Irene 10 Years Later: Montgomery County still moving through the paces of recovery

AMSTERDAM – Communities along the Mohawk River were struck by a deluge of water when high rain totals locally from Tropical Storm Irene were added to by water carried from streams and tributaries to the west. The situation was compounded by aging infrastructure along the state canal system that made it impossible to raise movable dams to lower water levels at several locks amid the pressure of the torrent.

“It was just a tremendous amount of devastation, and you think back and realize the power of water and what it can do to an individual and family,” Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort recalled. “To an entire community.”

Ossenfort lived in Amsterdam and was the chief of staff for then-state Assemblyman George Amedore working in an office located in the city when the storm struck a decade ago. He spent the days afterward working alongside neighbors, local agencies, area faith organizations and the American Red Cross helping residents muck out basements and clean up as best they could.

“It was a very difficult time. There were a lot of people very seriously affected, their homes, their livelihood, and bouncing back from that was very hard,” Ossenfort said. “A lot of the community stepped up to help get their houses cleaned up and repaired, and back up and going again.”

Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffery Smith was serving the county as the undersheriff in August 2011 when flooding required the closure of bridges all along the Mohawk River until water levels receded and the structures could be inspected to ensure their safety. For several days, deputies were assigned to work on one side of the river or the other.

“It would take hours to find a bridge you could travel on to get to the other side of the river. It was a challenging time for everyone and for all emergency services,” Smith said.

The extreme weather required the evacuations of homes and businesses in low-lying areas of the county, and briefly required the evacuation of St. Mary’s Hospital on Guy Park Avenue when the main entrance became partially inaccessible due to rising floodwaters.

–EDITOR’S NOTE: On Day 2 of our three-day series, we revisit the storms’ impact on the structures and landscapes of Montgomery County, and we examine renewed concerns about long-term damage in Rotterdam Junction.–

County officials closely watched water levels and the forecast before making the decision in consultation with St. Mary’s Healthcare to order the evacuation of the hospital. A total of 70 patients were relocated from the hospital to the St. Mary’s Memorial Campus on Route 30 on Aug. 29. They were able to safely return to the hospital the following day.

“That was a drastic move on our part. You never want to do that when people are ill. A lot of people are involved in those decisions,” Smith said. “We waited and waited, and watched the weather, and waited as long as we could until we made the decision to evacuate.”

Most residents were able to return to their homes and businesses within a few days to begin the process of cleaning up and in some cases rebuilding. But not everyone was so fortunate.

A LIFE LOST

The county suffered one death during the weather event on Aug. 29, when town of Amsterdam resident Stephen Terleckey bypassed several signed barricades on Route 5S and drove his pickup truck onto a washed-out road.

State Thruway Authority employees reported to state police seeing the truck drive onto the flooded roadway before the vehicle immediately became disabled, listed on its side and was washed away.

Terleckey was reportedly trying to check on the condition of his business, Karen’s Produce & Ice Cream, which was underwater. The vehicle was recovered with Terleckey inside later that day by state police and the Fultonville Rescue Squad.

“That was tragic,” Smith said. “It was sad and unfortunate.”

Terleckey was remembered by local officials as a hardworking man and a valuable member of the community. The family pulled together to salvage the business their parents had created and reopened the combined farm stand/ ice cream and hamburger spot the following spring. The business is still thriving a decade later.

Since that loss, Smith said, emergency services personnel have urged residents to avoid roadways that are covered by water during flash flooding and other weather events.

“We alway say, don’t drive through standing water and obey any traffic signs, especially during a storm. You have no idea what’s underneath the water,” Smith said. “The power of running water like that, especially during stormy weather, is astronomical. People underestimate it all the time.”

The ability of the county to alert residents to hazardous conditions has also improved through the implementation of the Hyper-Reach system that can provide early warnings of potential dangers in specific areas.

HOMES IN THE FLOOD PLAIN

The hardest-hit areas of the town of Florida and hamlet of Fort Hunter were located along the Schoharie Creek that feeds into the Mohawk River, according to town Supervisor Eric Mead, who served on the Town Board a decade ago. The Lost Valley and Mill Point areas were especially hard hit.

