Floods hit Essex, Warren and Hamilton counties
By Tim Rowland
It was scarcely daybreak on the morning of Friday, Feb. 18, and the ice that had been accumulating in sub-zero weather on the East Branch of the Ausable River was breaking up and on the move.
From the 9N Bridge at Upper Jay, Town of Jay Supervisor Matt Stanley noticed a blue, 55-gallon drum among the debris being marshaled downstream by the ice-choked river. An hour later, as he was making his rounds, he noticed the same barrel passing under the bridge at Jay four miles downstream.
This was, as these things go, good news. The ice, some of it in blocks two feet thick, was meandering and staying within the channel. As the morning progressed, town and highway department personnel, fire companies and the Essex County Department of Emergency Services were all on hand, just in case something unusual happened.
And then something unusual did.
It showed up on a gauge on the East Branch where it approaches Au Sable Forks, where the water rose from about normal to the third highest flood level on record.
Stanley was at Stickney Bridge, a few miles upstream when he got the call. “I was feeling pretty good about where we were, and then the phone rang and they said Intervale (Avenue) is under six feet of water,” Stanley said. “I said, ‘What’?”
Ice jam floods are not like normal floods and they are not predictable, said Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association (AsRA). So when the ice went out, results were mixed.
Several locations throughout the Adirondacks experienced damaging ice jams over the weekend, as warm rains and melting snow raised river levels until the pressure became too great for the thick ice to withstand, so it splintered, somewhat resembling crushed ice in a fountain drink, although at a much larger scale.
In Warren County, ice jams flooded the Hudson, closing a stretch of R. 28 and the Rt. 418 bridge, said Town of Warrensburg Board Member Bryan Rounds. Ice jams are common on the river, although it’s more typical for them to break closer to spring. “It’s a bit early for the ice to be breaking up, but maybe it will get it out of its system for this year,” he said.
Damage was more severe to the west in Hamilton County, where a part of the park suffered full or partial communication outages over a 24-hour period, said Brian Griffin, a member of the Wells Volunteer Ambulance Company.
“It was pretty widespread,” he said. “Not only were phones out, but the internet was out and the cell towers were out. It was pretty much back to the dark ages at that point.”
Griffin said ice jams on the Sacandaga River were reported, causing flooding in the towns of Hope and Benson. Government offices were closed Monday, so the cause of the communication outages had not been confirmed, although Griffin said it was believed to have been weather-related.
“Our systems are pretty fragile; they’re great when they work,” he said. “But the mood up here is that life goes on, and as soon as they’re back on we’re OK.”
The damage appeared to be most severe in Au Sable Forks, where roughly two dozen residences were affected. Most people were back in their homes Monday, although a cleanup was unfinished, Stanley said.
Tucker said that the ice often wears away slowly, but when it breaks up all at once it rushes downstream to a point where its blocked by a bridge, a bend in the river, or even — as can be the case between Upper Jay and Jay — the ruin of a lone abutment from a long-gone span.
When that happens, the ice backs up, creating a dam. When the pressing current finally overcomes the dam, it bursts, creating something of a tsunami. This can happen multiple times as the jam makes its way downstream, the intensity building as it goes.
“It starts and stops and it’s not that predictable,” Tucker said. “This one looked manageable until it got to Intervale.” There, a backward S in the river and the Jersey Bridge presented too much of an obstacle course for the ice to slither through. When it clogged, the river level spiked and with nowhere to go, the water inundated the Au Sable Forks communities.
Even so, there were some bright spots. Notably, Stanley said, the community turned out with financial help and elbow grease to get people back on their feet. Volunteers bought sandwiches discounted by the Black Brook General Store and the Hometown Deli, and Ward Lumber cut prices on supplies and operated after hours for deliveries.
State and federal lawmakers were either on site or stayed in touch to offer assistance and advice for cleaning up and dealing with stress. Stanley said the town will be documenting damage this week in hopes of winning government funds. “We have a great staff, great volunteers and great neighbors,” he said.
And in the longer view, this summer, AsRA and the Town of Jay partnered on a project to deepen the channel and excavate spillways downstream of the Upper Jay Bridge. The reconstruction, designed to return the river to its natural form after a century of industrial manipulation, seems to have worked: The ice moved through the channel without becoming stuck.
“The road crews were surprised and pleased by how well the ice moved out of Upper Jay,” Tucker said. The project is one of 13 developed by AsRA that aimed at reducing damages. “You’re not going to stop ice jams and you’re not going to stop flooding,” she said. “But ice and water that has access to a floodplain can be absorbed, and what ice moves downstream will be more likely to stay in the channel.”