By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
Tropical Storm Irene blew through the area with a vengeance on Sunday, uprooting trees, tearing down power lines and dropping enough rainfall to send local creeks and rivers surging over their banks.
According to the National Weather Service in Albany, the former hurricane had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time her winds stretched as far north as the capital area. She remained strong enough to pack quite a punch, however, with wind gusts measured as high at 43 mph being reported in Canajoharie. It was not the wind threatening to do the most damage, though, and by midafternoon, it became obvious which form of Mother Nature was going to cause the most havoc.
Local communities actually fared fairly well in the rainfall department. By late Sunday afternoon, rainfall totals were 3.68 inches for Amsterdam, 3.34 inches in Fonda, 3.84 inches in Glen, 4.7 inches in Broadalbin and 2.6 inches in Northville. In fact, area totals are somewhat moderate when compared to the 13.3 inches that fell in one section of Greene County.
Still, enough rain fell on an already over-saturated ground to bring down many trees.
A lack of water storage in the ground causes excess run-off, destroying a tree's root system and leaving it precarious to strong winds.
Enough rain also fell to substantially raise the waters of the Mohawk River and the Schoharie Creek and its tributaries. So much so, in fact, that authorities spent much of Sunday closely monitoring the Schoharie's Gilboa Dam. Red flags were raised when communication was lost with the dam's monitoring devices.
According to Dwight Schwabrow, Montgomery County Director of Emergency Management, county officials established an Emergency Operations Center at the county offices. Staffed by representatives of the Amsterdam Fire Department, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Transportation, the operations center spent much of the afternoon and evening preparing emergency evacuation plans for the communities in harm's way.
The first evacuation orders were issued to residents in the area of Florida Avenue along the Chuctanunda creek, a tributary of the Schoharie, late Sunday afternoon. Personnel, campers and some equipment were also evacuated from the Fonda Fairgrounds. Montgomery County Department of Public Works personnel and vehicles were removed from the Park Street facility and stored safely on the grounds of the Fonda-Fultonville Central School.
By Sunday evening, the Mohawk River, too, approached flood stage, forcing the evacuations of hundreds of Amsterdam residents on the South side and East and West Ends, in addition to those already evacuated in the area of Florida Avenue.
According to Rick Sager, Deputy Director of Emergency Management for Montgomery County, the Schoharie Creek had reached 11.17 feet by 8:30 Sunday night, 1.17 feet over major flood stage. The creek was expected to crest some time after 2:00 a.m. at approximately 15 feet.
Sager said similar numbers were unavailable for the Mohawk River, but it too, was expected to crest some time after 2:00 a.m., well above flood levels. By late last night, the waters of the Mohawk had risen enough to overtake portions of West Main Street.
Severe flooding of the Mohawk River became even more of a reality Sunday afternoon, when a lock on the Erie Canal began to show signs of distress. Though details were hazy, the lock associated with the Main Street bridge connecting Fort Hunter and Tribes Hill began to have problems sometime late Sunday afternoon. Montgomery County Emergency Management Officer Director Dwight Schwabrow said some of the gates on the locks had come loose, allowing "substantial amounts" of water through.
"I can only guess what's happened, but, in any event, there is a mechanical problem with the locks themselves," he said, adding the situation was being dealt with by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department.
Compounding the problem was that in the area was that trucks from an ongoing construction project, consisting of sand blasting and painting, had been left in the area of the bridge. At least one of the trucks, Schwabrow said, had gone into the water and had become either submerged or nearly submerged; though unknown, it was suspected that the truck -- or trucks -- likely had various painting and construction materials in them.
By nightfall, fears of flooding deepened, causing Montgomery County Board of Supervisors' Chairman Thomas Quackenbush to issue a state of emergency, banning all unnecessary travel on county roads. This action was hampered by the ensuing closing of the New York State Thruway, rerouting all thruway traffic through local streets. The thruway closing was necessitated by the rapidly rising waters of the Schoharie Creek, which forced officials to ban travel over all bridges spanning the creek.
Power outages were numerous throughout the storm. According to National Grid spokesman, Steve Brady, more than 20,000 customers in Montgomery and Fulton Counties lost power, and for some, it may be days before power can be restored.
The day at St. Mary's Hospital was a relatively normal one; the only deviation from the regular routine was that nobody was allowed to eat in the hospital's cafeteria, for fear that the room's many windows could potentially blow in.
Overnight, sandbags were placed near the front of the Carondelet Pavillion as a precautionary measure, said Jerri Cortese, the hospital's director of community relations. However, Cortese said, water levels would need to rise nearly 15 more feet than they were at 9:40 p.m., Sunday night, before flooding would be an issue for the hospital.
Cortese added that the hospital had no reason to evacuate any staff or patients and the hospital expected Monday to be a regular business day.
"We'll see what [Monday] brings, but, at this point, we're planning on a normal day of operations," Cortese said.