Lessons we learned from disaster recovery

Gwen Chamberlain
Two of the most anticipated projects in Penn Yan's recovery from the May 2014 floods are replacement of the sidewalk on East Elm Street between Main and Basin Streets, and repairs to the Basin Street parking lot. Work began Monday on the sidewalk project, and the parking lot project is being planned.

A year ago on the evening of May 13, rain poured over portions of Yates County with a force most had never seen before. Before the sun rose May 14, fire fighters had rescued people from flooded homes and cars, and pumped scores of basements, and emergency dispatchers had fielded many of the 1,500 calls for help they would receive over the next three days.

A year later, most infrastructure repairs have been completed with other projects just getting underway or still in the planning stages.

While some people who were chased from their homes by raging water are still without a permanent home, others have made the repairs necessary to move on with their lives, thanks to the help of an army of volunteers, friends and family. In most cases, businesses in Penn Yan have recovered, but all have learned some important lessons about the value of volunteers, teamwork and perseverance.

This is the first of a two part series about the state of the community one year after the floods of 2014, and the many lessons that have been learned.

The Storm

The floods of 2014 taught lessons on many levels, including weather forecasting.

Jim Brewster of the National Weather Service has analyzed the events of May 13 and 14, 2014, and says the event that devastated parts of Yates County a year ago exceeded the measurements used to identify an event between a 100 to 200 year rainfall incident.

Even without accurate measurements of the rainfall from multiple locations, Brewster says the radar readings he watched that night indicated that over a three to four mile corridor from Branchport to north of Penn Yan, 4 to 5 inches of rain fell in four hours. The nearest actual measurement was taken at the Penn Yan Airport, where 2.92 inches of rainfall for the day was recorded. He’s certain there were heavier pockets of accumulation, but there is no reliable documentation.

He says if the same amount of rain fell in three hours, it would have been classified as a 500 year event.

“We’re talking an extreme localized rain event. This was certainly not an every year event for your area,” Brewster says.

Even a 100 year event sounds like something we’ll never see in our lifetimes again, but the conditions that overwhelmed structures, fields, roads, bridges, and culverts with flash flooding and debris last year could easily happen again, says Brewster. He says the term 100 year event means there is a 1 percent chance each year that such an event can happen, so the odds are in our favor. But who thinks about odds when the sky turns black and explodes with another downpour, like it did this Monday?

When the May 16, 2014 storm hit, the damage that had been done May 13 and 14 was under further assault, but if the May 16 rainfall had happened a week earlier, it would simply have been a rainy day, says Brewster.

Brewster, who has delivered seminars about the Penn Yan Catastrophic Flash Flood at professional conferences, says as National Weather Service officials study more events like the 2014 floods, they learn more that can be helpful in forecasting. He says with improvements in technology, and more feedback from the community through volunteers, the weather service can better determine when they should issue a warning.

Brewster says information collected from volunteers who are part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is critical to the analysis of storms, and ultimately to building charts used for future forecasting. Paired with real-time radar, that data can help the service determine when to alert a region about a developing storm.

Could the damage have been avoided?

Could the damage that was done to the area during last May’s floods have been avoided? Perhaps some, but the infrastructure that was damaged was never engineered to withstand the assault it took from the water that was dumped on a small area, says Brewster and Yates County Soil & Water Conservation District Manager Jim Balyzchek. He says most infrastructure is built to stand up to a 50 or 100 year storm, and the magnitude of the rainfall that hit the area - spotty and localized - carried debris that clogged ditches and culverts, diverted gullies, and extended points in Keuka Lake.

With the repairs built to withstand the same magnitude storms in the future, there’s no telling how the new infrastructure will hold up, but Balyzchek says there are some steps property owners can take to help prevent damage:

• Keep waterways clear. If you own land where a stream passes through a gully, remove fallen trees and other debris.

• Don’t dispose of lawn waste (leaves, grass trimmings, etc.) in gullies

• Keep ditches clear of things that can obstruct culverts

Fields of Streams

Some of the most striking damage last year was to fields where new plantings had not taken hold. Those conditions were ripe for massive erosion damage.

