February 22, 2006

Worried about dam, upstate NY residents fear floods

By Holly McKenna

GILBOA, New York (Reuters) - Robert Felter is preparing for catastrophe.

Fearful that a dam near his home, which supplies water for New York City, might break due to years of poor maintenance, he has barricaded his basement windows with sandbags. And in case the Gilboa dam unexpectedly releases its 19 billion gallons of water, he has suitcases packed in his car so he can flee.

Felter and others in this rural community 30 miles from the state capital Albany say they don't want to be left behind like the people in New Orleans when the levees caved in there last summer after Hurricane Katrina.

"We don't feel like it's a priority for officials," said Felter, 23, who has a 7-year-old son. "If it does happen, we will head for the hills."

It sounds like the stuff of action movies, but Felter is no conspiracy nut. Instead, his preparations came after an official pronouncement: The New York City agency which owns the dam and uses it to supply water to the Big Apple has admitted the 79-year-old structure is not safe and could fail.

If the dam breaks, an area of upstate New York with nearly 900,000 residents could be submerged under 30 feet of water stretching for 75 miles.

Residents formed the Dam Concerned Citizens Group, which says if the dam breaks it could be the worst man-made disaster ever in New York state. Schools have undertaken evacuations to test how quickly children can be moved to higher ground.

Officials have begun repairs and have urged residents not to panic.

The heightened fear of a dam break came after the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) which owns the 182-foot-tall structure, told the state in October that the dam did not meet safety standards and could fail in extreme conditions such as massive rainfall.

Since then, DEP has come under heavy criticism from local, state and federal officials for failing to make necessary repairs and improvements in recent decades.

At a recent state hearing, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd said the agency has scheduled remedial repairs at Gilboa for this month and long-range restoration will begin in 2008.

DEP officials have defended their record, saying a 1998 engineering study showed that the dam was fine and it was only during a 2005 study, which factored in more severe weather conditions, that it became apparent the structure could be in jeopardy in extreme weather.


Many residents of this rural area fear a collapse could kill thousands of people and destroy thousands of homes and businesses. The dam is part of the area's massive reservoir system, located mainly in the Catskill Mountains. The low-lying city of Schenectady, near Albany, could be flooded with 10 feet of water.

Richard Bennett, owner of a Middleburgh convenience store, is among those trying to maintain calm.

"You can live your life in fear or just trust the powers above you," Bennett said, adding that he is confident officials will give enough warning to evacuate if disaster strikes. "My family and I have discussed evacuation plans."

DEP officials said they would hope to give up to 12 hours of warning were the dam to collapse.

"Residents will evacuate to shelters, many of them are above ground, including schools which can hold the highest capacity of people," said Brian Largetau, deputy director of the Schoharie County Emergency Management Office.

Repairs began on the dam in February. Workers chipped a 3-foot-deep, 20-foot-long notch in the 1,324-foot-long structure to lower the reservoir water. Workers are adding two large siphons to lower the water level behind the dam and then plan to use tension cables to secure the dam to the bedrock.

"This is work that should have been done a long time ago," Largetau said.

New York Sen. James Seward, a Republican who represents residents in nearby communities, said DEP officials had done a poor job maintaining the dam and state officials had monitored the agency's activities poorly.

"No one was really watching the city," said Seward, who has proposed a law to give Albany more oversight over the state's 5,564 dams, many of which are privately owned. "We have a great deal at stake if this becomes a catastrophic event."