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Flood leaves problems piled along creek Homeowners want debris removed, water rerouted

Judy Baker and Rich DiPaolo love the house they bought on 1.75 pastoral acres in North Collins, along the south branch of Eighteenmile Creek.

But last month, during a torrential rainstorm, the calm stream turned into a raging sea of floodwater that caused severe damage to their land, washed out their garage and ruined two vehicles. Firefighters in wet suits had to rescue Baker and DiPaolo.

"It wasn't just flooded, it was like the upper rapids of Niagara Falls," said Baker, secretary for a federal district judge.

The creek's swollen waters pulled debris downstream and washed away part of the river bank on a neighbor's property, leaving a large pile of trees on the edge of their land.

Baker and DiPaolo want someone to remove the giant collection of trees from the creek, before it leads to more flooding in the next storm. They also want the creek routed farther away from them.

"This was idyllic, but it's really turned into a damn mess," said DiPaolo, a retired teacher.

They say they've run into a frustrating amount of bureaucracy and haven't gotten answers from elected officials at the local, county or state level.

Officials said a number of homeowners in Boston, Eden and North Collins whose property was damaged last month need protection from future storms.

"This is a much bigger problem," said Assemblyman Jack F. Quinn III, R-Hamburg. "All of them have the same issue with Eighteenmile Creek."

Baker and DiPaolo have been asking for help since shortly after buying the home on New Oregon Road in 2006.

The property sits away from the road along the right bank of a bend in the creek. A stone wall runs along the top of the bank.

They were told the property is not in a designated flood zone, so they were not eligible to buy federal flood insurance.

Worried about water erosion and water runoff, they worked with County Legislator Robert B. Reynolds Jr., D-Hamburg, to persuade the county to put in a culvert under their driveway.

The next year, several large trees were washed out from a neighbor's property and began to block the flow of the creek, causing flooding on their land.

Baker again contacted Reynolds' office -- "I hope you understand that I do not mean to be a nuisance," she wrote in an e-mail -- asking for help.

After getting the run-around from several offices, they used a chain saw to cut up the trees.

Last year, flooding washed out a patio and sidewalk. That was just a prelude to the heavy flooding caused by the Aug. 9 and 10 storms that ripped through the region.

Early Aug. 10, a wave of water quickly rose over the bank and the stone wall, rushing through their property. It ripped up soil and the gravel driveway, lifted up DiPaolo's pickup truck and smashed it into the garage, and washed out firewood and other items.

The floodwaters rose almost to the top of their deck, prompting Baker and DiPaolo to call 911. Firefighters in wet suits, roped to nearby trees for safety, carefully made their way to the house amid the storm.

"I said to Rich, 'I am not going out on a boat,' " Baker said, recalling the pontoon boats bobbing in the rough waters.

The rescue crews instead put helmets and life vests on Baker and DiPaolo and guided them up to waiting vehicles.

Baker and DiPaolo have spent the past month repairing damage and cleaning up debris. They have applied for federal disaster aid to deal with the damage, estimated to total $70,000 to $80,000.

They also want a government agency to remove the large trees, some with root balls intact, piled against their property on the creek bank.

"They're enormous; they're impossible to move," DiPaolo said.

They also would like the creek redirected away from their land and back to the path it followed before years of erosion and soil accumulation, though they realize this is a more complicated undertaking.

Since the storm, Baker has sent more e-mails and made more phone calls to elected officials.

"I don't think it's the biggest problem in the world," she said.

North Collins Supervisor Thomas R.O'Boyle is sympathetic. But the creek, he said, isn't the town's responsibility and, besides, the town has no money for the work.

Reynolds said he wants to set up a watershed district that would allow lawmakers to seek grant funding to remedy flooding problems.

Quinn says he hopes the state Emergency Management Office can work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, perhaps using inmate labor from nearby prisons, to remove debris from the creek.

He also voiced frustration over what he said was the state Department of Environmental Conservation's lack of assistance.

"To this point, the DEC has failed miserably in any attempt to change what they're doing," Quinn said.

A DEC spokeswoman said the department can't help homeowners with flood-control, except when authorized as part of a project with the Corps of Engineers.

But the department will do all it can to speed permits for restoration work, said Maureen Wren, the spokeswoman.

"We recognize the concerns of those along Eighteenmile Creek and will be meeting with local officials and Assemblyman Quinn to discuss how to move forward and develop long-term strategies," Wren said in an e-mail.

As of now, the trees remain in the creek, and Baker and DiPaolo worry about the next big rainstorm.

"We spent three years trying to get something definitive, some kind of action, but it's been fruitless," DiPaolo said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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