By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The state on Tuesday declared Niagara County a disaster area due to flash flooding last week. That opens the doors for the City of Lockport, and possibly private property owners, to recover an estimated $7.2 million in property losses from the federal government.
At a mid-morning press conference at flood-ravaged Widewaters Drive-In restaurant, Lt. Governor Robert Duffy announced Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved addition of Niagara to the list of counties being made eligible for disaster aid in the wake of heavy rains and flooding last week.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., whose office arranged the press briefing, pledged to press the Federal Emergency Management Agency to free up aid to residential and commercial property owners who suffered material losses in the June 28 storm here.
"I'm going to suggest to F.E.M.A. that they get here quickly, assess the damages and get the federal dollars rolling in" to Lockport, Schumer said. Regarding aid for private property owners and F.E.M.A.'s reluctance to view basements as included in primary structures, he added, "We're going to try to get them to be as flexible as possible. ... There's been a positive change (in FEMA's position) since Hurricane Sandy."
About five inches of rain fell over the city in a few hours this past Friday, straining the city's combined sanitary-storm wastewater treatment system beyond capacity. The result was flash flooding of streets, basements and, on Market Street across from the city marina, the landmark Widewaters Drive-In. Lockport firefighters and volunteers from 16 area companies joined forces to pump out more than 600 basements overnight Friday-Saturday.
Officials have advanced a citywide damage estimate of $7.2 million, including $6 million in private property losses and $1.2 million in municipal emergency response costs and public property losses. The estimate will change, and likely increase, as storm damage becomes more apparent, Mayor Michael Tucker said.
Among the costliest blows for the city is an estimated $250,000 damage done at the wastewater treatment plant, where two key pieces of equipment, a grit collector and a water clarifying tank, broke down during the storm.
The system is working fine and meeting federal clean water requirements without those pieces, chief operator Doug Sibolski said Tuesday. In fact, he said, the system operated fully and complied with codes throughout the Friday storm and aftermath — but the grit collector has to be repaired as quickly as possible to prevent grit in wastewater from mucking up the works elsewhere in the treatment system.
Norman Allen, director of engineering and public works, recommended the city rent a bypass system while the collector is repaired. That may cost up to $200,000, he said.
Also feeding the municipal loss estimate are damages to streets, parks and several water mains, plus the wages of dozens of employees — police officers, firefighters and public works crews — who were pressed into rescue and cleanup service in every quadrant of the city.
The request for a disaster declaration was made formally by Niagara County on Sunday. To be eligible, it had to list storm-related public property losses and emergency response costs of at least $747,000 countywide. Outside the City of Lockport, public costs were "minimal," Jonathan Schultz, Niagara County emergency management coordinator, said Tuesday.
A loss assessment team, staffed by state and federal emergency management officials, will be in Niagara County today to begin verifying public loss claims, Lt. Gov. Duffy said.
At the city's request, an "individual" assessment team will be dispatched next week to look in on flood-stricken homes and businesses, Tucker says he was told by Duffy.
Individual Assistance disaster aid, for individuals, households and businesses, takes the form of temporary housing funding and grants to repair property damage that's not covered by insurance, according to Schumer's office.
Martin Olivieri, co-owner of Widewaters Drive-In, said he'll appreciate any assistance that Schumer is able to help land for businesses like his. The seasonal fast food joint, in business every summer for more than 50 years, is closed "until further notice" after the building and its contents were submerged in about 3 feet of sewage-tainted water on Friday afternoon.
"I'm scared it's a complete loss," Oliveri said.
Restaurant management had been working to establish an open-air market on the restaurant grounds this summer. Stone was laid to hold up to 25-semi permanent vendor huts for farmers, artisans and niche retailers, all of whom were being counted on to help Widewaters extend its operation possibly to Christmastime.
Instead the restaurant is temporarily out of business, and at the worst possible time. The annual Erie Canal Fishing Derby, which plays out partly in the city marina across Market Street, began today. (Wednesday July 3)
"We were looking forward to growing, not rebuilding," Oliveri said.
If rebuilding is required, though, he promised to find a way to make it happen.
"I know I'll be able to bring it back better," he said.