the facility has been checked out by NYPA civil engineers, an independent engineering consultant and the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, all of whom confirmed the integrity and safety of both reservoirs.
Schoharie County officials are expecting to have more news today regarding specific sites where the Federal Emergency Management Agency will set up help centers. In the interim, people who want to start the process of asking for assistance can go online at www.disasterassistance.gov or phone 800-621-3362.