Cuomo tours harbor, addresses lake flooding

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pictured above at Oswego Harbor with Mayor Billy Barlow, visited and toured the harbor Sunday morning to survey damage from recent Lake Ontario flooding.

OSWEGO — Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging Port City officials and other shoreline communities to devise an action plan to prepare for the “new normal” of impending flooding.

Cuomo visited Oswego on Sunday morning to address what weather forecasts could mean for Lake Ontario in the upcoming week. Rainfall and wave activity caused by high winds are poised to put Lake Ontario over flood level, “the most likely scenario” according to the governor.

“We hope that does not happen, but in all likeliness it will,” Cuomo said. “We are getting ready for a possible emergency — hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to prepare for it.”

One of eight counties to potentially suffer from flood damage, Oswego is no stranger to dealing with Lake Ontario overflows.

“The governor is right on all accounts,” Mayor Billy Barlow told reporters at Sunday morning’s press conference. “We are sustaining some severe damage here on the Oswego Harbor.”

In 2017, the city of Oswego suffered $15 million worth of damage due to flooding, officials said. The water damage reached nearby infrastructure and shoreline property including Wright’s Landing Marina and Breitbeck Park.

Lake Ontario water levels were at 246.95 feet as of the end of April 2019, just slightly below the 247.60-feet mark registered on the same date in 2017. The average Lake Ontario water level for this time of year is 245.87 feet.

Since the emergency flood response in 2017, approximately $11 million in state funds have been invested in the city’s shoreline infrastructure, Cuomo said Sunday. 

“Let’s accept it and stop spending millions of dollars to repair the damage and actually build a waterfront that can sustain these higher levels,” Cuomo said.

Federal agencies are also expected to contribute with relief funds. Barlow told The Palladium-Times in April that while final figures are still being calculated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), officials are expecting the city to receive approximately $5 million to help with repairs.

The mayor said the city anticipates an initial $2 million disbursement this summer — possibly as early as July — with another similar allotment disbursed later this year.

Part of Cuomo’s plan to mitigate potential damage in Oswego County includes deploying more than 100,000 sandbags, two sandbaggers and 250 feet of aquadam — which acts as a 9-foot-wide and 4-foot-fall temporary dam made out of polyethylene. The governor said 100 members of the state’s National Guard have been mobilized to support preparedness operations in the coming weeks.

Barlow said city officials are adjusting economic development plans in light of potential flood damage in the future as “the new normal,” but said the “biggest point” moving forward is for the governor’s team to put pressure on the International Joint Commission (IJC), the U.S.-Canada body responsible for overseeing Lake Ontario water levels.

“While we’re in the middle of doing these improvement projects, we are having to build and spend more money and more resources higher than they were before,” Barlow said. “In that regard, we are being a little proactive here in Oswego.”

Cuomo criticized the IJC for allowing the circumstances to reach the “worst case scenario,” saying when flooding occurs to the extent it has, the IJC “by definition” has not “done [its] job.”

“We should never get to this place,” Cuomo said.

For the IJC to even meet, however, at least four of six board members are required to be present to hold quorum. The current roster only holds spots for two U.S. members, no Canadians and an appointee-in-waiting in former state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. 

Despite being appointed to the board twice by President Donald Trump, Corwin’s appointment is still pending Senate approval.

Cuomo praised Corwin for representing Empire State interests thanks to her career as an upstate politician, but called the delay to her appointment “inexcusable.”

“We had our representatives meet with the IJC last week,” Cuomo said. “They were nice. They were polite. They listened, but they committed to nothing.”

Cuomo floated President Donald Trump’s proposed $3 trillion infrastructure spending plan as a source of funding for flood preparation.

“We can’t build enough to protect 500 miles of shoreline,” he said. “We can build back in those vulnerable points and improve those but we’re going to need federal help if we’re going to make the difference we should be making because it literally is the north shore of the state of New York.”

Cuomo encouraged localities to be proactive in assessing potential flood hazards. He directed them to submit resource requests to the state’s Watch Center, which can be reached at 518-292-2200.

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