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Flood threat dims, but officials warn of high winds

State officials now say that flooding anticipated for the area may not be as troublesome as expected, but they continue to monitor local waterways, some of which have steadily risen throughout the day.

In Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown said he no longer sees a serious flood threat to residents, though high winds continue to be a concern.

“We are getting back on our feet,” he said, “but storm response continues.”

Although state officials believe the area largely dodged a bullet in terms of flooding, some parts of the county are starting to see water pooling in the roadways.

Beneath a bridge on Stony Road in Lancaster the waters of Ellicott Creek had risen to the support beam under the bridge’s surface. Water was creeping into backyards and in some places was about 25 feet from houses.

Resident Kathy Mason, who has lived on the east side of the creek bank for 25 years, said it was not uncommon to see high waters after a heavy snow. But this time a downed tree was causing additional backup.

“That’s what’s causing some of the backup,” she said.

Alden resident Tim Dugan estimated that about two feet of water flooded Town Line Road in front of his house.

“It’s about two feet of water on the road and we’re hoping it doesn’t come up any further onto our property,” he said, as the rain began to fall. “This is crazy. We had three feet of snow melt Sunday.”

Dugan was preparing to start up his generator in case the power goes out.

“As long as my sump pump runs, we’ll be OK,” he said.

On Stony Road, several feet of water pooled in the road, apparently runoff from fields on the west side of the roadway. Signs indicating road closures were posted for motorists traveling in both directions. One pickup truck that drove through the flood found that the water reached its door. Drivers of smaller cars opted to turn around.

“You got to love it,” said Jeff Fellows, the truck driver. “If you drive slow you’ll get through it.”

Jim Kless, a volunteer with the Town Line Fire Department lives a few doors down from the intersection that was flooded.

“I haven’t seen this type of flooding in 20 years,” Kless said. “We had seven feet of snow Friday. And today there’s nothing left except where the plows were.”

A flood warning continues for Ellicott Creek near Williamsville from Tuesday morning into Wednesday morning.

At 2 p.m. Monday the creek’s waters were at 3.9 feet and quickly rising to its flood point of 8 feet. The creek is expected to close Tuesday morning at 9.2 feet. Meteorologists do not expect, however, the water to reach the level to cause moderate flooding.

David Comerford, general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority said that unlike a spring thaw, where the ground is frozen or saturated, causing heavy runoff, the ground this time of year remains soft and is absorbing a lot of the melting snow.

“This stuff is going to melt off over four or five days, so we should be fine,” Comerford said.

The mayor added, “We have planned for the worst. We are hoping for the best.”

Officials also are cautioning about wind, saying overnight gusts of 60 mph could knock down trees and power lines into standing water.

“This is not over yet,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said earlier, on his sixth consecutive day in the area. “There is a high-wind warning.”

That comes as the area continues to clean up from last week’s epic storm.

Mayor Brown said 121,000 tons of snow have now been removed from South Buffalo and Kaisertown, and all roads are now considered clear. Efforts have now shifted to sidewalk snow removal.

Alternate-side parking in South Buffalo goes back into effect at 6 p.m. this evening. Garbage and recycling pickup in those areas will resume next week. Pickup resumes on Tuesday everywhere else.

Roofs have collapsed on three buildings in the city, but no one was injured, Brown said.

In East Aurora, police have evacuated five stores after employees at Larwood’s Pharmacy reported bowing around doors and windows.

The roof is still intact, and emergency workers are checking the building for structural damages.

Roofs also have caved in at condo buildings in the Town of Aurora in the last two days. No one was hurt, but about a dozen residents had to be evacuated from the Stonegate Condominium complex on Buffalo Road Sunday. They went to stay with family, but the Aurora Senior Center on King Street has prepared to host people more problems with buildings leave people in need of shelter and warming, said Supervisor James Bach.

“We’ve got cots,” Bach said.

Meanwhile, local officials continue to monitor water levels in area creeks.

We have patrols out all over the county monitoring the creeks,” said Erie County Undersheriff Mark Wipperman. “The National Weather Service and state resources are doing the same.”

The National Weather Service announced that a flood warning – rather than a watch – had taken effect for Cazenovia Creek near Ebenezer, Buffalo Creek near Gardenville, Cayuga Creek near Lancaster and Ellicott Creek near Williamsville.