“When I saw the American Red Cross parked in our area, that’s when I really knew how bad it was,” Mead recalled.

Some residents were able to clean and repair their homes and businesses within a matter of days, weeks and months. Others were never able to recover after several homes located in the flood plain were fully submerged in water and a pair of homes were swept away.

“It was a devastating experience for everybody that was involved,” Mead said.

The owners of five severely damaged or destroyed homes accepted buyout offers from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and Federal Emergency Management Agency that paid out the appraised values of the properties prior to the flooding. Mead said several other homeowners applied for land buyouts following the storms, but did not meet the qualifications laid out by the state and federal government to qualify.

The intent of the buyouts was to remove the existing structures and to ensure rebuilding did not occur on land located within the flood plain. The properties remained within the purview of the state and federal government, with the town able to reuse the properties for certain approved purposes, according to Mead.

“It is not for the town to determine what we are going to do with them,” Mead said.

One of the authorized uses for the acquired properties is the creation of park space, which the town pursued on a site off of Main Street in Fort Hunter with a portion of the $3 million in state funding allocated to Florida to aid storm recovery and mitigation.

The funding was awarded following the development by Montgomery County of resiliency plans under the NY Rising initiative. Communities impacted by severe storm damage across the state developed NY Rising plans following the creation of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery in 2013 in response to several significant weather events. State officials pointed to the plans as a “road map for building a community’s resilience.”

The town of Florida and the town and city of Amsterdam each received $3 million from the state to implement eligible projects identified in a combined community reconstruction program plan developed by stakeholders from the three municipalities. Portions of the funding were used in each municipality to replace and expand culverts and repair and improve stormwater infrastructure.

The town of Florida additionally used funding for the creation of a park on one of the acquired parcels of land off Main Street in Fort Hunter to the side of the lock bridge to Tribes Hill. The cost of designing, engineering and installing the park totaled roughly $200,000.

Construction of the yet-unnamed park wrapped up just a few weeks ago and the town is planning a ribbon-cutting in the near future. The park features playground equipment, a basketball court and a picnic area. Mead has already spotted residents using the recently completed park.

Mead said the state-funded projects will benefit the town by improving stormwater management in the event of future flooding events and converting a vacant piece of storm-damaged property into public space.

Yet Mead was critical of the NY Rising initiative that limited the town to using the funding for projects identified by officials and stakeholders from across Montgomery County that were subsequently subject to approval by the state.

The town has over $1 million remaining in NY Rising funding that officials had hoped to use to stabilize and extend an existing berm along the Schoharie Creek in Fort Hunter that acts as a flood wall. The berm owned by the state Canal Corporation was stabilized, but the state shot down the town’s request to use the NY Rising funds to extend and raise its elevation.

“I feel the berm is needed. A lot of damage could have been avoided if that could have been there in the first place. That would have kept the water channeling to the Mohawk River,” Mead said. “There are several residents who would have liked to see that completed, but the town has no control.”

It is currently unclear whether the town will be able to use the remaining state funds toward another project, Mead plans to reach out to state officials for direction. He pointed to the likelihood that no additional projects will be undertaken and that the reimbursable funding will remain with the state.

“They say it was a 100-year storm. Hopefully I don’t ever see anything like that again, but you never know,” he added.

CANAL SYSTEM IMPROVEMENTS

With swift-moving water carrying debris overrunning the Mohawk River and the many streams and tributaries that feed the waterway during Tropical Storm Irene, and to a lesser extent Tropical Storm Lee, the state canal system sustained an estimated $84 million in damages.

The 100-year-old infrastructure original to the canal system’s installation in the Mohawk River to transport cargo that was still in operation in 2011 contributed to the impacts to the system and the surrounding communities, according to spokesman Shane Mahar.

The canal features a series of movable dams from Lock 8 in Scotia to Lock 15 in Fort Plain that are lowered each spring ahead of the seasonal opening of the system to artificially raise the level of the Mohawk River for navigation through the fall.

