Boaters are being advised to get their vessels out of the Erie Canal before the state Canal Corp. drains the Mohawk River in anticipation of heavy rain that could accompany Hurricane Sandy through the region.
The Canal Corp.’s TransAlert System issued a notification about 6:30 p.m. Thursday warning boaters that water levels throughout the Mohawk River are being drawn down to minimum navigable levels, and possibly lower.
Canal Corp. Director Brian Stratton late Thursday declined to discuss the action but said the agency is working closely with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Emergency Management Office to monitor the track of Hurricane Sandy, a storm that already claimed two lives in the Caribbean by Thursday.
Officials were conferring with scientists and preparing for the worst, in case the storm being called a “nor’easter inside a hurricane” decides to plant itself over the East Coast early next week.
Early Thursday afternoon, emergency management directors from counties around the Northeast joined a conference call with the National Weather Service in Albany to get a better idea of where and when the storm could make landfall and what it could mean for the region.
Weather service meteorologist Hugh Johnson said Thursday evening the storm would most likely hit Monday with hurricane force somewhere between New Jersey and Maine.
“It will weaken quickly when it comes inland,” he said.
Sandy could hit the Capital Region with anything from a “generic couple inches of rain” to winds gusting to 60 mph and causing power outages. Four days out, Johnson said the forecast is still an educated guess but as time goes on will become more accurate.
All across the area, agencies are monitoring the storm.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services on Thursday to keep close tabs on Sandy’s progress and prepare for it.
Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said, “We’re handling this like we handle any potential emergency. We have an emergency management team with an emergency management plan.” The plan involves lists of contacts and protocols prescribing, for example, when and where shelters should be set up and who should be called to make it happen.
“But it’s still a little early to do much,” he said. “Right now we’re mainly just watching the storm.”
To the west, Schoharie County Emergency Management Director Kevin Neary and his Montgomery County counterpart, Adam Schwabrow, also have their eyes locked on the storm tracker.
“We’re being proactive,” Neary said, “reviewing our procedures with the sheriff’s and fire departments and the schools. Emergencies don’t happen nine to five, so we’re making sure we can all stay in contact.”
Schoharie County is still reeling from the blow dealt last summer by Tropical Storm Irene, which has made Neary especially cautious. He’ll be watching rainfall across the 300-square-mile Schoharie Creek basin and the state of the Gilboa Dam closely throughout the storm.
National Grid is also preparing its local employees for any power outages. “Once we know more about the storm, we might start bringing in reserve crews,” said spokesman Patrick Stella.
If it starts to look more damaging, he hopes to arrange for a line crew that worked during Tropical Storm Irene to teach a crash course in emergency power repair to less-experienced crews.
People with boats on the Mohawk River may want to get them out by Saturday in case it is drawn down below navigable levels. Doing so will allow room for potential floodwater to flow freely to the Hudson River.
The region, and the canal system, sustained massive damage in late August 2011 when debris, including homes and trees, slammed into the adjustable dams. The dams held, and floodwater carved out new paths around them, destroying private and public property and sending major electrical infrastructure plummeting into the river.
Stratton said notices to boaters — to be followed by notifications to riverside establishments — are part of a dynamic “progression” of warnings being broadcast as officials monitor the storm’s track.
Boaters are being warned water levels between Lock E-8 in Glenville and Lock E-16 in Mindenville could be drawn down below levels for navigation starting Saturday.
“The Canal Corporation is planning to further reduce water levels in the Mohawk Valley to below navigable levels beginning on Saturday,” the TransAlert notification reads. “Any vessels located between Locks E-8 and E-16 may become grounded once this occurs. All mariners should consider removing their vessels from the Canal in advance of the storm while the opportunity exists.”