This story was updated to correct the surname of Union College geologist John Garver.
Paul and Jane Vanston want answers.
They want to know what was done in advance to mitigate flooding along the Mohawk River, which left their home on Lock Street submerged in more than 10 feet of fetid water. They want to know why equipment at the CSX Railroad bridge construction site near Lock 9 wasn’t better secured before Irene blew in and why they weren’t told to evacuate their low-lying neighborhood before a 2-foot wall of water rushed down their street.
They were struck by melancholy in the immediate aftermath of the flooding last month. But with these questions lingering, gloom is rapidly turning into anger.
“They had how many days to prepare for this?” Jane Vanston asked Tuesday. “I’m more than angry. I’m fuming.”
She’s not alone. There’s a growing sense of frustration among residents of Rotterdam Junction who believe more could have been done to prevent the unprecedented destruction of late August.
“Had the river been lowered and had the barges [at the railroad bridge] been secured or removed, we wouldn’t be here,” said Paul Vanston. “If those two things had been done, we’d be all right.”
Rotterdam Junction Fire Chief Shawn Taylor wouldn’t assign any blame for the flooding, but said the debris clogging the bridge certainly didn’t help. He questioned why the equipment wasn’t better secured or removed before the flooding reached its peak.
“Anybody that has any kind of common sense could tell if you have a narrow part of the river and put that much construction equipment in the river, it’s going to hinder water flow,” he said.
Speculation about the flooding has drawn the attention of at least two lawyers. Both hosted public meetings in Rotterdam Junction to determine whether residents are interested in pursuing a class-action lawsuit over the damage.
“The question is what was the state doing in preparation for this,” said Steve Coffey, an Albany-based attorney who met with about 30 residents on Sunday.
Officials with the state Canal Corporation maintain they acted properly in the days before Irene, but were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the flooding. Spokesman R.W. Groneman said his agency did what it could, but ultimately couldn’t contend with the volume ripping over the dams between Lock 12 in Tribes Hill and Lock 8 in Rotterdam.
The agency did start to reduce the level of the river two days prior to the storm. Groneman said the dramatic rise of the river made the drawdown almost superfluous.
“At some points, the water was moving 13 feet over top of the dams,” he said.
Eventually, all the dams from the Schoharie Creek confluence down to Lock 8 became choked with debris. With the river’s flow impeded in these areas, the river scoured out new paths around the dams.
Massive channels were carved around the dams between Lock 8 and Lock 10 in the Florida hamlet of Cranesville. Tons of debris has been cleared from the dams already, with tons more waiting to be removed.
CSX bridge work
Groneman was unsure what correspondence the canal corporation had with CSX and its contractors in advance of the flood. He said a general warning was issued throughout the canal system.
“Everyone wants to find a reason for this calamity and there isn’t always an easy answer,” he said. “This was a flood of epic proportions.”
An official with OCCI Engineering Contractors, the Missouri-based firm working on the roughly $15 million CSX rail bridge replacement west of Lock 9, said his workers were on a four-day leave before Irene and weren’t notified of the impending flood until the afternoon of the storm on Aug. 28. Superintendent Dave Himmelberg said Canal Corp. officials initially contacted the company after the alarms went off at the Gilboa Dam on the Schoharie Creek.
Workers landed in New York about eight hours later and began securing equipment at the site. Himmelberg said the floodwater steadily backed up into the construction site off Route 5S until the whole area was inundated; water eventually rose over the roadway.
Himmelberg, who said he remained at the site throughout the flood on Aug. 29, said the only machinery he lost in the river was a small tugboat. He said one of the barges in the Mohawk did have to be secured better, but that his workers were able to bring it under control.
The Mohawk ultimately reached the top of the bridge’s piers, leaving about 3 feet of clearance beneath it. Himmelberg said the level of flooding was far beyond anything that anyone at the site had predicted in the run up to the storm.
“Everybody wants to blame the canal corporation, but it was just an act of nature,” he said.
Remarkably, the discharge of the Mohawk near its confluence with the Hudson River in Cohoes was far below previously recorded floods. Union College geologist John Garver said the discharge — a measurement used to determine the magnitude of the event — was greater than the flood of 1996, but not nearly as significant as floods recorded in 1936 and 1914.
“It was big, but not huge,” he said. “We’ve seen a number of cases where the discharge has been much larger than this particular event.”
The significant difference between the massive floods of the past and the one following Irene was timing. Many of the prior floods were recorded during the winter when the canal dams were open, but ice jams along the Mohawk caused flooding.
“This is the highest water we’ve seen in what we call a free water event,” he said.
The flood also came almost exclusively from the Schoharie Creek, which normally contributes about 20 percent of the total flow through the Mohawk basin. Debris ripped from the Schoharie Valley smashed into the structures along the Mohawk, causing blockages that ultimately changed the course of the river in places.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the amount of debris that came down made a difference,” said Garver, who has studied the Mohawk basin since the mid-1990s.
Yet Garver also warned about assigning blame for what happened along the Mohawk and in Rotterdam Junction. He acknowledged that the flood-affected residents should avoid pointing blame until a full picture of what happened can come into focus.
“This was a big disaster and there are raw nerves right now,” he said. “But we need to be real careful about the finger pointing.”