YOUNGSTOWN – "We are a team, come hell or high water," says the sign behind the counter at Niagara Jet Adventures in Youngstown.
That high water part is to be taken literally these days.
Sunday, a wave surge from Lake Ontario pushed the Niagara River over its banks on the Youngstown waterfront, and water extended 15 feet past the doorways in the passenger waiting room at Niagara Jet Adventures, a jet boat ride attraction.
Owner Brian Price and Capt. Lloyd Schrack were stacking sandbags Monday outside the building, bracing for what the National Weather Service said would be an afternoon of thunderstorms and high winds, likely to create more flooding.
Similar fears were felt in towns along the lakeshore, such as Olcott and Wilson, where flooding was seen Sunday because of winds and waves.
On top of the flooding concerns, the National Weather Service shortly after 2 p.m. Monday issued a rare tornado watch for a large swath of upstate New York extending from metro Buffalo to Watertown. The watch extends until 10 p.m. and covers 29 counties across the region, including all of Western and Central New York.
Aaron Reynolds, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in Buffalo, said this area doesn't get more than one or two tornadoes on average per year, and even the service's issuing of a watch isn't common.
But, he said, "The ingredients are there. We'll just have to see if it happens."
A layer of moist, humid air is sitting over the region, and a strong cold front is moving into the area from the southwest in the afternoon and evening, bringing with it a line of storms and thunderstorms. That combination will produce the potential for damaging winds and, possibly, a tornado embedded in the storms, Reynolds said.
The Weather Service will issue a warning if it sees a tornado on radar or if one touches down, he said.
Back in Niagara County, lake water levels are at a near-record high, which some blame on a new U.S.-Canadian water level management policy. The International Joint Commission, which implemented the plan, blames the weather, the wettest April on record in the Buffalo area, and a rainy month throughout the Great Lakes.
"We're not trying to stop it. You're not going to stop the water," Price said. "We're just trying to keep it out of the building."
Jonathan F. Schultz, Niagara County emergency management director, said five homes and two businesses in Olcott were hit by floodwaters Sunday. Members of six volunteer fire companies spent the day stacking sandbags along Olcott Harbor to try to protect the homes in the low-lying areas near the harbor, Schultz said.
Some roads in Olcott near the lake had an inch or two of water covering them Monday morning.
Previously, Schultz said, the riskiest times were when the wind blew out of the northeast and northwest. But now, the water is so high that any waves are a problem.
"Any storm right now is going to affect us," Schultz said.
At Fort Niagara in Youngstown, Executive Director Robert Emerson said historic buildings are now threatened by the second collapse of part of the lake bank since 2015, which he blamed on high water.
"We did an inspection of the fort earlier (Monday) and found that a large section of the bank east of the fort, including big trees, has washed into the lake," Emerson told The Buffalo News by email. "The water level is also almost up to the top of the lower seawall. This has the potential to threaten the French Castle and 1771 North Redoubt."
The French Castle, built in 1726, is the oldest building in the Great Lakes basin. It stands about 15 feet from the lake. Two years ago, a large chunk of the bank east of the buildings fell into the lake because of erosion, Emerson said last month. It was repaired at state expense, since Fort Niagara is a state park.
Niagara Co. Legislator Dave Godfrey talks about the lake level in Lake Ontario and effect on Olcott, as the water continues to rise. pic.twitter.com/dFoAQdKBKU
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) May 1, 2017
"I've been here 18 years and I've never seen water this high," said Josie Fittante, manager of the Youngstown Yacht Club. "When the wind starts, that's when it gets crazy."
Fittante said the Yacht Club building hasn't been flooded, but its docks have been covered with water and debris that the river has left behind. The club, like Niagara Jet Adventures, is located on the riverfront less than a mile south of where the Niagara River enters Lake Ontario.
"If we get a northeast or northwest wind, we get these surges," Price said. Sunday morning, there were 4-foot waves breaking over his docks.
The loading area for passengers has been raised upward a foot with new lumber over the old. Price vowed that Niagara Jet Adventure will stay open, but he conceded, "You can't fight Mother Nature."
Schrack, one of his boat captains, blames the water management plan for the current flooding, although said he's seen bad conditions on the lake and river before.
"They can be harsh, but this is all man-made," Schrack said.
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