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A tiny opening appears between lake water and the Main Street Bridge (Photo:  Chris Morris
A tiny opening appears between lake water and the Main Street Bridge (Photo: Chris Morris

Saranac Lake dries out, rests up, assesses damage

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Flood conditions in parts of the North Country eased a bit on Monday as emergency personnel continued dealing with the damage caused by high waters.

In Saranac Lake, water levels receded, providing officials with the chance to assess infrastructure above and below the Lake Flower Dam.

Following five tense days, some volunteers are being sent home to rest. But as Chris Morris reports, more heavy rain is expected today.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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John Sweeney is village manager in Saranac Lake. He looked rested as he spoke to a small group of reporters at his office yesterday, joking that he slept for a total of four hours the night before. 

That's more than he's had most nights since the flood crisis began.   

Now that the floodwaters have eased, Sweeney said dozens of volunteers are getting a chance to dry out and catch some sleep.  

“What we’ve done across the board is we’ve kind of backed down a little bit on the amount of staff that’s coming in from a volunteer perspective,” he said. “The village has taken over more of it. Obviously, we’re trying to release some of the resources.” 

Sweeney says the village has extended its emergency declaration for an additional five days. Meanwhile, Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough says that an emergency command center will continue operating from the fire house downtown. 

Keough says the response to the current emergency is the longest and most sustained effort anyone can remember – that includes relief efforts following the ice storm of 1998. 

“I think the flood is nothing that anybody has ever experienced to this magnitude, so it’s been a learning process for all of us,” he said. “The cooperation has been huge. Between the county and the state, DPW crews, DEC crews, sandbag crews – everybody has been phenomenal.” 

According to Keough, water levels will be unstable over the next several days, especially with nearly two inches of rain forecasted Tuesday and Wednesday. 

“From our perspective, it’s not over by a long shot, and looking at the weather forecast, we certainly have some concerns,” he said. “The levels of the lake and the river are going to be unstable; people should expect them to rise and drop.” 

Lake Flower, in the heart of the village, dropped by nearly 9 inches over the weekend, with water running about 24 inches over the dam’s spillway – that’s down from nearly 40 inches late last week. 

Shortly before noon Monday, a crack of space appeared between the lake and the Main Street bridge above the dam. Sweeney notes that the bridge and the dam have never been under the sort of stress they’ve seen over the course of the last several days. 

The prolonged exposure to such stress can have a serious impact though, Sweeney says. The village won’t know what sort of damage has occurred until the water recedes significantly and engineering crews can take a closer look. 

So far, flooding has caused nearly $10 million in damage across Franklin County and Sweeney says they have some serious concerns in the village. 

“Things that we advised them of include some walls, obviously the whole River Walk, the peninsula, the bridges, the sewer plant – those are in the top five, if you will. 

Those numbers don’t include damage to private property, but state officials toured the village Monday afternoon and Sweeney is hopeful that some form of federal aid could become available as well. 

North Country Congressman Bill Owens has been in constant contact with village and town officials and says he’ll do whatever he can to provide additional support. 

“We’re trying to stay in touch while the evaluation of exactly how much damage has gone on is accomplished,” he said.. “We also, obviously, are looking to see which counties, towns, and village have declared states of emergency and then we will help them with any requests they make to the federal government arising out of those declarations.” 

Responding to criticism that the village did not properly manage water levels prior to last week’s flooding, Kevin Pratt of the village’s Wastewater Treatment Plant says officials were proactive at the first sign of thawing.

“We started opening the floodgates in preparation for keeping the lake at a level that was going to be safe for users on the ice and during Winter Carnival,” he said. “We’ve been proactive in trying to keep the lake down to about three or four inches over the spillway. We were at that point until about April 5, that’s when the rain came. Then of course we weren’t able to control it any more than anyone else was.”

A number of homes and apartment buildings have been evacuated, with an emergency Red Cross shelter providing meals and comfort packages. 

Tom Worthington is the village’s code enforcement officer. He said there’s a specific process that residents must go through before being allowed back into their homes.  

“Part of getting back in to a place is whether or not they have heat and hot water, so the water has to be low enough that we can clean everything up and ensure that the electric is in good shape – that’s going to be key to them getting back in,” he said. 

Late last week, high water caused a partial spill at the village’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. Sweeney stresses that the facility is back in full compliance with health department requirements. 

Further downstream, however, officials are urging residents affected by flooding not to drink well water unless it’s been properly treated. Joyce Morency is supervisor for the town of St. Armand. 

“The public health department has issued a health warning, which basically says that if you live on the river or anywhere near the corridor and you’re on well water, you should not drink your water at this time,” she said. 

Police in Saranac Lake continue to steer curious onlookers away from river banks and the lake shore, noting that sinkholes and erosion are creating unsafe conditions. 

Fire Chief Brendan Keough notes that debris is creating hazardous conditions on the lake as well and he says that boaters eager to hit the waterways should hold off a little while longer.

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