The steel dams are moved by a system of chains and winches that were all original to the construction of the canal and could not be raised during high flow events due to their age.

“It was very, very difficult and unsafe to lift those movable dams out of the water during a high-flow event,” Mahar said. “They weren’t strong enough to move.”

In the aftermath of the flooding, some local officials and residents were critical of the state Canal Corp. for what they believed was a delayed and mishandled reaction to the storms.

The Canal Corp. used $84 million in funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair damage across the canal system and an additional $28 million in funding to completely replace the components of the movable dams and improve the resiliency of the system overall. The state has installed water level gauges, cameras and other devices to monitor the conditions of the waterway in real time to better respond before and during weather events.

“When a big storm is predicted, we now have the ability and capability because of those mitigation steps to proactively raise the dams out of the river, allowing the Mohawk to flow through,” Mahar said. “That also helps debris stop from backing up at dams.”

Prior to the improvements, Ossenfort said, local officials were frustrated by the inability of the state to respond to flooding along the canal. He said the recovery and rehabilitation projects have had a positive impact in the years since they were implemented.

“The New York state canal system is doing a much better job and proactive job raising those gates, and using the information of flood gauges to make more informed decisions to keep the river at a safe and manageable level. That is a big change that I have seen from before,” Ossenfort said.

GUY PARK MANOR

The improvements did not come in time to spare Guy Park Manor at 366 W. Main St. in Amsterdam. The low-lying building along the Mohawk River at Lock 11 sustained significant damage during Irene when the basement and first floor were filled with water and a section of the western wall gave way. The basement flooded a second time during Lee.

Guy Park Manor is the oldest building in Amsterdam, built in 1774 by Sir William Johnson as a wedding gift for his daughter. The building was later home to a tavern and hotel before it was acquired in 1907 by the state for preservation as a historic site.

Subsequent adaptive reuse of the mansion over the years saw it occupied by the Daughters of the American Revolution, then Assemblyman Paul Tonko for district offices and most recently the Walter Elwood Museum.

The museum began as a collection of teaching tools gathered by local science teacher Walter Elwood in the early 20th century. Elwood collected and often borrowed natural history specimens and cultural artifacts from around the globe that he would share with elementary school students in Amsterdam as he traveled from school to school. At the time, science education did not begin until middle school. Elwood was eventually involved in developing the science curriculum that was rolled out to elementary schools across the state.

Elwood eventually established a museum at the Fifth Ward School on the Southside of Amsterdam that students would visit on field trips. The collection remained with the Greater Amsterdam School District upon Elwood’s death in the 1955, and was later relocated to Guy Park Avenue School.

Locals formed the Walter Elwood Museum of the Mohawk Valley in 1981 to protect the museum when the school district considered closing the year-round site that was accessible to the public and that had grown over the years to include local history exhibits. When the school district made the decision to sell the former school building, the Walter Elwood Museum found a new home at Guy Park Manor in 2009.

Executive Director Ann Peconie stepped into the leadership position about a year before the museum relocated and oversaw the move. Although the museum was open to the public throughout its tenure at Guy Park Manor, Peconie said work setting up museum displays throughout the building was not complete until 2011.

“It was a wonderful site,” Peconie said. “I never thought we would experience a disaster.”

After watching the forecast in the days leading up to the storm and hearing concerns from friends and members of the museum board of directors, Peconie and her family visited the museum in the hours before Irene struck, contemplating moving pieces of the collection.

The basement and first floor of the building were full of materials that it would have been impossible to move in a single day. Peconie settled for bringing antique furniture and stained-glass items on an exterior porch inside and making sure all of the windows and doors were secured.

After the storm struck, Guy Park Manor and the Walter Elwood Museum were under water that reached a height of 11 feet. It was days before the water receded and Peconie was able to reach the museum.

The second floor of the building was untouched, but the basement and first floor had been completely flooded. The contents of the museum’s Victorian room on the first floor were completely lost when the western wall of the building collapsed and the pieces were washed away.

