By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF NIAGARA - A group of town residents upset about their representatives' handling of flooding caused by a devastating July 19 thunderstorm performed their own type of flooding during a board meeting earlier this week.
After many of them watched their belongings and memories float in feet of water in their basements, the residents filled town hall on Tuesday to question why town leaders never issued a state of emergency after the big storm hit.
More than 50 residents, many from the Belden Center neighborhood, demanded answers after they were either denied insurance coverage or left holding expensive bills for cleanup.
"We needed help," one resident yelled from her seat in the audience. "It was obvious this was a state of emergency," yelled another. They were all concerned a lack of a declaration could cost residents emergency assistance money once it becomes available.
Deputy Supervisor Danny Sklarski, who was in charge of town affairs at the time as Supervisor Steve Richards was out of town during the storm, said he was in meetings with town, county and state officials throughout the heavy rain event and was ready to make a declaration if needed.
But, Sklarski said, the word never came so there was no declaration.
"The situation was being monitored," Sklarski said. "If it had gotten worse, if we were not making progress, then a state of emergency would have been called. But I was told by our department heads the situation was getting better. Our community center was open Saturday morning, the Red Cross was on stand by."
So what exactly is a state of emergency? According to New York state law, a local municipality's chief executive can call a state of emergency during a public catastrophe, but it must be filed within 72 hours of the disaster.
But, according to section 24 of the state's executive law, which handles the local declarations, it's the county's chief executive who'd make the request for assistance from the state, not the town's supervisor.
"Whenever a local state of emergency has been declared pursuant to this section, the chief executive of the county in which the local state of emergency has been declared, or where a county is wholly contained within a city, the chief executive of the city, may request the governor to provide assistance under this chapter, provided that such chief executive determines that the disaster is beyond the capacity of local government to meet adequately and state assistance is necessary to supplement local efforts to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety, or to avert or lessen the threat of a disaster," the law states.
During Tuesday's meeting, many of the residents presented pictures taken from their basements as water rushed in, much of it taking place between 9 and 10 p.m. July 19.
Was the flooding the result of the heavy rains or did something else cause many of the town's problems that night? While local rain was devastating, the effectiveness of the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant, which services about 33 percent of the town – including the hard-hit Belden Center neighborhood – was a serious factor, according to elected officials.
The plant failed during the storm's heaviest rainfall, sending more than 100 million gallons of relatively unprocessed wastewater into the Niagara River before it was restored to working order one week later.
Some in attendance, including State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, attributed many of the flooding issues to the plant's shortfall.
But Belden Center's problems may have been even more involved than the failure of the plant. A pump, according to Water Department Superintendent Ed Adamczyk, stopped working during the storm, which kept water from moving through a system already in disrepair.
No matter the cause of the flooding, there's still some money available to homeowners. Even without a state of emergency, the 2013 Upstate Flood Recovery Program instituted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month earmarked money for qualified flooding victims in Niagara County after the Federal Emergency Management Administration denied federal aid.
Assistance can be requested by calling 1-888-769-7243.
"The most important thing to do right now, the most pressing matter, is to get your claims in," Maziarz told residents attending the meeting. "You need to apply, to get in the system. The intake process is just the first step, to get information. It's going to take a while. It's not a fast process."