Slightly more than a week ago, Shawn Taylor had to make one of the hardest decisions in his life: Ordering the full evacuation of Rotterdam Junction.
As chief of the Rotterdam Junction Volunteer Fire Department, the call was his to make — and he only had minutes in which to make it. He said the decision helped save the lives of more than 300 people.
“If we did not evacuate town, there would have been a loss of life. The water was above the second floor in the first houses we worked on,” Taylor said.
As the people of the devastated hamlet west of Schenectady continue to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Irene on Aug. 29, some are questioning why the evacuation order was not given sooner.
Isabella Street resident Lisa Pearo said she had less than 10 minutes to flee her neighborhood. She was angered that she wasn't given better warning so that she could have saved some of her belongings or her pet parakeet and bunny, both of which died in the flood.
"Even with a 20-minute warning, we could have gotten just a few things," she said.
Lock Street resident Jane Vanston was equally dismayed by the short notice. In fact, she said the only notice she got to evacuate was from seeing the rapidly rising water. "That storm drain over there blew three feet high," she said.
Vanston said she was actually told that she could remain in her house about an hour before a wall of water came cascading down her block. She and her family only had enough time to scramble up a hill to avoid being swept away. "It was like a movie," she said.
Taylor’s answer to these concerns is that he gave the order as soon as he realized the town was about to be engulfed in a once-in-a-lifetime flash flood. “We had seven minutes to do a full-blown town evacuation. We spotlighted the lowest areas first — Scrafford Lane, Isabella Street — and then the higher areas.”
Taylor gave the evacuation order at 9:30 a.m. “as soon as we started seeing water come in.” Evacuation of low-lying areas took about 20 minutes and about 40 minutes for the rest of the hamlet.
In executing the evacuation order, the fire department followed a plan developed to deal with a breach of the Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County or a breach of the banks of the Mohawk River north of the hamlet. Rotterdam Junction sits inside a bow in the river.
“The only reason we have an evacuation plan is for a major catastrophic event,” Taylor said.
Under the plan, the fire department expects to have more than an hour of notice of approaching floodwaters, Taylor said. In this case, the scenario did not fit the evacuation plan, as the floodwaters flashed into the hamlet within minutes of cresting the Mohawk River west of the hamlet.
Taylor said fire department volunteers monitored the river during the early hours of Aug. 29 from the bridge over Route 103. “The water was high and taking Lock 9, but it was not breaching the banks,” he said.
No flooding took place until 9 a.m., and it wasn’t because of the river, Taylor said. “It came from behind and from Pattersonville, from that side of the river,” he said. “We had no clue. This was a flash flood.”
As floodwaters rose rapidly, Taylor called on the Schenectady County Emergency Management Department for assistance. That is the established procedure. The county cannot step into an emergency unless asked, he said. “Each fire department has an incident commander and the commander works with the county to obtain resources,” he said.
“The county is our go-to guy. If I say I need a bulldozer, the county will get one for us. We have had to use a lot of heavy equipment to open roads,” Taylor said.
Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said no other municipalities asked for county assistance. Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city of Schenectady was able to handle the emergency using its own personnel, although the city remained in constant communication with the county’s emergency management department.