More than 20 million gallons of untreated sewage poured into the lower Niagara River again Tuesday as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state officials promised to line up help for the city following Friday’s powerful rainstorm.
Speaking in Lockport, where the state produced $2 million in aid to property owners affected by flooding last month after the federal government refused to help, Cuomo said the aid process for Niagara Falls, where the sewage treatment plant shut down, will follow a similar path as the one for Lockport.
First, the state will ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Niagara Falls. In Lockport, FEMA granted the city reimbursement for damage to streets, sewers and the wastewater treatment plant but said no to help for residents whose basements were flooded.
That’s when Albany stepped in to help Lockport, and Cuomo said the state is willing to help Niagara Falls if FEMA won’t. A flood recovery team was dispatched to the Falls on Tuesday. Mayor Paul A. Dyster said that since Tuesday morning when Cuomo told him about the flood recovery team, he has been contacted by top officials at four state agencies.
“They’ll be working with the mayor’s people to do an assessment of the damage there, and then, again, we’ll go through the same process,” Cuomo said. “The federal government, we’ll ask them for assistance, but we want to make sure the state is there to help, especially on an individual level. We don’t want homeowners who had their homes devastated, their memories destroyed, to be left on their own. It’s just not how New Yorkers operate.”
Residents and businesses in Niagara Falls who suffered storm damage are invited to speak with and provide information to members of the state’s damage assessment team today.
The officials will set up a mobile command center at City Hall, 745 Main St., and will be available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Dyster said Matt Driscoll, head of the state Environmental Facilities Corp., is to visit Niagara Falls today for a walk-through at the sewage treatment plant on Buffalo Avenue near 10th Street.
“No plant could have functioned in the face of that (storm), but this is an old plant that has problems even on its best days,” Dyster said.
The plant was built in 1977.
The city’s gorge pumping station, which pushes about 15 million gallons of sewage per day from the northern part of the city to the treatment plant, came back on line Tuesday, and the plant’s primary and secondary treatment systems are functioning again, so North End sewage is again being fully treated.
But 20 million to 25 million gallons of sewage per day from the central and southern parts of the city can’t be pumped to the plant, because the pumps were flooded out. Dyster said it’s not known if they can be repaired.
Four or five temporary pumps are being installed, and they are expected to be operating by late Thursday or early Friday, the mayor said. But in the meantime, the Falls Street Tunnel near the Rainbow Bridge is gushing untreated sewage into the Niagara River below the falls.
Angela P. Berti, Western Region State Parks spokeswoman, said Wilson-Tuscarora State Park Beach on Lake Ontario in Wilson was closed Tuesday because of high bacteria readings, but she said, “I don’t know if you can directly tie it” to the Falls sewer failure.
The sewage spill is not affecting the drinking water in Niagara Falls; the water intake is above the falls, near the North Grand Island Bridge.
Dyster said the city received “a huge number of calls” from residents reporting flooded basements and other damage.
In Lockport, which faced a similar situation after a June 28 flash flood, Cuomo appeared at City Hall to hail the first responders and local officials who worked on the problem. The governor received applause for the state’s efforts.
“The infrastructure damage was taken care of, thankfully, by FEMA, so that will not be passed on to the taxpayers,” Mayor Michael W. Tucker said. “We’re very appreciative of that, but the residential damage and the commercial damage was really the most significant part of this piece. The money that has been set aside for Niagara County through the grace of Gov. Cuomo will really have a big impact on our community.”
Damage to city-owned infrastructure was estimated at about $800,000.
“We know the governor will be at our side, supporting us in any way he can,” declared Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston. “Western New York has a true friend and partner and leader in Gov. Cuomo.”
“After the rain stopped and the flood water receded, it was imperative the assistance come from Albany,” said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane. “Lockport was not going to be left behind.”
As Cuomo and the lawmakers talked, a team of state representatives continued taking flood reimbursement applications from residents elsewhere in City Hall. The three-day effort concluded Tuesday night. One of the hundreds of applicants was Martin Oliveri, owner of the Widewaters Drive-In, a popular restaurant for 52 years, which was flooded out and forced to shut down. It had no flood insurance.
“FEMA denied the governor’s request for individual assistance, and again we started to lose hope, but not for long,” Oliveri said. “Within a couple of weeks, the governor announced millions of dollars for residents, business owners and farmers. This was a true demonstration of leadership and support from our governor.”
“This has historically been a federal responsibility,” Cuomo told reporters, but he acknowledged that FEMA has rules it must follow, and Lockport property owners did not qualify for help under those rules.
“We wanted to make sure that New Yorkers didn’t pay the price, and we wanted to make sure that New Yorkers weren’t left to their own devices,” Cuomo said.
The governor said the seemingly increasing incidence of extreme weather is putting pressure on the state.
“It’s taxing the state system overall. It’s taxing our expertise, it’s taxing our ability to provide emergency services,” he said. “To the extent that it’s financial assistance, we’re going to have find savings in the state budget. We’re not going to be raising taxes. We’re trying to do the exact opposite. We’re trying to lower taxes, so if we’re providing emergency services, it means we’re going to have to squeeze the dollar tighter in Albany, and that’s what we’re there to do.”