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Trump declares Lake Ontario shoreline a federal disaster area

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday declared New York's Lake Ontario shoreline a disaster area, opening up federal funding for recovery efforts from flooding that took place there between May 2 and Aug. 6.

State, local and tribal governments, as well as some nonprofit groups, will be eligible to apply for federal money for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by flooding in Niagara, Orleans, Oswego, Wayne, St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties. Also under the president's declaration, the state is eligible for federal funding on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation efforts.

However, the disaster declaration, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the region's application to allow individuals to apply for assistance remains under review.

[GALLERY: Stunning photos of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie flooding]

The disaster declaration was good news not just for the region's municipalities, but also for Rep. Chris Collins, who has been pressing for the federal aid for months.

“We have witnessed awful devastation along the shoreline and have stayed persistent in our fight to secure federal assistance,” said Collins, a Republican from Clarence. “My constituents desperately need this support and I thank the Trump Administration for its commitment to Western New York.”

Docks and properties were flooded in Tuscarora Bay, Wilson, on May 1. (John Hickey/News file photo)

William Keith McNall, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature, thanked Collins for pushing for the federal aid and for frequently visiting the shoreline to assess the damages.

“This is great news for Niagara County and its lakeshore residents that have sustained serious property damage along our shoreline,” McNall added.

Water erosion took down trees on the banks of Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown on May 4. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The International Joint Commission has maintained that rainy spring weather was responsible for the flooding, but Collins has argued the IJC — which regulates water levels on the Great Lakes — made matters far worse through a new regulation effort called Plan 2014.

“Today’s news means that those impacted will have access to the wide-ranging disaster assistance FEMA can provide, but we will continue working with the administration to make sure new IJC commissioners will be appointed to put an end to Plan 2014,” Collins said.

Collins met with both Trump and Vice President Pence to share his concerns about Lake Ontario’s shoreline flooding, the IJC and Plan 2014. And Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, also pushed for the disaster declaration.

“This is a massive and well-deserved shot in the arm for many lakefront counties that we fought long and hard to secure," Schumer said. "It will provide federal funds for many counties hit hard by the relentless lake flooding, but we will keep up the pressure until we secure the same support for both Monroe and Cayuga counties."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed.

“Today’s declaration is a good first step by the federal government and it will supplement the tens of millions of dollars that New York has already invested in the recovery of the Lake Ontario shoreline," Cuomo said in a statement. "However, there is more work to be done and we will not stop fighting until this declaration is expanded to ensure that Monroe and Cayuga counties receive the assistance they need and deserve.”

And while those two counties did not yet meet the federal standard for a disaster declaration, officials from the counties that qualified were thrilled with Trump's announcement.

“We are very pleased with the FEMA declaration being made," said E. John DeFilipps, chairman of the Orleans County Legislature. "Hopefully, this will be the last time we need a declaration for these reasons."

"We had county roads that were damaged, that we had to build into our 2018 budget," said Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson, R-Yates.

In Olcott, Niagara County-owned Krull Park Beach was closed all summer because almost all of it was submerged by high waters. The county placed some precast concrete "shore armor" in the water to protect the park, Highway Commissioner Dean E. Lapp II said.

In addition, Lapp said the county spent $220,000 in May and June on storm response, including a three-foot berm to protect Olcott's low-lying West Bluff neighborhood. The county also needed to replace a washed-out road in Cambria and a collapsed culvert in Hartland.

Also in Olcott, a piece of Ontario Street was undermined by erosion and fell into the harbor April 18, and the stone wall along the Olcott Yacht Club property collapsed in late September.

Town of Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg, who lives in Olcott, said the town kept pumps in the streets of Olcott for three months, pumping lake water out of the storm sewers to keep them from overflowing or collapsing.

Horanburg said he just submitted a $62,800 reimbursement request to the state government under terms of Cuomo's emergency declaration and the $45 million flood relief bill Cuomo signed in July. But Horanburg said he hopes the FEMA money can be used to reimburse other costs.

For example, the Olcott and Miller Hose volunteer fire companies devoted thousands of man-hours to filling sandbags, running pumps and clearing basements. Horanburg said the state would not have paid those bills, but FEMA might.

"I think's it's going to help the volunteer fire companies for their recovery," Horanburg said.

But the Yacht Club may be out of luck unless FEMA decides private losses can be reimbursed under the terms of Trump's declaration. Horanburg said the Yacht Club was told the lost wall would cost $160,000 to repair.

"Their insurance company, I don't think they're going to cover it," Horanburg said. "They told the club they would be better off demolishing the building and starting over, because it's all undermined underneath and has mold."

Empire State Development has called a meeting for owners of commercial lakefront property from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday in Room E116 at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn to answer questions about state flood assistance to small businesses.

At Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, the high waters ruined two protective barriers, a breakwater facing northwest and a seawall to the east of the fort.

Robert Emerson, executive director of the historic site, said the state spent about $300,000 to repair both walls, after Assemblyman Michael J. Norris, R-Lockport, interceded on the fort's behalf.

"We're in pretty good shape going into the winter," said Emerson, who added that he's working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a longer-term solution.

"We don't want to be here in another five years saying we need another $300,000 to fix this wall, because this isn't going away," Emerson said.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey said the harbor piers in his home town of Wilson took a beating.

"The west pier has sustained significant damage because of all the debris that's been ramming into it," Godfrey said. "We desperately need those reimbursements of the enormous expenses incurred because of the man-made disaster caused by the International Joint Commission."

Godfrey has been among the most severe critics of the IJC's water level management policy, called Plan 2014, which many along the lakeshore blame for this year's high waters. The IJC contends that the plan made little difference and the main problem was heavy rain, especially this spring.


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