A few moments of advance notice might have saved the life of Ethel Healey this summer before the Otsquago Creek suddenly inundated Fort Plain and swept her away in her home.
The current system of rain and stream gauges wasn’t enough.
But if all works as planned, three river basins covering more than 13,000 square miles — all in the crosshairs of major waterways — will feature modernized alert capabilities.
New York state is proposing an $8.5 million flood warning system that would put improved flood forecasts in the hands of emergency officials and citizens.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced the proposal, led by the Canal Corp., to establish a new warning system to cover three watersheds — the Mohawk River, Upper Hudson River and Oswego River basins.
“This new warning system will be invaluable in better preparing state and local emergency personnel, so that they can streamline communications and make timely, more informed decisions regarding water control and emergency evacuations,” Cuomo said in a news release.
“This project is another example of how the state is learning from past experiences and taking actions to ensure we are more ready for Mother Nature in the future,” Cuomo said.
As envisioned, the system will employ weather forecasts, rain gauges and stream gauges and combine all of them in an Internet-based system to give communities more precise flood warnings and predictions on how high the water can get.
The state is applying for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant program.
If approved, the effort would be managed by the Thruway Authority, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Division of Homeland Security, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, according to the governor’s release.
According to the Canal Corp., the system will feature additional stream gauges along the Erie Canal’s system of movable dams and improve on cross-communication among various agencies.
Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton hasn’t heard many details about the proposed alert system. In general, he said he’d love some help but can’t wait for it.
Since the Otsquago Creek flooded June 28, he’s been trying to raise money for a local alert system should the village flood again.
“I’m in the process of setting up my own system,” he said.
He said he and village officers are in the process of purchasing a roughly $16,000 siren from Whelen Sirens. The siren will have multiple tones for different emergencies — such as train crashes and tornadoes — but its main purpose would be to warn people of flash flooding.
“I’d love some help from the state,” he said, “but I can’t wait a few years to get something in place. It’s too delicate a situation. If we lose another person while I’m waiting, we lose everything,” Barton said.
“If the flood had happened at 2 a.m. instead of 6, 30 people would be dead,” he said. “People were already awake when it happened; they saw the water come in the door. If that had happened four hours earlier, they would have woken up to water in their bedrooms. We can’t ever let that happen. We need a really loud siren.”
Once the siren is installed, he said the village is looking to hard-wire it to a simple flood gauge on the creek.
“It’s like the float in the back of a toilet,” he said. “When the water goes past a certain point, it trips the siren.”
The gauge would be bolted to the base of one of the bridges that spans the creek. Based on the gauge’s simplicity, he said it should only cost $3,000 or $4,000.
So far he’s raised more than $8,000 toward the alert system.
“It’s a large nut to crack for our small community,” he said.
Residents and officials currently have access to data from existing stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey — a federal agency that’s often scrambling for funding to help keep it running.
More than 10 stream gauges are currently threatened with the loss of operating funds in New York state, according to the USGS New York Water Resources website at http://ny.water.usgs.gov.
The National Weather Service makes use of the USGS data to offer predictions on possible flooding through its Advanced Hydrological Predication Service, but New York state’s proposal, as envisioned, would bolster these capabilities.
“New York’s proposal will substantially improve the forecasting frequency, accuracy and modeling and mapping to fill in the many gaps which exist in these basins,” the governor’s release states.
Thruway Authority and Canal Corp. Chairman Howard P. Milstein said in the release that the effort, if successful, will help preserve the progress being made in the area.
“The communities along the canal system are essential in revitalizing upstate New York. We must take all necessary steps to protect them as weather events become stronger and more difficult to predict.”
It’s unclear how long it will take for the federal government to make a decision on the state’s application. If it’s approved, it will take roughly 1.5 years for the system to be in place and operational, according to the Canal Corp.