Ten Years After Irene / Lee, Neighborhood Historic Designation Slows Residential Mitigation Efforts


After floodwaters rushed into 4 Washington Ave. when trOpic storms Irene and Lee struck here 10 years ago, owner Meredith Anker chose to raise her home in historic Stockade by 7 1/2 feet.

Looking back now, the process of raising and protecting her home from the nearby Mohawk River appears to be a blur.

But that hardly describes the arduous, years-long process of raising the house through the New York Rising program, said Anker, who underwent five project reviews by the Schenectady Historic District Commission.

The building had also been flooded after a severe winter storm in 1996, and Anker chose to raise and move the house rather than sell it. The contractors had to change the footprint of the house.

The floods caused by Irene in late August and early September 2011 are considered by many to be pivotal events for the city’s flood mitigation efforts. Anker, who received a grant of $ 300,000 plus $ 100,000 of her own money for the project, is happy with the end result of her move.

“Now that it’s done, I’m glad I did. But the difficulty of going through it, I’m talking about years, ”said Anker. “If I had known what it was going to be like to go through this, I never would have. ”

Before embarking on the project to raise and move her house, called by many “the house on the hill,” Anker said her fear of flooding caused her to move furniture to the second floor whenever the river flowed.

“It was just a lot of anxiety,” she said. “And now this year when there were a few flash flood warnings in the river, I didn’t really care. It was great.”

But other than the project at 4 Washington Ave., nothing has changed physically to reduce the risk to Schenectady owners, said Bill Nechamen, who spent 31 years with the State Department of Conservation in the environment, including 16 years managing the statewide floodplain management program.

Nechamen, a town resident who retired four years ago and still does floodplain management consultancy, said tThere have been a lot of studies and good ideas, especially the ongoing mitigation proposal that Schenectady is pursuing to try to move 21 homes on Ingersoll Avenue to higher ground with federal funding.

They were considered to be the palisade houses most vulnerable to Mohawk flooding.

“It would certainly reduce the risk,” the retired state official said of the proposal, “but to date nothing has physically changed to change the risk.”

Risk mitigation grant projects take time because the engineering and review processes are slow, he said.

The complications of historical criticism, as experienced by Anker for his house in the palisade, only add to the challenge, Nechamen said.

The federal government will not spend money to reconfigure a historic district if there are other options.

“They’re going to have to do some archaeological examinations, and I don’t think they could put a shovel anywhere in the fence without finding something that they are going to find and have to review. So it’s a slow process, but it’s also a very unique process, this idea of ​​what we call “managed retirement”. In fact, removing structures from risk has not been tried very often.

There isn’t much more the city can do to get things done, Nechamen said.

“People are talking about fixing the river,” Nechamen said. “But there are only a number of things you can do. TThe only way to reduce the risk of flooding is to keep water away from people or to keep people away from water.

The first is extremely expensive.

“You talk about dams and the reconfiguration of dams, and you talk about flood walls and dikes. They are extremely expensive and take a long time to build, ”he said.

Flood walls or dikes require local commitment from the city or county to match federal funding, which Nechamen estimated “that there would probably be at least $ 5 million for that cost, and we would also have to maintain it.

“Plus, you wouldn’t have a view of the river, which is certainly one of the amenities of the Stockade district,” he said.

“Another aspect is that if you build a flood wall or a dike, you cut off part of the floodplain, and the water has to go somewhere. And it could be somewhere across the river in parts of Nova Scotia.

Doing nothing is not an option, he said.

“The Mohawk River has always been in flood. It flooded before the Erie Canal crossed it. It has flooded since and will continue to flood, ”Nechamen said.

Irene was not a record-breaking stockade flooding, considered by the US Geological Survey to be an event of around 30 years, or a probability of around 3% each year.

If this was a 100-year event, with a probability of 1% each year, the water would have been about a foot and a half higher than it was.