The kind of damage ranged from temporary flooding to complete stripping of top soil and the cutting of new gullies through fields. Other fields collected debris - from organic materials to silt, rocks and soil.

Grape farmers had a harder time dealing with cleaning up the debris that collected between their rows of vines.

Tom Eskildsen of Yates County Soil and Water Conservation District says farmers whose acreage was damaged last year are rebuilding the topsoil in the fields that were stripped, but added, “You can’t rebuild soil in a year.”

For recovery, farmers have been scraping off the rocks and debris, and are rebuilding the soil by adding organics. “Just getting anything to grow,” he says, adding that buckwheat is a good crop because it grows in poor soil.

Some of the farmers had begun to haul truckloads of gravel to fill what in some areas were full-fledged gullies, but they soon found the cost to be too high. Then they found the soil they’d lost in nearby ditches, and cleared those ditches to renew their fields. Eskildsen estimates 95 percent of the new soil came from those ditches.

A map on Eskildsen’s computer screen shows the farms that have applied for assistance and funding through the USDA programs, but not all farmers apply for those funds, he says. Nonetheless, that map illustrates how “spotty” the serious damage was. While about 3,000 acres of farmland was damaged, much more was flooded, but not permanently damaged, he notes. According to the 2012 USDA census, there are about 127,000 acres of farmland on 919 farms in Yates County, and those numbers are growing.

He says the conservation and no-till practices that many farmers use paid off.

“A lot of farms are changing how they mange water,” says Eskildsen, explaining they have been building ditches to route the water around the fields.

Eskildsen says he tried some phone consultation with other areas in New York that had experienced flood damage, but none of them had experienced the kind of damage that hit this area. In those other areas, the damage happened in September, so there were flooded and downed crops, but not so much loss of topsoil.

“It was definitely an opportunity for a learning curve,” he says about the experience.


Responding to such a broad emergency was a new experience for the workers in the Soil & Water Conservation District office, says Balyzchek, who explains they worked with departments and people they had not partnered with in the past. The Chemung-Schuyler Soil & Water Conservation District assisted with between $20,000 and $25,000 in time and equipment.

Penn Yan

In Penn Yan, two streams — Jacobs Brook and Sucker Book —and their tributaries became swollen with flood water carrying large pieces of debris that clogged and washed out culverts, creating flooding in neighborhoods on two sides of the village. Streets became free-flowing rivers, and Champlin Avenue became a basin with floating trucks and rapidly rising water that trapped some residents.

A year ago, there was concern that East Elm Street in the Basin Street area might fall away from underfoot. The Basin Street parking lot was a rippled, warped mess and the sidewalk between Main and Basin Streets looked like it had been designed for a carnival fun house.

Just this week, construction workers began the process of replacing the wall and sidewalk that has been blocked off with chain-link fence.

Penn Yan Trustee David Reeve and Director of Public Works Brent Bodine say plans are progressing for the future of the Basin Street parking lot. Roger Brown, an architect with the Rochester Design Center, who has been working with the Penn Yan 2020 Vision committee on other projects, has been contracted to prepare two designs for the parking lot reconstruction. One of the designs will incorporate landscaping with the now open waterway and historic archway near Seneca Street while the other will cover those features. Illustrations for those plans should be available for review in June.

Some of the most notable damage and biggest repair projects are going on in Penn Yan, where the Penn Yan School property sustained $260,000. The main building at The Arc of Yates alone sustained $1.2 million in damage. Construction on that project just began this month.

On Clinton Street, the house owned by Joanne DeBolt which had begun to collapse into the stream will be demolished once Penn Yan Village officials complete the bidding process to hire a contractor. The village board had to follow the legal steps to get approval to demolish the house. DeBolt is now living in an apartment in Dundee, after spending time in Rushville. Because she doesn’t drive, life was challenging in Rushville.

“It’s been a nightmare since May 13 for me,” she says. Her comments make it clear she’s bothered by the construction of new hotels and condominiums in Penn Yan. “And the very few apartments in that town that may be available are either too expensive or occupied,” she says.

