Fort Plain, surrounding area, begin massive cleanup

By ALISSA SCOTT

Recorder News Staff

FORT PLAIN -- Heavy rain overflowed banks of Otsquago Creek in Fort Plain, flooding the streets and destroying property throughout the village Friday morning, seven years to the date of the anniversary historic flooding in 2006.

Authorities requested backup from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services for K9-assisted search teams to look for residents from Abbott and Reid Street who are unaccounted for.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a declaration of disaster for the western part of the county Friday afternoon after taking an aerial tour of the county earlier in the day.

"We don't believe there has been any loss of life so far," Cuomo said, "but it is a dangerous situation and people should use their normal prudence."

Around 6 a.m., flood waters engulfed the areas of Abbott and Reid Street on Route 80 in Fort Plain, spreading to the entire downtown area, nearly to the Route 80 bridge crossing the Mohawk River. By about 9:30 a.m., the waters had receded but left layers of mud and silt in its wake.

On June 28, 2006, major flooding covered much of Montgomery County, ripping apart roadways and destroying riverbanks. Friday's flood, Undersheriff Jeff Smith said, is more isolated in comparison.

"We suffered a pretty severe flood back then," Smith said. "It took months to clean up, but we did rebuild. This is on a smaller scale. It hasn't hit as many streets, but because of the rapid rising of the water, we've seen a little bit different kind of damage, some of it a little more severe."

Smith said the Fort Plain Fire Department was dispatched Friday morning after receiving phone calls from residents whose backyards were submerged.

"We immediately contacted the 911 dispatch center at the sheriff's office and asked for a hyper-reach, reverse 911 message to be sent to all residents on those two streets asking for evacuation," Smith said. "Unfortunately, within a 5- to 10-minute window, the Otsquago Creek rose so fast that the flood waters entered not only Abbott Street, but Reid Street, to the point that we were landlocked."

Residents of those streets were instructed to remain in their homes until emergency crews were able to reach them.

Sheriff Michael Amato said the sheriff's department used its airboat to assist the police department.

"We brought our airboat up to assist in rescuing stranded pedestrians and stranded motorists," Amato said. "We also went door-to-door with our airboat to see if there was anybody that needed to be evacuated from the residence."

The American Red Cross prepared a shelter at Harry Hoag Elementary School in Fort Plain, where about 100 people took refuge. When the evacuation began, residents said transportation was made available to them, but once the waters had receded some had to walk to the school.

By early afternoon in Fort Plain, the cleanup was well under way. The Otsquago had returned to its banks, leaving in its wake a trail of festering mud, trees of all sizes, and a field of debris.

A street sweeper, bucket loader and dump trucks stirred the dust and aroma at the intersection of Main, Canal and Hancock streets as traffic worked its way around the back of Haslett Park to avoid the dirt and mud being whisked 15 to 20 feet into the air.

The dead-earthworm aroma of baking black slime filled the dusty air downtown.

As cellars were being pumped out and the streets were being cleaned, the village was abuzz. Neighbors chatted with neighbors while watching other neighbors remove the inches of mud washed out of place and into the way. Many residents were using their snow shovels to push the mud away from their driveways, sidewalks and yards. For some, the cleanup will take days. For others, it could be longer.

At the Valero gas and convenience store at the corner of Main and Kellogg streets, a power shovel was making slow progress removing the inches of caked mud that covered most of the parking lot. Several people were carting items out of the store and filling the numerous dumpsters that sat open and brimming in front of the front doors.

One of the gasoline pumps was missing a cover panel, and the large metal propane tank exchange cabinet -- which normally sits in front of the store -- was being hauled back up the street from its resting place, half a block down the sidewalk.

There was no shortage of spectators; and many were wiling to take a break from their mud shoveling and sidewalk supervising to share their stories.

Dawn Sanders, a resident of Lincoln Street, whose home is flooded, said that while residents would stop by for a couple of hours and then leave, or pace anxiously, she was told residents from Reid and Abbott streets were not allowed to return home.

Adam Schwabrow, emergency management director, said the next concern was Park Street in Fonda, where the the state Canal Corporation indicated that waters would be rising very rapidly. Schwabrow said the 60 to 70 residents who live on that street were asked to voluntarily evacuate and businesses closed down around noon.

The National Weather Advisory had forecasted a thunderstorm for late afternoon, predicting an accumulation of .5 to 1 inch of rain, but it never hit the area and canal waters soon crested, leaving Park Street unharmed.

The deepest flooding was probably on Canal Street in Fort Plain, Smith said, where it may have reached 3.5 feet of water.

Cynthia Nellis, a resident of Canal Street, said the flooding damaged her car beyond repair. When she woke up and saw "a river going down the street," brushing against the tops of her car's tires, her car alarm was sounding and her lights were flashing.

"I opened the door, and my car was filled with water," Nellis said. "It was destroyed. Totaled. I'm 21 years old. That's the first thing I bought all by myself and it was just swept away and taken away from me. It's not fair, but it's no one's fault."

Eric Bleickhner, also a Canal Street resident, had to pump feet of water out of his cellar. All the belongings he stored down there were destroyed.

Nellis said she felt for the people in Bleickhner position.

"You see people soaked, covered in mud, crying because they lost their homes," Nellis said. "I thank God I only lost my car. They worked so hard for a place of their own and now there's property and pictures that they'll never get back."

Schwabrow said a mobile home on Abbott Street was swept from its foundation into the creek. He said there could have potentially been someone still inside.

Cuomo said the state is working to provide immediate assistance and support to those in need and that he and his administration will continue to monitor the situation.

"We've been through this before, all too often," Cuomo said. "But, we know how to handle it... We will continue to monitor the situation over the hours and in the coming days and we will respond accordingly. You are your own first responders in your homes. Use prudence."

Canajoharie and St. Johnsville sustained no damage during the flood. During the afternoon, water at the St. Johnsville Marina just covered the docks, not nearly touching the pavilion or RV campsite.

In Canajoharie, Mayor Francis Avery said the only damage sustained was "to my frayed nerves and upset stomach." The Riverfront Park and marina flooded and the bottom portion of the area was covered in debris.

He said the Canajoharie Creek did not overflow.

Fort Plain received assistance from the Canajoharie Fire Department, along with fire departments in South Minden, St. Johnsville and Amsterdam, totaling approximately 100 firefighters.

The Montgomery County Public Heath Department released an advisory for residents including general tips after a disaster. Some include:

* Remain where you have taken shelter until informed by local authorities that it is safe to leave.

* Keep the radio/television turned on for advice and instruction from local government on where to go for medical care, emergency assistance for housing, clothing and food, as well as other ways in which you can help your family and community recover.

* If possible, advise relatives and friends that you are safe.

* Stay out of the disaster area. Do not sightsee. Sightseeing disrupts essential rescue work and may be dangerous.

* Obey all curfew and emergency orders which are issued.

* If you must drive, use caution. Be aware of road and bridge washouts and storm debris on roadways.

* Report broken sewer or water mains and downed electrical lines.

Schwabrow said, it doesn't seem that the area is going to receive any additional flooding and waters are beginning to recede.

At this point, Smith said, it's a clean-up effort.

"Be patient," Smith said. "We're doing the best we can to try to get access for people. The safety of our residence is paramount."

Recorder Executive Editor Kevin Mattison and Courier-Standard-Enterprise Editor Joshua Thomas contributed to this story.