Five years after “the 500-year flood,” the high-water mark is still visible on the rear of Ken Lashua’s one-story brick home in Silver Creek.
It’s four feet off the ground.
Tuesday, residents were dealing with the problem all over again as torrential morning rains prompted street closures and evacuations in some neighborhoods.
In Gowanda, it was the same story. The flooding left two feet of mud on some streets, and officials expect the cleanup to last a few days.
It was rough – but not like 2009.
“It’s not nearly as bad as 2009,” said Gowanda Assistant Fire Chief Steve Raiport. “Some mud and silt here and there, but mostly water.”
Years of exhaustive cleanup and rebuilding followed the 2009 flood in both villages. New rip-rap and other flood mitigation improvements appeared along the creek banks. Enhanced disaster plans were drawn. Lessons were learned.
When the water breaches the creek bank into his yard, Lashua won’t wait around. “If it’s right up there, I leave,” Lashua said.
When Cattaraugus, Silver and Walnut creeks began rapidly rising Tuesday morning, residents snapped to attention.
“So far, it’s not a house-damaging day,” said Mike Pagano, a Central Avenue neighbor of Lashua’s who watched fire crews hose mud and debris from the street around lunchtime. “It’s a yard cleanup day.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Jim Mitchell, meteorologist at the National Weather Service. “There’s a lot of moisture available in the air. There will be showers and thunderstorms through the end of the week.”
At Perrysburg, 3.35 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period, the most in the region. Much of that fell in a short period of time. National Weather Service maps show the heaviest rain concentrated in the higher elevations in southern Erie, northern Chautauqua and eastern Cattaraugus counties.
In Gowanda, “Part of the problem is creeks come in at a steep incline from South Dayton,” said Rich Cooper, the village information officer.
Like Gowanda, villagers in low-lying Silver Creek are dealt a similar fate where waters, fed by gravity, charge in their direction.
Silver Creek Mayor Nick Piccolo said three inches of rain in a short time was compounded by heavy rains in the hills south of the village and debris blocking the water flow. Silver Creek rose 18 inches in 20 minutes Tuesday.
“It came up really, really quick,” said Julius Leone, Chautauqua County’s director of emergency services. “The good news is the water didn’t get high enough to affect anybody’s living quarters.”
About 50 people were evacuated in Silver Creek on Tuesday morning. Then, Walnut Creek spilled over its banks, across the properties of Lashua, Pagano, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Parish, across Central Avenue and toward Silver Creek Village Hall. By lunchtime, the water had settled back within the creek banks.
Left behind was a path of mud, tree branches and other debris strewn across roads, lawns and parking lots. There was some minor basement flooding, Leone said.
In Gowanda, a state of emergency was issued Tuesday. Thirty homes were flooded, and one resident was injured when she was struck by part of a falling tree.
Gowanda officials used the village’s new “Code Red” emergency system to alert by phone and email about 60 percent of the 1,260 residents who have registered for the service. Two elderly residents in the village were evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Tuesday’s flooding breached the village’s regular water source – the Point Peter Brook reservoir. That supply was shut down, and the village began drawing water from its reserve source – a well that was upgraded in the wake of the 2009 flooding, according to Heather McKeever, Gowanda mayor.
McKeever expects Point Peter to be out of service for a significant time while it’s cleaned and repaired. Damage was estimated at about $500,000. Meanwhile, village residents were advised to “conserve water.”
Gowanda School Superintendent Charles Rinaldi, who surveyed damage at the school’s football field, wondered if it would be fit by next month’s graduation ceremony. But he kept the damage in perspective. He could see grass on a field that five years ago was covered with 6 inches of mud.
But others seemed aggravated. Down the road from the high school, Tom Harrison power-washed his front lawn while his 16-year-old daughter, Casey, shoveled a layer of mud from their driveway.
“The village isn’t addressing the problem,” Harrison said, his shins covered in mud. “It’s not as bad as 2009, but it’s bad enough.”
Harrison said infrastructure changes are needed to protect residents.
McKeever, the village’s mayor, however, believes Gowanda has made significant progress since 2009.
“We’ve been working diligently with it,” McKeever said. “Part of it is just the time it takes to make sure it’s feasible for us to follow through. The one scenario we can’t prevent is the amount of rain. We did all we could to free our waterways, but we are sitting in a valley, and everything filters down to us,” McKeever added.
Besides the three-plus inches of rain figure reported from Perrysburg, other 24-hour rainfall totals reported Tuesday by the National Weather Service varied widely, including New Albion, 2.93 inches; Forestville, 2.62 inches; Dunkirk, 2.13 inches; Lake View, 1.91 inches; Pendleton, 0.68 inches.
Once the rains subsided, Tuesday went on to tie a record high temperature for the date – 85 degrees – set three years ago.
Mitchell said the region was caught between a “very slow moving” weather system with a warm front off to the east that was continuing to pull warmth and moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday and a cold front to the west that would pass through Thursday into Thursday night. That means there will be more unsettled weather with showers and thunderstorms that could, at times, be locally heavy – especially late Thursday.
It’s a forecast that could prompt more evacuations. Those in the flood-prone areas say they’ll watch closely.
“The ground is saturated, the water levels are still high,” Leone said. “It wouldn’t take much rain to turn things around again.”
News Chautauqua Correspondent Susan Chiappone contributed to this report.