The Tuesday Evening Flood

August 24, 2014

Either we find the money and spend the political capital to fix the Beaverkill storm drain line, or the river will rise up out of the ground and drown us again and again

Tuesday, August 5, the City of Albany learned in a most spectacular and disastrous manner what happens when our civic leaders neglect the drainage system under our feet. The Beaverkill River, buried under the streets, pointedly ignored by successive City governments, forced to carry raw sewage and confined to pipes that have been allowed to disintegrate and cave in, rose up from the Earth like a monstrous avenging angel and for a few hours taught the City the consequences of infrastructure neglect.

But immediately after the disaster it became clear that the lesson was wasted. Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who certainly knows better, all but declared that this was a once in a lifetime event, and City officials echoed her refusal to acknowledge the cause of this flood. And the people of Albany, misinformed by our elected officials and by the corporate media, appear to be continuing to accept this unacceptable and dangerous situation that caused the flood. But massive flooding will happen again and again along the Beaverkill storm drain line, and no amount of denial will make the problem go away.

Wednesday, 9AM: The City Had Cleared A Path Through Catherine Street So Suburban Commuters Could Drive Through Tree Down On Catherine Street

So there I was Tuesday evening around 8:30 PM at the cabin overlooking Great Lake Sacandaga, happily sitting down to a late meal when the phone call came in. Our friend Eddie, who was watching our house back in Albany and feeding the cats informed us that the City had just been hit with a flooding disaster caused by a heavy thunderstorm. And it seems that the disaster had impacted our house in the South End, like, three different ways.

“One of the trees from that house across the street fell down and is blocking Catherine Street and brought down the wires from the pole but it just brushed up against your house,” she said. “Roads are blocked with water, trees are down and we saw floating cars, we had to take the long way around to get here. Water was pouring through your upstairs ceiling and down the back stairway, the downstairs kitchen is soaked. It’s still dripping from the ceiling upstairs. We’ve just about cleaned it up.”

Eddie has this manner of compacting relevant information into concise reports, particularly during crises and emergencies. (The “we” refers to herself and her daughter, who is often mistaken for her sister.) Fortunately none of the downed wires along Catherinewere power lines, just phone and cable.

She then phoned again about five minutes after that first call to tell us that our cellar was flooded from one end to the other. Questioning her closely as she splashed through the cellar water, I was able to determine that the overloaded City sewer system had backed up rainwater into our house. Again. Therein lies the story.

Wednesday, 9AM: The City Had Cleared A Path Through Catherine Street So Suburban Commuters Could Drive Through Wednesday, 9AM: The City Had Cleared A Path Through Catherine Street So Suburban Commuters Could Drive Through

Since there was nothing I could do that Tuesday night I grumbled a lot, swallowed supper and went to bed, not sleeping well with an upset stomach. The next morning I skipped breakfast and drove into Albany, arriving at about nine. Considering what Albany went through the night before, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of visible damage. Around my neighborhood I could see some washed out dirt and gravel in a few spots and some fallen tree branches, the same aftermath as any severe summer thunderstorm.

It was like nothing unusual had happened. One certainly would have that impression from the embarrassingly lame corporate media reports of the flood which were (predictably) mostly concerned with how suburban commuters were inconvenienced by the flooding, punctuated with the usual anti-Albany slant. The night before the TV and online newspapers were flashing images of drowning cars and declaring Albany a complete loss, but by Wednesday morning they were back to celebrities and Ebola panic like hardly anything locally disastrous had happened.

But fortunately All Over Albany (AOA) published photos sent to them by their readers, so we have a permanent record of the enormity of this short flood. What that photographic record shows, clear to anyone who has followed the history, is that we can’t fault the occasional heavy storms or blame the problem on Global Warming. The problem is that the storm drains and sewers of the City of Albany have been denied repair and upgrading by our City government for so long that today they can no longer reliably perform the function for which they were built.

After The Flood, Beaverkill Manhole In Washington Park After The Flood, Beaverkill Manhole In Washington Park

The most serious and widespread flooding was caused by the spectacular failure of the storm drain line that concerns me the most, The Beaverkill. This major line, which is supposed to be strictly a street drain, runs through my neighborhood and often stinks of raw sewage. I’ve written about The Beaverkill before, let me remind you of the route that it runs through the City, and show you how it caused the greatest damage to our City.

The Beaverkill is actually a river that was buried in the 1800s. Approaching downtown Albany from the west, it runs through a big pipe underneath Elberon Place, although many years ago when I was working on a couple of houses along Elberon, I observed that if you dug about 18 inches into the cellar floors of the houses there was watery mud. In other words, during normal times The Beaverkill under Elberon is not confined to the pipe.

So take a look at this photo of Elberon Place during the flood, courtesy of AOA. The Tuesday Evening Flood made it pretty clear that the pipe under the street is not adequate for the job:

The Beaverkill Owns Elberon Place For A Few Hours The Beaverkill Owns Elberon Place For A Few Hours

From Elberon Place The Beaverkill runs into Washington Park and becomes exposed as Washington Park Lake. One could say that the lake is The Beaverkill. The lake, of course, overflowed causing serious damage to the landscaping and lakeside amenities:

Washington Park Lakehouse Flooded Washington Park Lakehouse Flooded

Washington Park Lake becomes an underground river again, draining into a pipe that crosses Madison Avenue at New Scotland Avenue. The river runs directly underneath the low part of New Scotland, and at the intersection where that road starts to climb uphill to Albany Medical Center, the pipe-bound river makes an abrupt left and travels under Myrtle Avenue. This low part of New Scotland was flooded:

Lower New Scotland Avenue Near Madison Lower New Scotland Avenue Near Madison

This Park South neighborhood is the source of sewage that has been increasingly directed into the Beaverkill by the massive redevelopment oriented around Albany Med. Although the redevelopment project has been greatly increasing the population density of the neighborhood with offices and apartments, there has been no effective work done to increase the capacity of the pipes carrying away wastewater from these new buildings and from the ever-expanding hospital.

And it goes without saying that no new sewer lines have been built for these new sewer users. Instead what we have is a greater reliance on the existing sewer lines running through the neighborhood, which weren’t able to handle the demand before the redevelopment. But now there’s a whole lot of new toilets flushing poop and piss into these inadequate Park South sewers, and all that human waste has to go somewhere.

That somewhere is the Beaverkill storm drain line. Downtown Albany has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, which is supposed to use the sewer lines as a backup in case of heavy rains like what we just experienced. But in practice, and particularly with the Beaverkill, the storm drain ends up acting as a sewage overflow. The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia on CSOs sums up the problem nicely:

A combined sewer is a type of sewer system that collects sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single pipe system. Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems due to combined sewer overflows, which are caused by large variations in flow between dry and wet weather. This type of sewer design is no longer used in building new communities, but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.