Cazenovia Creek was the only of those to be in the flood zone as of noon, measuring at 10.17 feet. The flood stage is 10 feet.

Cayuga Creek had reached 8.9 feet earlier today, and although it dipped around 11 a.m. has started rising again. As of 1 p.m. it was at 8.25 feet, slightly above the flood level.

Cazenovia Creek also was in the flood zone with 10.42 feet of water slightly before 2 p.m.

Buffalo Creek is nearing its flood zone of 7 feet. As of 1 p.m. it was at 6.53 feet.

Although Ellicott and Tonawanda creeks remain well under their flood zones, meteorologists with the National Weather Service said they will monitor those waterways into Tuesday. The weather service also has issued a watch for lakeshore flooding on the Lake Erie shore of Chautauqua and Erie counties, as strong southwest winds will likely cause water levels to rise sharply late today through Tuesday night.

Caution advised

The weather service cautions Western New Yorkers to never drive their car through flooded roadways because the water may be deeper than it appears.

“Turn around ... Don’t drown!” it cautions on its web site.

In West Seneca, police have received a half dozen calls about flooded basements in the Fisher Court subdivision near the Lackawanna toll barriers. They said that is more likely because of the snow melt, as opposed to flooding waterways.

Cheektowaga police received one report of basement flooding.

Elsewhere in the town along Buffalo Creek by Lexington Green area, residents have called to say the creek has risen. Some residents there have requested sand bags just in case, police said.

“We’re just keeping a watchful eye, every hour on the hour,” West Seneca Town Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan said this morning.

There was a quick surge in the creek level Sunday, as Meegan joined Cuomo and other officials for a look near Burchfield Nature & Art Center in the town. Something broke loose in the creek up near Blossom, the supervisor said, and the water level rose about three feet in less than two minutes.

After Meegan met with the governor and other officials later Sunday, sandbags were stacked by National Guardsman around homes in Lexington Green, a neighborhood off Mineral Springs Road, where 70 homes were damaged by ice jam flooding during a sudden warmup last January.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to get really good at this kind of stuff,” Meegan said.

Should flooding appear imminent, an audible alarm will sound throughout the neighborhood, Meegan said. Vigilant Fire Hall on Main Street will serve as a shelter for evacuees.

The town already has been using its CodeRED Emergency Communications Network, under which notifications are sent to residents and businesses who are automatically included because they have listed telephone numbers, as well as those who otherwise enroll.

“We have been sending messages to residents throughout the storm,” Meegan said.

Tonawanda and Ellicott Creeks remain below flooding level, but earlier today officials cautioned they could flood Tuesday.

More than 50 rescue boats, 375 pumps and 176,500 sandbags have been sent to the area in case the flooding is as bad as state and local officials had feared over the weekend.

Staging areas have been set up in Hamburg and the ECC North Campus, where workers are filling sandbags that can be distributed to residents.

Weather service officials are also advising Western New Yorkers about high winds this afternoon into Tuesday. Residents can expect winds between 25 and 35 miles per hour, with some gusts hitting 60 miles per hour.

“It’s going to be fairly windy the next couple days,” said meteorologist Steven Welch.

Government response

During a briefing this afternoon at the Thruway Authority facility in Cheektowaga, Cuomo applauded snow-removal efforts, noting that almost all area roadways are clear.

“If you look at the roads today, it’s almost hard to imagine that a couple of days ago we were looking at 7 feet of snow in some areas,” Cuomo said.

Some emergency crews are starting to pack up and leave the area, as the state anticipates a snow storm in the Hudson Valley.

“I want to start shutting down and moving on - especially DOT,” Cuomo said. “Snow in the Hudson Valley on the day before Thanksgiving could be a problem.”

Still, local and state leaders are staying alert and maintaining precautions.

Earlier in the day, Cuomo learned during an emergency meeting of his cabinet – which had been relocated to Western New York – that emergency personnel are preparing for power outages, downed trees and flooded basements.

Swiftwater rescue teams from the New York City Fire Department, state Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies have been deployed at key flood-prone waterways, while hundreds of emergency personnel continue sandbag operations at Erie Community College North Campus, Buffalo Sewer Authority and Hamburg Department of Transportation facilities.

