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Whiplash after the storm as rising temperatures could mean flooding

There's good news and bad news with the end of the January storm: The warmup has begun, but it could cause ice jam flooding in the usual places, as well as area flooding from snow-covered drains.

"We're in for a big whiplash here," West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan said.

Wind chills of minus 25 degrees just two days ago are giving way to expected highs in the low 30s Saturday, low 40s Sunday and low 50s Monday.

"After Saturday night, once we go over freezing, it won't go below freezing until at least Tuesday night," said Jim Mitchell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

And that's a recipe for ice jam flooding. A flood watch has been issued from late Sunday night to late Wednesday night for Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. There's also a chance of rain Sunday and Tuesday.

Communities from Buffalo to Sunset Bay are preparing for rising waters even as crews work to chop back the snow pack to widen roads.

In West Seneca, that means watching the neighborhoods at Lexington Green near Buffalo Creek and behind Southgate Plaza, where Cazenovia Creek has been known to cause problems.

Sandbags are being provided for residents living in those areas, Meegan said.

West Seneca Highway crews, here on Brian Lane, spent Friday clearing snow and putting out sandbags to help prevent flooding. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“We had sanitation employees filling up to 1,000 sandbags,” she said, adding the staff came in earlier in the week but garbage pickup had been suspended because of the storm.

The bags were dropped off in boxes in the neighborhood so residents can take them back to their homes, she said.

She also said the town would send out a Code Red notification Saturday asking residents to prepare.

“When all that ice breaks upstream, it comes barreling down,” Meegan said.

That's why Buffalo sent out the Edward M. Cotter fireboat to the Buffalo River to break up the ice, and why Buffalo and West Seneca hired a company to use a crane to break up ice at several bridges.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said the city is monitoring the potential for flooding in flood-prone areas of the city as temperatures begin to rise over the weekend.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak, who retired Friday, said there is some benefit to having the precipitously rising temperatures melt the existing snow pack from the storm, but the pace at which it is likely to melt does bear monitoring.

“There’s a little bit of ice jamming in there now that was left over from the prior meltdown. We will have crews on that 24/7 monitoring, like we always do (and) report instantly to the news if there are any,” said Stepniak.

And that's why other communities are moving to clear snow from storm drains. Cheektowaga is using 10 high lifts, 30 tandem dump trucks and two blowers to attack the snow pack. It also is widening the streets and opening storm receivers from any obstructions.

The crew of the Cotter had plenty of work to do Friday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“We are doing everything in our power to mitigate flooding issues throughout the town,” Cheektowaga Supervisor Diane Benczkowski said in a statement.

“Some of the snow banks we are seeing are three to five feet high,” Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner said. “We are trying to take as much snow off the streets as possible before the warmer weather and rain comes.”

Ice jamming occurs on waterways that have a thick buildup of ice, according to the weather service.

"You need ice about 4 inches or greater," Mitchell said. "There's much more ice than that."

When the snow melts, it can cause a rapid rise in creek or river levels, which breaks up the ice. The ice then can get jammed where there are constrictions, either from a natural bend in the waterway, or from bridges and bridge supports.

The snow will melt faster if the air is more humid, and if there is fog, Mitchell said. As long as the wind stays up, there should not be too much fog, he said.

West Seneca has placed pumps and hoses in the two flood-prone neighborhoods, ready to pump sewers in case water from the creek rises quickly and shuts off the regular pumps.

New York State provided pumps to Buffalo and is continuing to work with other municipalities to see if they need pumps, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

"We're prepared, we're ready for this," Hochul said. "We know the hot spots, we know how to get there immediately when the flooding starts."

“Mother Nature will do what she is best at,” Meegan said. “We hope we are on her good side.”

News staff reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this story.

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