Yates County

Yates County’s final project, which was its biggest and most expensive challenge, was the erosion damage to Italy Turnpike Road. That project was just completed, and the road re-opened Tuesday afternoon.

Yates County Administrator Sarah Purdy said the recovery effort has been “astounding.” But she and others have been shocked by the sudden death of Stephanie Bates, the Assistant Director of the Yates County Office of the Aging. Purdy said Bates, who died tragically in an accident at her home April 18, “really rose to the forefront and became the face of the recovery effort in Yates County.”

According to Diane Caves of the Yates County Emergency Management Office, the county has received 87 percent of the federal and state funding reimbursements. Generally, the federal government reimburses 75 percent of the cost of repairs, leaving the state and local governments 25 percent to split, but the municipalities in Yates County have received assurances that New York state will pick up the full 25 percent of approved costs.

When that stubborn storm drifted into Yates County last year, the small Office of Emergency Management became the center of the universe for disaster recovery. That alone has brought some new awareness and experience. Brian Winslow, Director of Emergency Services and Caves, Assistant Director, have given presentations at Western Region Health Emergency Preparedness Coalition, Lake District Emergency Managers, Yates County Legislature and have shared information with the Finger Lakes Economic Development Corporation among many others.

Caves says some of the most important lessons from the past 12 months include:

• Need for a functional Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “During the height of the storms and following week, our offices were crowded with representatives from many agencies who had come to assist us in our time of need.”The county’s emergency operation center in the basement of the county office building could not be used due to flooding, so the emergency management offices were used. More space is needed for meetings, computer access, briefings, space for laying out maps, internet access and more is needed.

• Communication & Teamwork – Daily briefings through the emergency response period brought the key players together to assess the needs and develop a plan to meet those needs. “The teamwork happened naturally, as the key players could help each other or make the connections needed,” Caves explains.

Summing up the lessons she learned, Caves adds, “Yates County is a great place to live — where the community spirit is strong and vibrant.”


The first calls for help came from the town of Jerusalem at about 8:30 p.m. May 13, and it’s suspected that some of the heaviest pockets of rainfall occurred in the hilly town with many miles of Keuka lakefront.

Supervisor Patrick Killen says more than 100 areas in the town were damaged and 30 projects were created from those areas that the town needed to address and were eligible to request FEMA and/or NYS office of emergency management reimbursements.

Killen says total damage in the town is estimated at approximately $1.24 million. Two requests of the original 30 are still pending approval from FEMA and NYS, and approximately 75 percent of eligible reimbursements have been received by the town.

He adds, there are still damaged areas being worked on by our town highway department.

Killen says the storm recovery effort in Jerusalem has confirmed for him, “the Town of Jerusalem has very hard working, dedicated staff that performed well under extremely difficult circumstances. We have good neighbors who pulled together to help one another during the crisis. We have amazing volunteer firemen, ambulance personnel and local law enforcement in our community and neighboring communities who helped with flooding in homes and traffic in areas of extreme damage. In the days and months following the floods we were thankful for the help of NYSE DOT, NYS OEM, Yates County Highway, Yates County OEM, the Towns of Potter, Pulteney, Benton, Gorham and Seneca Highway Departments, local students from Penn Yan Academy, Dundee High School and Keuka College who came to help.”

Killen also praises the efforts of Neil and Darren Simmons and their workers who retrieved several corrugated pipes and materials that had washed away from the highway barns. Lastly, I would thank the people of the town who were patient as we worked through addressing and prioritizing the immediate needs of the crisis,” he says.

Penn Yan School

Penn Yan Academy became the temporary home to a few people who had evacuated from their homes May 13 or 14, but the halls were empty of students, many who pulled on their mud boots and made their way to areas where they could help with the clean-up.

Their own school grounds sustained about $260,000 in damage from the flooded Sucker Brook that crosses the campus. Most of the repairs are done, with some work still due on the tennis courts and stream work, says Business Manager Cathy Milliman.

Next week: How have some of the people whose homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed rebuilt their lives, and what progress has The Arc of Yates made in rebuilding its headquarters on North Avenue?