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Region faces new round of weather threats

Fifty-one boats.

375 pumps.

176,500 sandbags.

5,500 people on the ground, including 500 National Guardsmen.

69,000 bottles of water.

5,300 ready-to-eat MRE meals here and 13,000 more on the way.

All in preparation to do battle with 6- and 7-foot mountains of snow melting in heavy rain and 50-plus degree weather.

“Hopefully we need none of this and hopefully this was just an elaborate exercise in logistics that we have done and we will deconstruct and everything will go back and people will say, ‘Boy, the governor really made us waste our time bringing everything out there just to bring it all back,’ ” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday afternoon after he traveled to Buffalo for a third time during the weather crisis.

“I hope that happens. I hope the weather change is gradual. I hope we don’t have a flooding problem. I hope we don’t have a building-collapse problem. And I hope it was just a lot of long nights for nothing. That’s my prayer.”

It’s ours, too.

But at least some flooding seemed inevitable and more roof collapses were reported Saturday in Cheektowaga, West Seneca and South Buffalo.

After worrying about our roofs falling, we must also be concerned about what is rising in our basements.

A flood warning went into effect Saturday afternoon as temperatures steadily rose from the 20s in the morning to the low 40s overnight. The National Weather Service said it would get into the upper 40s today, and close to 60 by Monday.

Rain began to fall across the region, and a new weather worry arose; the weather service issued a watch for high winds, with sustained winds in the 25- to 35-mph range and gusts up to 60 mph on Monday.

“I’m just waiting for the locusts,” said Sheila Meegan, the Town Supervisor of West Seneca, where highway and sanitation crews spent Saturday clearing storm drains to make sure melting snow has somewhere to go.

“They’re using shovels and rakes,” she said. “Remember, we were still cleaning off leaves.”

In February, ice jams in the Buffalo Creek badly flooded the Lexington Green neighborhood of West Seneca, and authorities are concerned that the town, socked with 6½ feet of snow during last week’s back-to-back lake-effect storms, could see more flooding.

“You know what, we’re preparing for the worst,” Meegan said. “But we’re hopeful it’s a slow and steady meltdown.”

More roofs cave in

It’s not clear how severe the flooding will be.

Creeks, including Buffalo, Cazenovia, Cayuga and Ellicott, are all in danger of backing up and spilling over their banks, said Aaron Reynolds, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

“There’s potential for minor to moderate flooding,” he said.

The watch that the weather service issued was for areas including West Seneca, Lancaster, Lackawanna, Hamburg, East Aurora, Depew, Cheektowaga, Alden and South Buffalo.

Also on the list were northwestern Cattaraugus County, northern Chautauqua, including the lake shore, the southern half of Genesee and Wyoming County.

The weather service has taken core samples of the snow pack and found the equivalent of between four and six inches of water in the heaviest hit areas of the Snow Belt.

“So we have all this snow, all this water, rapidly melting into our creeks and causing them to rise,” Reynolds said.

But before it melts, Reynolds said, the rain will be absorbed into the snow, adding even more weight to roofs already on the verge of collapse.

As rain began to fall Saturday, reports of roof collapses and partial cave-ins began to trickle in. Meegan said at least 15 were reported Saturday and many more were expected. The town had logged between 20 and 30 collapses – a combination of carports, awnings and mobile homes, Cheektowaga Police Assistant Chief Jim Speyer said. At least two partial roof collapses were reported in South Buffalo, including one at a house on Salem Street.

And then comes the wind.

Winds and volunteers

The wind watch is for all of Monday and covers Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming and Monroe counties.

With the ground saturated by then with water, high winds could bring down trees and power lines, resulting in power failures, which have been mercifully few during the lake-effect blasts.

“These are serious, serious concerns,” Meegan said.

So on Saturday, all people could do was keep digging and getting ready for the next wave of the disaster.

Volunteers from as far away as Albany and Pittsburgh came to help shovel out snowbound neighborhoods.

And school officials huddled with engineers about the structural integrity of school buildings, many of them with wide, flat roofs. Frontier schools announced they wouldn’t be open until at least Tuesday, and Hamburg schools went ahead and canceled school through the Thanksgiving break.

In anticipation of the snowmelt, politicians and police officials rallied residents to help lessen the possibility of flooding by digging out storm drains. Cheektowaga police even provided a map of storm drains at www.tocny.org to help people locate them.

Planning for snowmelt

Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe on Saturday said the county has been planning since Tuesday for eventual flooding.

Part of the planning calls for towns and the state Department of Transportation to clean culverts and tunnels for the expected massive increase in water flow, though that effort remains essentially impossible in the areas hard hit by the storm.

He also said it will be several days before some flood waters hit the populated areas of Erie County.

“Tonawanda Creek rises in Wyoming County, and there was 7 feet of snow out there,” he said. “The places that not normally are flooded have snow, and the places now susceptible to flood don’t have snow.”

The deputy county executive said the snow pack will eventually disappear through either evaporation or runoff, and that forecasts for brisker winds in coming days may help the situation by contributing to evaporation. But major runoff is still expected.

“With the melt we expect some will go right into the ground,” he said. “That’s good, because the ground is not yet frozen, but much depends on the local geological conditions and how much is absorbed into the ground.”

Tobe said no area creeks have formed ice, so the ice jams that normally exacerbate spring flooding are not a factor in November.

Among those areas concerned about flooding were Williamsville and Clarence, which saw just a few inches of snow during the bizarre twin storms that ravaged so much of the county.

But those areas are both downstream of the Snow Belt.

Ellicott Creek flooding

Neighborhoods along Ellicott Creek in Williamsville are prone to flooding when Alden and Lancaster get heavy snow, said Mayor Brian Kulpa. So Williamsville crews spent the day clearing debris from the creek and removing dam gates in anticipation of a surge from the snowmelt.

“We’ve been worried about flooding for the past few days,” Kulpa said.

It’s likely that flooding would be limited to basements in the village, and Kulpa urged homeowners to clear their basements out and to make sure their sump pumps are working. He added that the pumps should be routed to their backyards – and not the sanitary system because that could cause a back up in the sewer system.

Clarence got ready with stockpiles of sandbags and new signs to alert drivers that a road is impassable, something the town has dealt with during previous flooding, when “sightseers” would drive into floods and get stuck.

“We’re all ready for it,” Town Supervisor David Hartzell said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Chris Collins are laying the groundwork for the roughly half-million homeowners and small businesses – as well as municipalities – to get reimbursement for damages and losses from the historic snowstorm.

Homeowners, business owners, farmers and area towns all could receive federal aid to help cover the costs of storm damage and recovery if local leaders ask the federal government to declare Western New York a disaster area.

To qualify, the damage must meet certain federally set guidelines, and government officials expect that will be the case. The cost of recovery from the storm must reach $3.2 million for the county and about $27 million for the state.

“We have already talked to the top people in the White House and said ‘Get ready. We need help,’ ” Schumer said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com