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Three years later: Are we safer?

Updated: 05/20/2014 9:50 AM
Created: 05/19/2014 5:00 PM WNYT.com
By: Subrina Dhammi

Nearly three years after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee pounded the Capital Region, as we head into another severe weather season NewsChannel 13 wondered, what have we learned?

Are we any safer if another major storm heads our way?

Nearly three years later, it doesn’t take much to rattle the people who live in Rotterdam Junction.

They remember like it was yesterday - Lock Street submerged in several feet of water, and Isabella Street - where every home is still abandoned, except one.

“There were terrible mistakes in the beginning when Irene came here. Are people really prepared for another storm?” wondered resident Norman Torres.

It appears lessons have been learned after Irene and Lee. Drive along the canal today and you will still see construction.

“A lot of it is invisible,” said Joe Moloughney of the NYS Canal Corporation.

There are three major changes the Canal Corporation says should make people feel safer.

First, a flood warning system is being installed, and should be online by the end of 2015, making it easier to track rising water on the canal.

Second, the state has been repairing and strengthening all of the moveable dams on the canal between Scotia and Fort Plain, enabling them to lift the gates more quickly and under greater pressure as waters rise.

“We could come out and pull this dam within a matter of hours without waiting many hours and days to coordinate and drain all the water at the same time,” explained Moloughney.

Third, new protocols are in place.

Since Irene and Lee when a big storm heads this way, water levels have been lowered as a precaution.

That did not happen before Irene.

NewsChannel 13 obtained records showing water levels on the canal were kept high enough to support boat traffic as Irene moved in.

Boat traffic is the Canal Corporation's primary focus.

The big question NewsChannel 13 has been asking since Irene and Lee is who is in charge of flood control? Turns out the answer is not that simple.

We asked that question to Canal Corporation Director Brian Stratton.

“All of the agencies under Governor Cuomo's leadership including the canal corporation work hand in hand,” said Stratton.

That means no single agency or group is in charge of flood control, and no one is overseeing it.

NewsChannel 13 has repeatedly reached out to Governor Cuomo while working on this story to ask him this question. We received no answer.

The last time the governor commented publicly about flood control was one year after Irene hit.

“The way you relay the facts obviously is troubling, and if you give us a chance, we'll get to the bottom of it, but it sounds like finger pointing which is not what we do here,” said the governor in August 2012. “I'd like to get the facts independently in this case but in this case I can actually get the facts and we will.”

However, there has been no follow-up since then. Legislation has been pending for eight years, long before Irene, to make flood control the Canal Corporation's responsibility. That legislation has gone nowhere.

“I can't comment on that. I really don't know what the dynamics of that are. I'm going to work with what the governor has directed us to do now,” said Stratton.

For the first time since digging into all of this for nearly three years, the Canal Corporation gave us a tour of two locks including Lock 9 in Rotterdam Junction.

They showed us the upgrades and explained them first hand.

“We are living in a new environmental paradigm and we have to be prepared for it,” said Stratton.

Just two days later though, knowing we were working on this story, the governor's office called a news conference along with the Canal Corporation to share the updates with all media outlets.

The bottom line is nearly three years later, there are some major upgrades, but also some major unanswered questions.

“We haven't really seen it ourselves yet. They do a lot of talking, that's the problem. They do a lot of talking and they don't live in these areas where we get hit,” Torres explained. “After all the people not being taken care of, we don't trust anybody anymore.”

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