Gowanda still paying five years later

GOWANDA – Aug. 10, 2009 was slated to be a normal Monday morning for the village of Gowanda. But as residents started their early-day routines, it was apparent that morning would be like no other because flash flooding had torn through the village overnight.

Michael Hutchinson, former highway superintendent, said he got a call about 1 a.m., from a resident about water in a basement. Hutchinson said when he was traveling in the village, he stopped by the fire department and learned gravel was blocking Route 39 coming from the town of Perrysburg.

Hutchinson was not sure what was causing the blocked road and unaware of the severity of the flood until later. Once daylight came, he went to the water department and saw the extent of the damage. He described the damage as “overwhelming” and admitted he did not think Gowanda could recover. Hutchinson said the flood was the worse he had ever seen.

To help Gowanda get back on its feet, many local communities from across western New York pulled together to help out.

Disaster Coordinator Nick Crassi recalled being at the municipal hall with former Mayor Richard Klancer the night of the flood. The two were prepared to sign a declaration for a state of emergency. He said there was several feet of water coming from both Erie and Cattaraugus county sides of the village.

“We were more concerned about the safety of the people on the streets because the water came so quick. It was there immediately. We had six inches of rain in 20 minutes and that was way too much for any of Gowanda to handle at the particular time,” Crassi said.

It was a blessing the majority of the flash flooding was late in the evening, Crassi said, but not having an alarm system was the biggest concern. Since then, the village has implemented the CodeRED system, an alert system that will allow residents to know of emergency situations.

“That has been a big plus and will continue to be a big plus; especially since we’re so susceptible to the bad weather here. I wish it wouldn’t come again. Every time it rains now the mayor calls me. We’re texting back and forth and we’re worried about if this is going to be another rain and we get nervous,” Crassi said.

Following the flood, the village had many repairs to complete, including those to the village reservoir. According to Hutchinson, the village did about five miles of road reconstruction through the use of Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements and CHIPS funding.

“It was absolutely overwhelming. As overwhelming as it was, the way people pulled together and the response that we got from other communities across western New York it was absolutely one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever been associated with,” Hutchinson said.

One of the projects completed was Crestwood Drive, which FEMA approved for reimbursement to the village. Following the approval, FEMA then took back the approval for the project. Hutchinson said he could see how the village could be frustrated by FEMA.

Treasurer Cindy Schilling said the village has been fully reimbursed by FEMA and an upcoming audit will ensure the village is not owed any money. The final FEMA payment was given to the village in January and the village still has flood expenses.

“Although we were made good, a lot of the FEMA projects, there was still a cost to the village of about $1 million, unfunded by FEMA. We’re having to look at long-term financing to cover that. FEMA does a great job reimbursing, but they do not make you whole,” Schilling said. “On the other hand, we’re lucky that there is FEMA money out there. … I don’t know how any other village would have done that. It would have been a great cost to the residents if we had to try and fund all of that.”

To prevent another flood of 2009 magnitude, the village is working on a long-term mitigation plan. The village has been working on the Thatcher Brook Task Force for five years and has seen minimal progress. The state Department of Environmental Conservation requires permits to do any work in Cattaraugus Creek and Thatcher Brook.

“I commend everybody involved, including the village board. From Perrysburg to Persia, Collins to Gowanda and both counties, every community in western New York that steps up to the plate,” Hutchinson said.

In May, the village had another flooding scare. There was minor flooding in downtown Gowanda following heavy rains, causing minor damage. Crassi said the damage from this year’s flooding pushed the village back to where it was five years prior.

“From 2009, we have come along quite a long way with getting waterways settled back to a normalcy; our roads are repaired and our infrastructure. Now after this last (flood), we’re almost just as bad, we’re back to a lot of the same things, which is bad,” he said.

Mayor Heather McKeever said the village has come a long way in five years following the flood. She said the village is “still fighting for real solutions.” No matter how much the village prepares for flooding, it cannot be prevented permanently.

“As much as we try to prevent future flooding, we found out this past May we can do everything possible to prepare, but we cannot always prevent flash floods from happening, and our village board continues to be committed to fighting for resources that will help us with a true solution,” McKeever said.

Comments on this article may be sent to smcdonnell@observertoday.com