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Agencies lauded for assisting Portville evacuees

Cattaraugus County and Board of Health officials commended several county agencies Wednesday for coming to the aid of about two dozen Portville evacuees who were displaced during flooding on March 16 and can't return home for another six weeks.

Beginning at 2 a.m. that day, rapidly rising floodwaters entered the Portville Square Apartments at 90 S. Main St. and residents had to be evacuated by the Portville Volunteer Fire Department. Spring rains caused floodwaters to accumulate in a low-lying area adjacent to the Allegheny River dikes.

The area around the apartments happens to be situated behind floodgates that were locked by the Army Corps of Engineers, which decided to leave the gates locked for the night after conferring with the village's Public Works Department.

Many village residents recall a similar problem when the water ponded in that area in 1996, but that won't happen again because a Portville official now also has a key to open the gates when the water rises.

The evacuees, many of them with special health needs, spent at least four days in the Olean Best Western and all have now found temporary lodging. Even as the responding agencies were being recognized for their efforts, the same officials who have mapped out responses for a regional flu pandemic and bioterrorism say they have already begun meeting to draw up a response plan if a similar, larger emergency arises.

County Public Health Director Barb Hastings said the follow-up discussions have identified a couple of weak points, including a need for shelters for victims with special needs, improved communication and a recent personnel change at the Red Cross that slowed that agency's response.

"We will be more prepared than other areas in the state now," said Hastings, noting that the Red Cross now wants to work with public health agencies to shelter special needs victims.

"The Public Health [Department] has not responded in this way to a flood," said Hastings, who has received a good share of the credit for calling several county departments to obtain assistance early on March 16, and for seeing to the unique health problems of the evacuees and getting them into a hotel.

"We have come in later and from the environmental health standpoint, to look at drinking water, inform people how to check and clean the area, which is different than being first responder to help care for people," Hastings added. "We have the capability between Department of Social Services, the Department Of Aging and Health. If there are people in need, somebody is going to have them on a computer somewhere and we will know their doctors, their next of kin and a lot of things the Red Cross will not immediately know."

She said that during the follow-up meeting with county Emergency Services Director Ed Koorse, the Portville fire chief, the Red Cross and county social services and community services, all the agency representatives agreed they did what needed to be done, but that a good plan is needed in case a similar, larger situation arises.

The Portville Manor evacuees were taken to the Portville United Methodist Church as a temporary shelter that was opened at 4 a.m. by church members Joanie O'Brien and her husband, Cattaraugus County Legislator Michael T. O'Brien, R-Portville.

They were taken there because it was uncertain at that time whether the official shelter, the Portville Central School, would remain closed due to the flooded roadways in the area.

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