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Hilltowns Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 20, 2006
Flooded creek wreaks havoc on road and home,
Town seeks funds for repair
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
RENSSELAERVILLE Sheila Whiteford wants help.
The house she owns with her daughter on Potter Creek has flooded repeatedly since the 1990s. The rainstorms at the end of June have made the house unlivable.
"I need help, help, help, help, help," she told the town board last Thursday.
Many in the packed hall had suggestions on how to help. Resident Bob Bolte said he could organize a group of citizens to remove the islands of rock and debris from the stream.
"We could have it done by the weekend," said Bolte.
Albany County Legislator Alexander Gordon recommended the board adopt a resolution, requesting the designation for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) aid be extended.
"The frustration’s immense," said Gordon.
Whitefords neighbor, Tony Vetrano, also told the board how his property was affected by the flooding. He moved to Potter Hollow Road in November, he said, and was surprised in January when the creek on his property overflowed.
"The stream, when it came over the bank, made a new channel," said Vetrano. "It took 50 to 100 feet from my property. Next time, it will take a bigger chunk."
He concluded, "That stream has to be changed."
Beyond the worries about property owners, municipal concerns were expressed as well.
"That road is going to go," said Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, referring to State Route 81, where Whiteford’s property is located. "The irony is, that’s the evacuation route."
The state-set evacuation route was under water during the June flooding, he said later.
The board made a two-pronged resolution to request FEMA funds and to get permission from the states Department of Environmental Conservation to fix the creek.
When The Enterprise asked Nickelsberg this week how much it would cost to return Potter Hollow Creek to its original course, he estimated the cost in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.
Story of hardship
Sheila Whiteford has known Potter Hollow Creek for nearly a half-century. She came to this country from Scotland when she was 11. By the time she was teenager, in 1957, her family was coming up from New York City to spend every summer by the stream in Rensselaerville.
She moved up for good in 1972.
"We had a fire in 1974," Whiteford said, speaking with a soft Scottish brogue. "My house burned down. I lost my son. He was 14. He was trying to save me."
When she re-built that same year, she put the new house in the same place as the burned one.
"I wanted to be near my son," she said. "I shouldn’t have put it there. But who is in their right mind at a time like that""
Flooding didn’t occur, she said, until 20 years later. "We’ve had four floods since 1997," said Whiteford.
She had just finished paying out-of-pocket for tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs from the last flood, she said, when the torrential rains of June caused more flooding. She is now living in a house nearby.
Referring to herself and her daughter, Jennifer Jones, with whom she owns the house, Whiteford said, "We had just finished fixing everything downstairs a new furnace, new walls, new doors, new carpeting and now it’s gone again." Her daughter was planning on moving into the renovated house, Whiteford said.
Whiteford said she has asked for help "time and time again." She named a long list of agencies and officials she said she called, all to no avail.
"I told the town board two weeks before this happened," she said. "It makes me so mad. I warned them. It didn’t have to happen."
She described the "island of rocks, stones, and trees" that had built up from the last flood.
"The creek has widened like a river," she said. "The islands are four times the size they were."
Without outside help, Whiteford isnt optimistic about cleanup.
"I have nothing," she said. "We couldn’t afford the flood insurance."
The estimate she got for mud removal alone was $4,000. Beyond the clean-up, though, what she would like to see is the creek set back on its original course.
"The islands have to get pulled out or it goes on the road," said Whiteford. "If it’s not straightened out, the house will go down the creek sooner or later."
FEMA and SEMO
Albany County was not among the counties named in the presidential disaster declaration following Junes severe storms in New York.
Dean Cushman, a spokesman for FEMA based in Albany, told The Enterprise this week that a town in Albany County cannot get FEMA aid because it is contiguous. "That’s not a possibility," he said.
Tom Nocera, with the Small Business Administration, said the SBA program does allow businesses located in contiguous counties to obtain economic-injury loans. (Albany County is next to Schoharie County, one of the declared counties.)
Nocera urged affected businesses in Albany County, "Get your application turned in"If you don’t, everything comes to a halt."
Nocera stressed, though, that this applies to business only, not municipalities or homeowners.
Don Maurer, public information officer for the State Emergency Management Office, said that "contiguous counties" is not a phrase used by FEMA anymore; the SBA runs under its own guidelines, he said.
FEMA gets involved if a states governor declares a disaster is beyond state and local government resources to handle, said Maurer; George Pataki recently did this in New York.