The governor learned this morning that many of those sandbags have been dispatched to problem areas such as Hamburg, but that it appears a serious flood problem may have been averted because rainfall has been less than expected – though no one has yet declared an end to that threat.

Flood rescue and assistance equipment still remained in Buffalo as of late afternoon.

Top administrators, such as Environmental Commissioner Joseph Martens, General Services Commissioner Roanne Destito and Major General Patrick Murphy of the New York National Guard described preparations involving hundreds of pieces of emergency equipment for the governor during the meeting.

“I can assure you we know where all the state assets are and we can go after them,” Destito told the governor during a meeting attended by The Buffalo News.

Other preparations have been made to house emergency personnel at the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State as operations continue.

Martens reported that DEC personnel are monitoring flood gauges at Cayuga and other creeks, but that areas such as Lancaster now appear to be in “good shape.” Concerns continue around housing developments such as Lexington Green in West Seneca, with Murphy reporting he had visited the area early this morning and that monitoring continues.

Local and state officials are also now turn their attention to accounting for the costs incurred in the storm, anticipating that they will reach the required amount to qualify for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ll soon turn to the aftermath,” Cuomo said. “And if there was a beginning, a middle and an end to this situation that’s seemingly gone on forever, the aftermath is dealing with the finances.”

“The FEMA reimbursement is going to be paramount,” he added.

Cuomo moved his entire Cabinet to Buffalo to monitor recovery efforts from last week’s storm.

The team has set up an office at a Thruway Authority facility in Cheektowaga. Several members of his Cabinet have been in Western New York since the lake-effect storms hit last week, and others are arriving as the concern shifts to flooding, a Cuomo spokesman said today.

Cleanup continues

Meanwhile, municipal officials are out monitoring conditions and continuing to survey possible damage from the record snowfall.

Buffalo school officials this morning discovered that ceiling tiles in the main office, a hallway and a classroom at Southside Elementary School in South Buffalo have been damaged by water leaking from the roof. Roof drains at the Southside Parkway school became plugged with leaves and other debris following the snowstorm, causing water that had accumulated on the roof to seep into the main office, said Joseph Giusiana, executive director of facilities for the Buffalo Public Schools.

He estimated it would take crews about an hour to clean and open the clogged roof drains, and then the water would need time to drain. Although the damage was contained to the main office, there could be more damage to come, Giusiana said.

“The roof is 18 years old. If there’s a breach, the water’s going to find it,” he said.

School officials said the Buffalo Fire Department inspected the school and deemed it safe, and that they anticipate that Southside will open Tuesday, along with all district schools. A spokeswoman said teachers who had reported to Southside today were moved to Waterfront Elementary School to ease any concerns.

Elsewhere in Buffalo, officials said they are responding to requests from residents to repair roofs and make sure vents are clear to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

“In less than a week, in South Buffalo and Kaisertown where over six feet of snow fell, we are back on our feet,” Brown said this morning. “In less than a week all of the streets in the city are open and most are cleared down to the pavement. In less than a week the driving ban was lifted.

“Most communities around the country would not have been able to get to this point of recovery,” he added, applauding public workers, first responders and citizens for coming together and cooperating.

The city continues to use bulldozers to compact and transport snow to the Central Terminal and the Union Ship Canal.

The city is not dumping any of the snow in area waterways because of environmental concerns, as well as flooding damage.

Brown also applauded the governor’s commitment to the recovery effort, noting that he is in town for the sixth consecutive day.

“It’s incredible the amount of time he’s devoted to this region,” he said.

Otherwise, most activities seemed to be returning to normal around the county, with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz trading his morning emergency updates for interviews with local and national media outlets.

“Well, based on twitter feed, it seems things are almost back to normal in Buffalo as feed dominated by football tweets again *sigh*,” he Tweeted this morning.

Meanwhile Senator-elect Marc Panepinto is the latest to join the chorus of officials calling for assistance for the region.

“The communities of Western New York have been hit hard by this winter storm and are in need of emergency aid right now,” Panepinto wrote in a statement. “We have an obligation as public servants to make sure we are doing everything possible to alleviate the damaging effects of this extreme weather. I am calling for the State Legislature to do the right thing and immediately return to session and pass a comprehensive aid package for the people of my district and all of Western New York.”

News Staff Reporters Janice L. Habuda, Michelle Kearns, Sandra Tan and Deidre Williams contributed to this report.