The basement flooded a second time when Lee struck and it was several weeks before Peconie was able to get inside the building. Guy Park Manor was being secured by the state and it was unclear what the future held for the building. In the meantime, the museum received permission from Billy Fuccillo to use a former dealership on Division Street rent-free to store the collection.

Museum members and community volunteers worked to pack up and move the collection to the vacant dealership. That led to a painstaking process of going through the materials to inventory and assess their condition. Flood-damaged items were laid out on pallets to dry, and materials threatened by mold were put out in the sun or combated with bleach.

All in all, Peconie said, the museum was fortunate and much of the collection was salvaged. Where the museum would end up was uncertain; initially Peconie and the board expected Guy Park Manor would be repaired and the Walter Elwood Museum would return to the building.

Immediately following Irene and Lee, Guy Park Manor was secured by the state, with the foundation and walls of the building stabilized and the structure sealed against weather. The Canal Corp. at that time was under the control of the state Thruway Authority, which began planning for the rehabilitation of the building. Planning was paused when the Canal Corp. became a subsidiary of the New York Power Authority in 2017.

As time passed and Guy Park Manor remained largely unchanged, the Walter Elwood Museum needed to find a permanent home. The availability of the former Noteworthy building at 100 Church St. piqued the interest of Peconie and members of the board. A tour of the historic complex that was constructed in sections dating to the 19th century as the Stephen Sanford and Sons Carpet Mills solidified their interest.

The museum was able to reach a reasonable purchase price on the building that was paid with around $100,000 from FEMA for flood damages and a $40,000 donation from Dr. Govind and Jyothi Rao. The spacious complex since 2013 has offered the Walter Elwood Museum room to expand its exhibit spaces and launch new programs for kids and adults. The museum also now serves as home to the exhibits of the American Locomotive Company and Schenectady Locomotive Works Historical and Technical Society’s Museum.

After utilizing Guy Park Manor as the home of the Walter Elwood Museum free of charge for several years, Peconie acknowledged that maintaining the facilities of the former Noteworthy building is a challenge. The museum installed solar panels on the roof of the building in recent years to help cover energy costs and rents out space in wings at each end of the complex to individuals, businesses and organizations.

“This is a great place to be,” she added.

The state is still eyeing the rehabilitation of Guy Park Manor, which is expected to undergo full restoration as part of the $300 million Re-imagine the Canals initiative from the Power Authority and Canal Corp. aimed at boosting tourism, mitigating flooding and enhancing recreational opportunities across the canal.

Plans for Guy Park Manor call for the historic building to be restored and adapted into a hospitality destination that would feature easy access to recreational opportunities through the construction of a pedestrian bridge over Lock 11 to reach the Empire State Trail on the opposite side of the river, where overnight camping accommodations have been proposed.

Those plans announced in early 2020 were delayed by the pandemic and are now expected to begin moving forward, according to Mahar of the Canal Corp.

“We know that to most folks driving by on Route 5 the building looks very static and status quo, but although there hasn’t been much activity that can be noticed from the road, we have been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to advance this project,” Mahar said.

The state is expected to issue a request for proposals in the fall seeking an architectural and engineering firm to develop plans for the restoration of the building that will involve the installation of new heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing. The building would also be raised 3.5 feet to protect the structure from future flooding, with landscaping to make the lift look natural. Work on the building is expected to begin early next year.

The state is also expected to issue a request for qualifications in the fall seeking a private hospitality partner that would adapt the historic building into a boutique hotel, bed-and-breakfast, event space or spa.

Mahar said plans would be required to meet certain criteria to maintain the historic aspects and feel of the structure. City officials would have a voice in developing final plans along with interested state agencies.

“We know Guy Park Manor is a historic structure along the canal system and very significant to the city of Amsterdam and the Mohawk Valley,” Mahar said. “We would be looking to capitalize on the historic nature of that building. … We would seek a private hospitality partner to help us realize the full potential of the site.”

While she is sad to continue seeing Guy Park Manor in its current flood-damaged state, Peconie is not convinced current plans for its restoration and reuse are the right way to go.

“It should be preserved,” she said.

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