Esperance Assistant Fire Chief Matt Deffer remembers going door-to-door with other firefighters on Aug. 28, 2011, urging residents to head for higher ground as floodwaters bore down on the Schoharie Valley.
Some people heeded the warning, Deffer said, but some, perhaps many, ignored it — until the distinctive dual-tone Gilboa Dam failure sirens began echoing throughout the valley.
Within minutes, the village of Esperance suddenly jammed up with traffic, Deffer said, as one resident after another decided the siren’s sound meant imminent disaster.
“If the sirens didn’t go off, there could’ve been a lot of dead people,” Deffer said.
Firefighters, police and local officials gathered at the Esperance firehouse on Wednesday to witness a test of the potentially life-saving system — an event that represented the first sounding of the sirens since they were put out of commission by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
Individuals were stationed at all 20 of the sirens that line the Schoharie Creek in Schoharie County on Wednesday.
Schoharie County Sheriff Anthony Desmond said later in the day that all of them confirmed the sirens were working.
Esperance town Supervisor Earl Van Wormer explained the siren system itself was designed after engineers in 2005 reported the Gilboa Dam didn’t meet contemporary design guidelines.
The dam, owned by New York City, holds back the roughly 20-billion gallon Schoharie Reservoir, part of the city’s drinking water supply.
Engineers determined flooding greater than the disaster that hit the valley in 1996 had the potential to push the concrete and stone dam out of the way. A catastrophe like that would send a wall of water crashing down the Schoharie Creek to the Mohawk River and into Fort Hunter, then Amsterdam and finally Schenectady.
Van Wormer, who chaired the county’s Board of Supervisors when the dam’s deteriorated condition was first announced, said the struggle to get officials from New York City to fund a warning system was well worth the effort because it saved lives last August.
“The good news is that Schoharie County did not lose one single person,” Van Wormer said. “I’m very proud to have fought for those sirens to go in.”
Dona Waszczak, whose home on Priddle Road in Esperance was torn in half and carried away by floodwaters, heard the siren loud and clear Wednesday and said she is one of those saved by those sirens.
Waszczak wasn’t planning on heading out of her creekside neighborhood during the storm until she heard the sirens, which had been tested monthly for years.
When they went off, she recalls telling her friend there wasn’t time to grab possessions.
“We started freaking out, but it was a very composed freaking out,” she said, remembering grabbing her dogs and dog food and throwing stuff in her car.
She said one of her friends wanted to get more stuff, but she’d said “We need to get out of here, that means the dam’s going.”
“It was the best thing in the world. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have left,” Waszczak said.
The northernmost of the 20 sirens is situated on Priddle Road in Esperance.
When coordinating a $220,000 post-flood repair of the system, officials boosted the strength of the Priddle Road siren in hopes it might carry farther north into the creekside Montgomery County hamlet of Burtonsville. A dozen structures were destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene flooding in the hamlet.
But on Wednesday, Sarah Forbes didn’t hear it on Island Road in Burtonsville. Neither did her mother, on Colyer Road. Forbes said she would feel safer if the sirens could be heard in her neighborhood.
Further north, in the creekside hamlet of Lost Valley in the Montgomery County town of Florida, Barb Cavaliere echoed Forbes’ sentiment. Cavaliere, who was ushered out of her home by Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies during Irene, said she’s been there for more than 40 years and always ignores the reverse-911 phone call urging residents to flee.
“It would be much safer if they had one down this way,” Cavaliere said of the sirens.
Her home wasn’t hit by the August flood but several further downhill were destroyed.
Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Dwight Schwabrow said Wednesday he believes there’s enough time for county officials to get residents to higher ground without the need for a siren system.
“I think it’s based primarily on trying to notify [the closest residents] immediately when it’s sounded,” he said of the sirens.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the Gilboa Dam, initiated a $24 million emergency stabilization project, cutting out a 220-foot notch in the top of the 82-year-old dam to relieve the pressure of high water.
The DEP also installed four siphons that help bring floodwater over the dam and then drilled 80 massive cables through the dam, mounting them to the bedrock below.
Many have speculated that stabilization project kept the dam in place during Tropical Storm Irene.
Following the emergency work, the DEP in 2009 began a $350 million reconstruction project for the dam, one that will include adding 70,000 cubic yards of concrete.
DEP spokeswoman Mercedes Padilla said in an email Wednesday that officials consider the dam to be safe.
“Gilboa Dam has been and continues to be safe. DEP submitted a post-Hurricane Irene incident report on Gilboa Dam to the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation and, based upon inspections and engineering analysis by outside and in-house dam safety experts, it concludes that the Gilboa Dam, which was structurally safe before the storm, is still safe and structurally sound,” the statement reads.
Despite damage to the work site from flooding, the project is on schedule and expected to be completed in 2016, according to the DEP.