A blaze of a different nature heated up the Rotterdam Junction Fire Department on an overcast, drizzly night as flood victims asked government officials heated questions and patience melted away.
The special “town hall” style meeting organized by Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, on Wednesday, Sept. 28, started off with a positive tempo as Tonko commended firefighters and volunteers for working countless hours helping flood victims.
“This fire fighting family has been awesome,” Tonko said as the packed firehouse started clapping and cheering in response. “I was here on a couple locations and saw nothing but everyone working fabulously well together and I know there were many sleepless nights, certainly for victims, but for those who were attending to their needs. It just was a tremendous and profound expression of community service and dedication.”
In recognition of the fire department’s efforts, Tonko gave an American flag flown in Washington, D.C., to commend their efforts. This is the last time the crowd gave a rousing applause.
“I want to hear from you, we want to hear from you,” Tonko said earlier in the meeting.
The crowd wasn’t shy in being heard.
Frustrations flow out
Starting off the question portion, which lasted around an hour and a half, was Claudia Nilsen asking about the cost of demolition. Her mother, Shirley DeLuca, is a 35-year resident of Rotterdam Junction and lived on Main Street before the flooding. Nilsen said she received quotes to demolish her mother’s house ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.
“I understand the funds are very short, but a lot of the people in this town are elderly,” said Nilsen. “When you have to pay up to $20,000 to demo a house that takes a lot out of your FEMA money … of course we are very thankful [for what] we got, but of course it is not enough.”
She said without greater help on demolition expenses she’s concerned people might walk away from their properties, which would turn them into “bug, disease infested properties.” Also, lowering of property values for those not displaced was a concern.
Federal Emergency Management Agency representative Dave Stuflick explained FEMA doesn’t demolish houses or directly provide funding for demolitions. The money given by FEMA can be used to repair or replace a home, but he said how the money is used by a recipient is up to the individual.
“It will not probably cover the demolition of your home,” said Stuflick. “We don’t get into the demolition, we leave it up to you to determine how you want to distribute that money.
Nilsen said she understood FEMA couldn’t help out any further, but she asked if there was anything Rotterdam or Schenectady County officials could do to help.
Jaclyn Agostino, assistant to the Schenectady County manager, said the county hasn’t developed a plan on how to do demolitions, but she thought it would be best to work in cooperation with the town. Rotterdam Supervisor Frank DelGallo said there is $100,000 available in the budget to be used for demolitions, but it won’t “go very far.”
Going a different route, Dan Hladik, of Isabella Street, asked about the possibility of a buyout on properties. He said there are several people from his street that don’t know what to do.
Typically, said Stuflick, a municipality will buy the property, demolish the building and turn the land into open space. He said FEMA assists in funding the buyout, but doesn’t facilitate it; federal funding would usually cover 75 percent of the expenses.
“The ball starts rolling at the community,” Stuflick said about the buyout. “The community then has to assess what it wants to do.”
“This is a gathering of community leaders. Who is going to stand up and take charge of everything?” Hladik replied
Tonko quelled the buyout questions by asking everyone interested in such a program to group their names together on a list, so additional information can be distributed later.
Evacuation procedure questioned
Rotterdam Junction residents questioned why they weren’t evacuated in anticipation of possible flooding, but it appears officials simply didn’t predict the devastation.
“We have normal areas that flood … we get some water in the ballpark and that is really about it. Sometimes we got some water from the canal … but never this extent,” said Deputy Chief William Manikas. “We weren’t looking for a flank attack from behind … nor did we have any reason to watch for that, because as you guys know the flood didn’t take place until 9:30 that morning.”
DelGallo said he wasn’t sure what happened with evacuations within Rotterdam Junction.
“I really don’t know what happened on this side of the water,” said DelGallo.
An exact answer for the order of events surrounding evacuations couldn’t be given, but again Tonko said it would be looked into.
“We will work on that evacuation issue, because you deserve answers as to who called what shots,” Tonko said. “If there are lessons to be learned from this, most likely and most obviously there are, lets learn from them and put together an evacuation exercise that works so that there is not a repeat.”
Susan Torres said her parents lived on Lock Road and nearly didn’t escape the flood due to an evacuation error.
She said her 72-year-old mother called 911 once she saw water coming into her home and the dispatcher said the police would be there in about 5 minutes. If the police did come and knock on the door, her elderly parents never heard them.
Torres’ son had traveled into Rotterdam Junction the morning of the flooding and called her saying the streets were flooded and he was going to check on the couple.
“The police stopped him and said, ‘No, no, no, we were there and nobody answered the door,’” said Torres.
Her son continued to plead, and eventually decided to take matters into his own hands.
“My son swam down the street. He climbed on my parents’ neighbor’s garage, jumped in the water again, swam up to my parents’ roof, went in through the window, went downstairs to get to my parents, which were up to their waist in water,” Torres said.
She said her son moved them upstairs and grabbed a TV and whatever else he could salvage, but soon enough the refrigerator was floating up to the ceiling.
“My parents would have drowned that day, so what I want to say to the Police Department, I know things were crazy that day, but it is not acceptable to say, ‘We knocked on their door,’” Torres said. “I just want that to be a learning experience so that they can review their policies.”
Opening the flood gates
Howard Goebel, representative from the state Canal Corporation, dealt with a smattering of questions on what preparations were or weren’t completed before the flooding.
He said the dam system on the Mohawk has two sets to the gate system, an upper and lower pan, but claimed each of the upper pans was raised before flooding. Quickly residents chimed in saying the gates weren’t raised as Goebel continued his response.
“As the water levels rose, we opened more and more gates until we had the whole system opened,” said Goebel.
A shout of “You’re wrong!” jutted out in the crowd before Tonko quickly restored order.
Goebel said the lower gates weren’t opened because they can’t be opened. Since the canal was built in the early 1900s the lower gates can’t be opened, he said.
“The only time [the lower gates] are ever brought out is when the system is drained, because the system isn’t capable of raising those gates with water flowing over the top of them,” said Goebel.
Various crowd members testified they saw that the upper pans weren’t fully opened.
Randy Karl, a commissioner of the Rotterdam Junction Fire District, continued to contest the pans were indeed raised.
“There is no way possible you could raise all those pans in such a short period of time, because you weren’t prepared,” Karl said.
He also urged the state Department of Transportation to investigate raising Route 5S about 5 feet between Old Crawford Road and Karl Street. Tonko said the departments previously expressed concern on the street is being brought to the DOT for consideration.
“Give the people of Rotterdam Junction an escape if this happens again,” Karl said. “Raise the road and we will always have an escape.”
On the county level, he said the floodplain map should be reevaluated to include flooded areas of Rotterdam Junction currently not holding flood designation.
“Obviously there has been a major error and neglect on updating their floodplain addresses, so there can be an evacuation properly executed,” Karl said. “Someone is responsible for not doing their job.”