While Tropical Storm Irene was a devastating flood that did much of its damage in a matter of hours, the spring flooding that hit several North Country towns didn't leave for weeks.
In the process, the flooding caused millions of dollars worth of damage to businesses, homes, roads, government buildings and other facilities throughout the North Country.
The flooding started due to a combination of warm temperatures, heavy rain, saturated soil and a massive snowmelt all occurring within the same time frame. That led to rising water levels in the Saranac and Raquette rivers. Area lakes also hit and stayed at flood stage for weeks, including Lake Champlain, where flood records were shattered.
A group of state Department of Environmental Conservation workers and employees of Swiss Marine place sandbags along the back of the marina’s shop in Saranac Lake on Thursday, April 28.
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)
People use boats to access their flooded house in Tupper Lake.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
The Saranac River covers much of the former Dew Drop Inn restuarant as it reaches its high point in the village of Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)
In Keene Valley, the heavy rains triggered a slow-moving landslide in early May at the Adrian's Acres mountainside subdivision in Keene Valley. The rain-saturated mountainside moved a few inches a day, damaging several houses and making them uninhabitable. It has been called the largest landslide of its kind in state history.
In Saranac Lake, which flooded along the Saranac River and edges of Lake Flower, residents said they couldn't recall a bigger flooding event.
"It's the highest I've ever seen it," said former village mayor, manager and Enterprise editor Howard Riley. "I've never seen anything even close."
Saranac Lake firefighters and emergency personnel said the response to the flooding in late April and early May, which involved as many as 30 different agencies, is something they've only seen one other time, during the 1998 ice storm.
"I've been with emergency services since 1999, and this is the biggest incident I've ever had to deal with," said Franklin County Emergency Services Director Ricky Provost. "I would say it ranks second to the ice storm. We put every bit of effort we could possibly muster into this."
Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brendan Keough called it the largest and most sustained operation the fire department has been involved with in decades. He also compared it to the response to the ice storm.
Enterprise staff writer Chris Knight did some research on prior flooding and reported that records show the flooding in Saranac Lake was probably the highest the Saranac River has climbed in the village in at least the last 50 years, and maybe longer. That theory was based on village records of the water levels at the Lake Flower dam, a review of the Enterprise news archives and the recollections of more than a dozen longtime residents of the community. The only flooding in the last 50 years that came close to this, according to those sources, was in 1971 and 1993.
Tupper Lake sees high water
Tupper Lake suffered severe flooding along the Raquette River, Raquette Pond, Big Tupper and Lake Simond. Numerous roads were shut down, including Demars Boulevard, Water Street, River Road and Raquette River Drive. The flooded river almost submerged state Route 3/30 east of Tupper Lake, which would have required a detour of several hours.
"I have to say that after viewing all the damage out there and the affected communities, you can't help but be touched by it all," said state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in early May after a tour of flood-damaged sites. "I'm also extremely impressed by the way the local communities have responded, and I'm very proud of the way DEC staff has responded."
Water levels were so high in the Tupper Lake area that many long-standing records were broken. U.S. Geological Survey records showed that water levels on the Raquette River at Piercefield not only broke a nearly 20-year-old record but reached the 500-year flood status as well. Reaching the 500-year flood status means there is a 0.2 percent chance of water levels reaching the height they did any given year, according to the USGS.
The gauge that records data for the USGS at Piercefield is located about a half-mile downstream from the Piercefield dam and several miles downstream from Raquette Pond. Data shows the river at the gauge peaked at 13.4 feet on May 1, breaking the previous record of 12.04 feet recorded on April 27, 1993.
The data for that location dates back to 1908, giving the record more credence.
"The longer the period of data, the more meaningful the statistic is," said USGS Supervisory Hydrologist Gerard Butch. "That's why at Piercefield and North Creek, where there's over a hundred years of record, that's pretty meaningful."
The Hudson River at North Creek peaked at 13.65 feet on April 28, breaking the previous record of 12.14 feet from New Year's Eve in 1948. Data for that gauge goes back to 1907.
Overall, 16 USGS gauges in northern New York recorded historical highs this spring, but in a chart produced by the USGS for the period between April 27 and May 2, only the Piercefield location reached 500-year flood status.
To put things in perspective, the average monthly rainfall for April in Tupper Lake is 2.87 inches. This April about 8 inches of rain fell, breaking the previous record of 6.2 inches set in 2002.
"It was all that rain at the end of the month, along with warm temperatures, that melted a lot of snow," Nash said. "It was the quick snowmelt along with the heavy rain that really did us in."