SEMO, the state agency, then works "as a partner" with FEMA, the federal agency, Maurer said; SEMO administers the public assistance portion of funding.
"We’re the funnel," said Maurer.
In the past," he said, "when a presidential disaster declaration was made, they listed the counties and the contiguous counties. FEMA has revamped its rules and does not talk about contiguous counties anymore. There is no such thing."
If Rensselaerville wants to get aid, Maurer said, "They would have to go to the Albany County Emergency Management Office and ask SEMO and FEMA for preliminary damage assessment"We would see if there is justification for the expansion."
Such expansion, though, would have to apply to the entire county, he said. "It can’t just be one town; the whole county would have to be declared."
Such a declaration, Maurer said, "would depend on the extent of damage and uninsured losses."
The federal and state programs make awards based on uninsured loses, he said, concluding, "Your first line of defense is an insurance policy."
David Bryan, Rensselaervilles supervisor from 1986 to 1992, said at last weeks town board meeting that the town had $260,000 left in FEMA money from another flooding incident and should use that now to fix the current problem, and pay it back later when the new FEMA money comes in.
Linda Wescott, a spokesperson for FEMA, said the town shouldn’t have excess FEMA funds. "What they get is based on their damages," she said. "A surplus is not possible."
Maurer agreed. "When FEMA makes an grant for repairing infrastructure, they will not make the final payment until they see the work is completed," he said.
When The Enterprise asked Nickelsberg if he was aware of $260,000 left from an earlier FEMA grant, he pointed out he has only been in office for seven months and says he does not know the origin of the surplus.
Several years ago, The Enterprise reported that Rensselaerville had $331,179 left of the $1 million it had received in disaster relief aid for repairs made in the wake of Tropical Storm Floyd, which swept the coast, causing severe flooding in September of 1999.
At that time, Councilman Gary J. Chase said the money was earned by the town as a result of doing its own work.
FEMA spokesperson Carol Hector-Harris said at the time, "By doing it themselves, they did incur expenses," and FEMA reimbursed the town for those expenses. If the work was contracted out, she said, someone else would have been paid to do it. Hector-Harris said it was fine to use the leftover monies for other projects or purchases.
Nicklesberg told The Enterprise this week it would set a bad precedent to use town funds to solve an individuals problems and, in the event of a major town-wide disaster, the town couldnt afford to help everyone.
"If you can do it with a volunteer army, that would be our preference," he said, referring to residents whom Bolte said he could muster to clear the debris from the Potter Hollow Creek.
Nickelsberg said that, when a DEC official comes soon to look at storm damage to a town dam, he will also look at Whitefords property.
Rick Georgeson, a spokesperson for the DEC, told The Enterprise this week that Whiteford called his agency on June 30 "wanting us to do something."
He went on, "We explained we wouldn’t do the work; we would be the permitting agency."
Typically, contractors are hired, Georgeson said, or public works departments do the job.
Whiteford was referred to the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District, the states Department of Transportation, and the towns highway department, Georgeson said.
"We just issue the permit and make sure the environment is protected while the work is done," said Georgeson. "It’s just a matter of finding someone that will step up and do the work or pay for it."
Parts of Potter Hollow Creek are classified "CT," said Georgeson. The "C" is part of a ranking system that ranges from the highest level, "A," for drinking water, to "B," for water that is used in contact recreation like swimming, to "C," the lowest level.
Waters labeled "C" alone are not protected, said Georgeson.
But the "T" stands for trout habitat, which, because of the fish, means it is protected, he said.
"All someone needs to do is call our permit office," said Georgeson, giving the number, 357-2069, "and fill out the application."
Then, a biologist is dispatched to look at the site. Even for non-protected waters, precautions can be required, he said, to protect water quality. This can include such devices as silt fencing to prevent sentiment from washing downstream or coffer dams to re-route the water around the work area.
Someone doing the work without a permit could be ticketed for stream disturbance, Georgeson said.
Asked how long the application and permit process takes, Georgeson said usually two to four weeks, but it depends on staff availability.
The last few weeks, he said, DEC employees who usually work in the Capital District have been working in Delaware and Montgomery counties because of the severe flood damage there.
Asked if Route 81, an evacuation route, being endangered would factor in, Georgeson said, "If it’s a public-safety issue, that would make a difference."
He stressed again that a permit must be applied for. "That would get the ball rolling," said Georgeson. "If someone calls, we can send someone out there."
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