Additionally, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency measures flood risk, the agency ignores ice jams, the risks of which are even more severe than those of an Irene-type event, Nechamen said.

On top of that, climate change is leading to more intense precipitation and more concentrated precipitation in the northeast, he said.

The former state official points out that the SUNY Schenectady County Community College area, on the lower portion of State Street from Erie Boulevard to the Western Gateway Bridge is also a flood-prone area that must be assessed.

Nechamen said there were proposals to build recreational facilities on college property right down to the floodplain.

“This needs to be evaluated very carefully, because the last thing we want to do is build things that will increase the risks and expense of cleaning up after the next flood,” he said.

Irene and Lee prompted Schenectady to seek serious solutions to the flooding in the historic stockade, according to John Garver, professor of geology at Union College.

“Keep this in mind: if this was an ordinary Midwestern town, for example, FEMA would say, ‘You have two options. We’re just going to move your houses, or we’re going to buy them and tear them down.

“But because this is the historic palisade, one of the longest inhabited areas in the country, with a number of historic houses, it is extremely complicated, and so there is a premium in trying to preserve this historic fabric.

“And that’s one of the reasons it’s taking time, frankly. We want to preserve that historic fabric and historic feel, and literally these historic homes. “

In the aftermath of the storms, the firefighters from Schenectady came to pump out the basements and the town’s general services took away garbage and a huge amount of ruined objects.

Gloria Kishton, president of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation and resident of the Stockade since 1975 (but not in the floodplain), recalled the on-the-ground efforts of the city, FEMA and Good Samaritans like her and her husband.

“After that, the next day was a beautiful sunny September day, and people came out and started helping,” Kishton said.

“People had to throw away a lot of their belongings. Everything that was in their basement or even on our first floor, because the water was basically rising up to a kitchen counter on the first floor.

After the initial shock of the storms, power outages ruined refrigerated food and people had to recharge their cell phones.

But on parts of State Street, Kishton said, some businesses had power and allowed people to charge their phones.

“It was my experience that people were very generous and helpful,” Kishton said.

Some owners have left their properties and others have asked professional companies to come and clean up.

They couldn’t cope with it, or for various reasons they didn’t do anything at all, ”she said. “And so there were houses that were bought by other owners who did the rehabilitation after the floods.”

Mayor Gary McCarthy was in the early months of his tenure when the storms hit and still ranks him among the top three challenges in his administration, including the budget challenges the city faced in its early years.

“But the The city had a good management team in place, ”said McCarthy of longtime former General Services Commissioner Carl Olsen and former Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who addressed various concerns at the level. state during his career.

“WWe took it one day at a time, ”McCarthy said of Irene. “We watched the weather reports and watched the river. There were other issues with heavy rains which caused problems in different parts of the city. But we worked on it. Then the cleanup started, so we kicked the crews out and really moved a huge amount of material.

“Unfortunately we were hit by Lee [more than a week later] and we reviewed it all. And that actually had the water levels higher than that of the week before. We saw flooding around the community college and bridges were closed.

“In the grand scheme of things, we got a pretty good answer, and gIn general, the city has rebounded quite quickly and our power outage since the first storm has been more intermittent.

“It’s the kind of thing you hope you never have to experience. But I would match our response with any of the other communities, and the team we had in place did a damn good job, ”said McCarthy.

Deputy Fire Chief Don Moreno said the storm’s rapidly escalating water, resulting in quick decisions, and the refusal of some residents to leave their homes near the river were among the biggest challenges and what he remembers the most.

Floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene also violated the sewage pumping station in a historic building, and a consent order from the state DEC required Schenectady to bring the mechanical components above the floodplain.

Work began last December to replace the station along the Mohawk River.

The current facility, the largest in the city’s entire system, collects between four and six million gallons of waste every day, not only from the city but also from the village of Scotia and the Rotterdam and Glenville industrial parks.

Multiple efforts to take stock of the pumping station project failed last week.

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