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Snow melt, rain and "frazzle" ice prompt flood watch

Thanks for the memories, Mother Nature.

One of the most chaotic weather weeks recently started with 28 inches of lake-effect snow that stranded students and stalled school buses. Frigid temperatures were followed by temperatures Wednesday in the high 40s, a meltdown, Oz-like wind and at least an inch of rain.

Now we're in a flood watch, not knowing if we should pack a shovel or umbrella.

An inch of rain and melting snow prompted the NWS to issue a flood watch from Thursday morning through Friday evening for Erie, Chautauqua, Cattarraugus, Allegany and Wyoming counties.

"An inch of rain on its own would not be enough to cause flooding," said meteorologist Jon Hitchcock. "But combined with the snow melt in the hills south of Buffalo, there's probably 2 to 5 extra inches of water."

Although meteorologists do not expect significant flooding, the flood watch spurred officials in West Seneca and Olean into action.

In West Seneca, where 27 inches of snow fell last week, officials monitored the Edward M. Cotter Fireboat, an ice cutter commissioned to chop through the three-inch ice cap on Buffalo Creek at the mouth of the Buffalo River. The Cotter hoped to push the ice into open waters of Lake Erie, said Sheila M. Meegan, West Seneca town supervisor. She said, “The faster the ice can get downstream, the less of a chance of flooding at Harlem Road and Clinton Street."

[A Closer Look: The Edward M. Cotter]

Much of the snow from last week’s blizzard that dumped more than two feet in West Seneca has already melted, said Meegan.

"The weather service forecast 3 to 6 inches of snow and we received 27 inches," said Meegan. "It’s Mother Nature. It’s very unpredictable."

Widespread rain, possibly heavy at times, are expected to move across the area through Thursday bringing an elevated flooding risk to Buffalo area creeks as well as the upper Genesee and Allegheny river basins. In addition, ice cover on waterways will break, jam  and increase the chance of flooding. Creeks who have their headwaters in the Boston Hills and Allegheny Plateau are particularly vulnerable, said Hitchcock.

“There is a potential for flooding, a risk for minor flooding in low-lying areas,” said Jeff Wood, NWS meteorologist. “We are expecting another round of winds late Wednesday into early Thursday.”

Ice jams forming on Cazenovia Creek in Cazenovia Park in South Buffalo causing water to over flow its banks Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

City of Olean Mayor William J. Aiello on Wednesday was watching the Allegheny River, which is expected to crest late Thursday to early Friday at 11 feet. Aiello expects to have “some issues” on roads bordering the river, specifically West River and East River roads.

“The river water will reach the roads’ edge, but it shouldn’t cover the roads over,” said Aiello. “The caveat is that we don’t know what the ice will do. When the river starts hitting 15 feet, that’s considered moderate flooding and that’s when we start getting nervous.”

John Gullo, West Seneca emergency operations coordinator, estimated “one-third of Buffalo and Cazenovia creeks are 'frazzle' ice, or chunks. We hope the chunks don’t lock into place. If it freezes, they will.

“If you are in low lying area, prepare for the possibility of flooding,” Gullo said. “Make sure sump pumps are operable, and the discharge is not obstructed. Make sure storm sewers are not clogged, and hope Mother Nature will give us a slow warm thaw.”

Cayuga and Buffalo creeks meet at the Harlem Road Bridge. In West Seneca, the area is known as “ground zero” for ice-jam flooding, said Meegan. “The Cotter can go only so far upstream,” Meegan said. “As the winter progresses and the freezing continues, the ice becomes a bigger problem.”

The risk of flooding depends on how much rain falls on Thursday, said Wood, the meteorologist. Dew points also factor into the flood equation, said Wood. Rising dew points accelerate the rate at which snow melts, he noted. A higher dew point, Wood said, means there will be more moisture in the air.

“Wednesday night we’ll be in the low forties overnight,” said Wood of the NWS Cheektowaga station. “On Thursday temperatures will rise to to the 50s. Dew points will climb into the 40s as well.”

Thursday’s breezy southwest winds of 15 to 20 mph are expected to decrease to 8 to 13 mph in the afternoon. On Thursday the chance of precipitation is 100 percent.

On Friday, expect scattered flurries after noon under partly sunny skies. High temperatures will hover at 28 with winds out of the northwest at 8 to 13 mph. The colder temps will shut down the runoff as water freezes in  place on the ground, Hitchcock said.

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