After emergency personnel in Schoharie County on Wednesday were forced to go door to door to alert residents to a potential evacuation, state and federal officials are demanding a better backup warning system and accountability at the Gilboa Dam.
The problem stems from Hurricane Irene, which knocked out monitoring stations at the dam that link with the sirens, left obstructions blocking microwaves to some of the working sirens and damaged others. In one case a siren was swept away by floodwaters.
In response to potential flooding in the Schoharie valley, county spokeswoman Karen Miller said, the county on Wednesday had volunteer firefighters go door to door and used its reverse-911 notification system to spread the word. She said this is the plan for the foreseeable future, as the county works with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the sirens, to fix the system.
DEP spokesman Michael Saucier added that the department has begun on-site monitoring during high water. These monitors then relay any warnings to the county and the emergency operations center.
“If a condition in which the dam is in danger develops, then the town enacts its evacuation plan, which involves local fire and police alerting the community,” Saucier said.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said this situation should not be allowed to continue and argued that it doesn’t take into account the safety of nearby residents. “It is not acceptable that the siren system is not functioning and there’s no backup system, when you consider the history of raging waters we have in this region,” he said. “We should err on the side of safety and embrace technology at its fullest … Anything short of that is just not acceptable.”
State Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, said the sirens were tested on a regular basis, but suggested they were not tested for a flood situation of this magnitude. He added that the plans were well-intentioned and had included input from the community, yet wondered if more could have been done.
“I’m not satisfied that everything was done and properly set up to the level that it needed to be,” Lopez said. “I personally am requesting a comprehensive review of the entire scenario.”
This review would come on the heels of a DEP report that detailed its handling of the dam before, during and after the storm.
Lopez said that it was his understanding that the city was already in the process of offering the county financial assistance to rebuild and improve the sirens. Additionally, he said the commissioner of the DEP had proposed powering the sirens with a backup solar panel to make them immune to downed power lines.
“In brief conversations … the city is already thinking about this,” Lopez said.