Communities across the North Country were keeping close tabs on the weather forecast Sunday as a flash flood watch was posted in towns ravaged last week by massive flooding triggered by Tropical Storm Irene.
The National Weather Service in Burlington issued the advisory at 8 p.m. Sunday for a huge swath of the North Country, including Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties, and parts of Vermont. The flash flood watch was scheduled to remain in effect through Tuesday morning. Between 1 to 3 inches of rain, with localized amount of 4 inches, was expected, creating what the Weather Service termed a "potentially dangerous situation."
"Areas hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene will be susceptible to more flash flooding given the already wet and eroded ground," the Weather Service said in an advisory. "It will not take much rainfall to cause flash flooding in this situation."
Emergency response and restoration workers, especially those working in stream channels or traveling on roads that have been temporarily repaired, could be vulnerable to flash flooding, the Weather Service said.
In Essex County, where heavy flooding caused by Irene laid waste to dozens of homes, businesses, roads and bridges, Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said he was concerned that more rain could make a bad situation worse.
"We're watching it very carefully," he said Sunday night. "Our emergency operations center is still in operation. We've got everything in place. We've got swift water rescue teams on call if we have to position them. We also pre-positioned some sandbags in various areas. We did all the preplanning we can do. I just hope we don't have a big issue."
Jaquish said he's not concerned about the AuSable River cresting to flood stage again, but he is worried about water levels rising in some of the streams in brooks that feed the AuSable. Volunteers and any crews that have been working in areas damaged last week have been told to watch the weather.
"Hopefully, they won't lose all the work they've done," Jaquish said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency got a first-hand look Sunday at the devastation wrought by Irene in Essex and Clinton counties. They toured flood-damaged areas in Keeseville, AuSable Forks and Jay.
"The devastation here in the North Country is unimaginable, and it's clear we need the full support of the federal government to help get things back on track," Schumer said in a press release. "I'm going to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding federal funds to help New York rebuild."
A federal disaster declaration was issued Wednesday for 11 counties in New York, including Essex, making them eligible for the Individual Assistance program. It was later amended to include Clinton and Warren counties. All three counties had already been declared eligible for aid to repair damage to public infrastructure.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has estimated that the damage from Irene in New York could exceed $1 billion, but the federal disaster relief fund currently only has $792 million, money that's for disaster recovery efforts across the country. Schumer is pushing to ensure that the relief fund is boosted quickly "to make sure the North Country gets the federal help it needs and deserves," but some Republicans say that shouldn't happen without offsetting budget cuts elsewhere.
Jaquish said he doesn't know yet just how much damage, in dollars, Essex County sustained.
"It's in the millions," he said. "We have well over 100 homes that are either uninhabitable, severely damaged or just plain gone."
Jaquish said there's no shortage of resources working to repair the damage caused by Irene.
"The (New York Army) National Guard is in Keene," he said. "They've been using heavy equipment to assist the state and the town. There's also inmate crews out there working - there's a lot of resources committed to recovering from this."
FEMA will officially open a disaster recovery center today in the town of Jay Community Center, at 11 School Lane, AuSable Forks, Jaquish said.
"That's where people whose homes have been damaged can go to file claims and get information from all the various state, county and federal agencies," he said. "We're trying to set up another center out in the southern part of the county, in Moriah, but it hasn't happened yet."
Schumer said Sunday that he made a personal telephone call to FEMA head Craig Fugate, urging the agency to set up a second disaster recovery center in Essex County.
In a press release issued Saturday, Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas said FEMA officials advise residents whose homes and property have been damaged to document that damage with pictures and to save their receipts. The town is also seeking donations for victims of the storm, including cleaning supplies, light bulbs, plastic food containers, storage totes and food: ground beef, chicken breast, and fresh fruit and vegetables. Donations can be dropped off at the Jay Community Center.
Volunteers are needed to help prepare and serve meals for the victims of the flooding and the many volunteers who've come help repair the damage. For more information, call the town supervisor's office at 647-2204.
The town of Jay is also accepting monetary donations. Checks can be made payable to Town of Jay Irene Relief Fund, Town of Jay, P.O. Box 730, AuSable Forks, NY 12912.