Sitting alongside the Mohawk River and the Otsquago Creek, the village of Fort Plain has been a target for flooding since long before the Revolutionary War, and the wilderness outpost for which the village was named.
But through those centuries, there was only a short period in which the levels of the Otsquago Creek have been monitored, and that ended in 1989.
Not trusting the pace of state and federal governments to remedy this, the village mayor is starting a fundraising drive to cover the costs of a series of monitors to watch the level of the creek and a series of sirens to warn residents to get away from it if it starts to rise past safe levels.
Mayor Guy Barton is working with Oriskany-based Mid-State Communications to develop a warning system. A collection of donations for the system, estimated to cost roughly $15,000, is likely the quickest way to get it built, he said.
It’s unclear if federal or state agencies have funding or grant programs to pay for flood warning systems.
“Maybe they will pay for part of it, but I can’t wait for them,” Barton said.
He said he’s in the process of developing a method by which to collect donations to pay for the system.
Once bustling with activity thanks to the Erie Canal, the village has seen its share of devastation, but a review of historic weather and disaster records sets the June 28 flash flooding apart from prior floods: It was the first in which the Otsquago Creek claimed a life.
Damage was so severe that a month later, about a hundred homes remained without power or electricity. Dozens are still considered uninhabitable.
Barton said one life lost is one too many.
If he has his way, the village of Fort Plain will become the first municipality in the area to install a flood warning system so residents have a better chance to get out harm’s way.
The system he envisions would include five or six sirens to run along the Otsquago Creek, connected to water float-type gauges with telephone systems to measure the water from the Otsquago’s mouth at the Mohawk River all the way south to Van Hornesville in Herkimer County, where the creek’s watershed begins.
As envisioned, the system would recognize rapidly increasing water levels, sound off and alert residents to head to high ground.
Schoharie County had a series of warning sirens installed along the Schoharie Creek after engineers determined the Gilboa Dam didn’t meet modern design standards. Though installed to warn of a dam collapse and the resulting devastating wall of water that would roar down the valley, the sirens were sounded in 2011 during Tropical Storm Irene. Officials said they likely saved lives, as residents were prompted to flee the rapidly rising Schoharie Creek before it caused so much damage through the valley.
NO STRANGER TO FLOODING
Engineers delved into the history of flooding in Montgomery County not long after Fort Plain and other riverside communities were flooded by the Mohawk River in 2006.
Montgomery County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, completed in 2008 by Tetra Tech of New Jersey, is rife with examples of how and where flooding occurred — and the little Otsquago Creek has been the culprit on several occasions.
Flooding records listed in Montgomery County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan detail devastation between 1865 — the year of the “Civil War Flood” — and 2007, when snowmelt, rainfall, ice jams and the Mohawk River flooded parts of the county.
Bridges along the Mohawk River were carried away in the March 16, 1865, flood, which caused significant damage to the original Erie Canal, which ran through Fort Plain and other communities.
A storm on March 26, 1904, shut down rail traffic throughout the Mohawk Valley, when the Erie Canal and Mohawk River were running as one.
Fort Plain’s busy manufacturing district, including the Mohawk Valley’s largest mill at the time, the Bailey Knitting Mills, was under several feet of water, and the Borden’s Condensed Milk Co. in Fort Plain took on water up to the second floor.
Fort Plain has flooded several times since then, including April, June and November 2006 and then March and April 2007.
The Otsquago Creek has been no stranger to ice jam flooding, either. The county’s hazard mitigation plan points to damage from the waterway in January 1952, February and March 1955, February 1957, February 1960, March 1963, January 1979 and March 1979.
Barton said there’s no question that the village should rebuild — nor any question that it should also do what it can to alert residents in the event a repeat of the June 28 storm is imminent.
“Fort Plain was really the center of shopping in the Mohawk Valley. For many years, you couldn’t even find a parking space. There were two or three shoe stores, you name it, we had it,” he said. “I want to bring it back to that. We were getting close to being there until this last damn flood came through.”
The June 28 death of Ethel Healey, an elderly woman carried away by the Otsquago Creek while inside her modular home, should be the last straw, Barton said.
“This last seven years has just been hell here,” he said.
The June 28 flood, he added, could have killed more people had it struck at a different time of the day. Luckily, many residents near the Otsquago Creek were awake or awakened by early risers during the 6 a.m. torrent.
“We could’ve lost 20 or 30 people in a heartbeat if it happened at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Barton, who still remembers hearing the sound of buildings slamming into the Route 5S bridge over the Otsquago.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., began calling for increased funding last month for the U.S. Geological Survey, which installs and operates flood gauges nationwide.
There was a gauge on the Otsquago Creek for 40 years. Barton said it’s his recollection the gauge gear was torn off of its foundation in a 1989 flood, then never replaced.
Though more attention to the creek through federal gauging would be welcome, he said later is not the time to do it.
“You don’t get anything done unless you try to get it done yourself,” he said.
By the end of July, a month after the flash flood, Fort Plain still had 92 homes without electricity and 124 without gas service.
These structures — mostly along Abbott and Reid streets straddling the Otsquago Creek — require major repairs before they can be hooked back up.
Barton said engineers were doing inspections by the end of July on a list of 31 flooded homes that need to be checked out for structural stability.
“Probably two-thirds are going to have to come down,” he said.