Niagara County will extend state of emergency
Continued rise in water levels, public safety fears drive decision
By Christian W. Peck
Niagara County Public Information Officer
Niagara County officials will extend a state of emergency, originally set to expire Saturday, for an additional 30 days, as water levels in Lake Ontario continue to climb and concerns remain about dangers from submerged hazards on the lake, unstable shoreline banks, and ongoing flooding issues. Emergency Services Director Jonathan Schultz indicated paperwork extending the state of emergency for an additional 30 days will be filed Saturday. A map prepared by Schultz details county operations in response to the high lake levels. (See below.)
Legislator David Godfrey, R-Wilson, who chairs the legislature’s community safety and security committee, was briefed on the plan, and noted emergency orders – currently a 500-foot “no wake” zone – would be extended in five-day increments until the crisis had passed. He also aimed criticism at the International Joint Commission’s decisions earlier in the year to not let out sufficient water from dams on the St. Lawrence River, which has helped exacerbate the increase in lake levels. The IJC has recently indicated it may finally begin releasing water.
“Extending the state of emergency is essential to ensure our municipalities and especially our volunteers are reimbursed for all the hours and materials which have and will continue to be exhausted as we fight the damages caused by Plan 2014,” Godfrey said Friday. “Although the IJC is saying they will let some water out in the next week or so, the reality is they cannot without increasing the flooding down river and in Montreal. Until the downstream water subsides, which could be weeks, I believe we will continue to have record-breaking high water and more erosion.”
Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, said he was closely watching the impact of the high lake levels on the local sportfishing and tourism industries.
“We’re seeing large amounts of debris, including parts of docks, washing up on shore. These navigation hazards are caused by the IJC’s tampering with lake levels,” Syracuse said. “There are still a lot of folks coming out, but we’ve seen a significant drop over comparable periods last year – and that really hurts the economies of little communities like Olcott, Wilson, Oak Orchard, and so on.”
Syracuse urged boaters to use extra caution while fishing in Lake Ontario waters. He also noted he’s urging state and federal officials to do more to secure resources to help residents losing shoreline and suffering the effects of flooding in their homes.
“For the people whose lives are being upended, whose homes are in jeopardy, this is a disaster,” Syracuse said.
He did note the State Emergency Management Office had deployed local Army National Guard and Air National Guard troops to assist with sandbagging operations, and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office had been supplying prisoner labor to help with the task – and that these efforts had bolstered robust turnout from community volunteers.
“Everyone – fire companies, local youth, neighbors, they’re all pitching in, and they will continue to do so, but at some point they need relief, whether that’s federal and state resources, or the lake levels dropping,” Syracuse said. Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde Burmaster, R-Ransomville, did note the state government, under terms of the state of emergency, is providing equipment and supply loans to the county, was also sending in experts again this weekend to help local property owners file insurance claims.
“We’d like to see some direct aid, but we’re glad to note that the state department of financial services will be making their emergency response mobile command center available again this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Olcott Fire Co.,” Burmaster said. “This will go a long way toward helping property owners recoup some of their loss, although I’m not sure how you recover lost shoreline.”
A pair of state lawmakers whose districts include long stretches of the Lake Ontario shoreline also weighed in, vowing to continue working to obtain resources for Niagara County’s residents and county and municipal governments battling the lake. State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, who was in contact with county officials Thursday and Friday about the extension of the state of emergency, said he and his staff remain heavily focused on the lakeshore flooding issue, and that he was working to allay the concerns expressed by local elected officials.
“I’ve seen firsthand the devastation the flooding has left behind as it continues to impact residents, business owners and critical infrastructure across our local governments,” Ortt said. “I’ll continue to work with my colleagues at the local, state and federal level to ensure public safety and to secure financial assistance for individuals and communities bearing the brunt of this horrific flooding.”
His colleague in the State Legislature’s lower house agreed.
“During this very challenging time, I would like to applaud the efforts of local county and town officials and our dedicated volunteer fire service members for their continued cooperation combating this devastating situation, occurring along the southern shore of Lake Ontario,” Assemblyman Mike Norris, R-Lockport, said. “I will continue to work tirelessly with state officials to provide much-needed assistance to our community.”
Meanwhile, Newfane Supervisor Tim Horanburg, whose town has been hard-hit by flooding and erosion from the lake waters, said Newfane – the town that includes the hamlet of Olcott -would continue to work with county and state officials to ensure resources could get to lakeshore residents.
“The Olcott Fire Co. has served as a kind of rally point, playing host to the county sandbagging operations, the financial services mobile command center, and for state and federal officials coming to see the damage to our lakeshore first-hand,” Horanburg said. “Newfane and Olcott will continue to provide a staging ground and a central community point where we can all come together for as long as we’re needed. We just hope that’s not a lot longer for any of us.”