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Letter to the Editor: Cherry Makes Case for Jail Relocation

Written By Editor on 2/2/14 | 2/2/14

Editor's note: Mr. Cherry sent the following letter to the New York State Emergency Management Office on January 29th.

Dear Mr. Casey,

Please find attached Schoharie County’s second appeal relating to the relocation versus repair of our Public Safety Facility which was determined to be substantially damaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene on August 28, 2011.  This critical structure housed our county’s one and only correctional facility along with our E-911 Communications Center and Emergency Management Office, and served as the county’s central emergency operations command post.  In this submission we will present new information, not available at the time of our first appeal, which we believe will establish beyond any doubt that in order to be compliant with the code requirements of the State of New York, FEMA must relocate this facility out of the floodplain.

FEMA continues to insist that our county repair the existing structure rather than fund a new, relocated facility on higher ground outside the floodplain.  We strenuously disagree with their determination based upon several factors.  When this facility was first designed back in 1990 it was constructed in an area considered to be safe at that time, outside of the FEMA designated floodplain zone.  But over the past 25 years, unanticipated climate changes and increased rainfall have resulted in the Schoharie Creek rising violently and dramatically for brief periods of time, subsequently flooding the entire basin of the Schoharie Valley.  Schoharie County’s Public Safety Facility is located within that great basin, and the structure has been damaged by swiftly rising floodwaters three times in less than 20 years.  The rampaging waters of Hurricane Irene caused the most severe damage to date, resulting in a “substantially damaged” designation to this critical facility which was inundated by 7 feet of raging muddy water filled with gasoline, home heating oil, agricultural chemicals, decomposing farm animals and other toxic debris.  The floodwaters were so intense and powerful that solid steel doors were twisted like children’s toys.  Over the past 25 years, FEMA has amended their floodplain maps and expanded the zones which are likely to experience damaging flooding during a high-water event, and current maps show that the entire Public Safety Facility is now included in the flood-zone, and rightfully so.

For FEMA to continue to take the position that this facility must be repaired and rebuilt in its present location seems arbitrary, short-sighted, and defies common sense.  The Schoharie Creek will absolutely rise to flood levels again and expand beyond its banks.  The topographic and hydrostatic realities of the 314 square-mile Catskill Watershed (a bowl-like ring of mountains which creates a funnel effect by collecting rainfall and snowmelt and forcing the heavy runoff into the headwaters of the Schoharie Creek) will not change.  There can be no doubt that this building will suffer damage from flooding at some point in the future, and millions more of federal, state and local dollars will be needed to repair the devastation.  This cycle could go on for decades resulting in an endless cycle of repairing the facility, evacuating inmates and abruptly interrupting emergency operations at a critical point in time because a complete and total evacuation of the facility is absolutely mandatory and required.  This forced evacuation is not a minor inconvenience, but rather a total and complete breakdown of our emergency command center and emergency communications and dispatch capabilities whenever a flood is imminent – exactly when those emergency services are needed the most.  

Repairing the present facility is expected to cost at least $7 million for hard construction costs.  That figure is likely to rise because of the complexities involved with repairing a structure of this size, and design and engineering costs will increase the overall project total even more.  Added to that will be an additional $7 million or more for mandatory, code-required, flood mitigation measures, bringing the total cost of mandated repairs to at least $14 million.  A new, relocated facility positioned safely on higher ground is expected to cost $18.7 million.  Attempting to protect the building from future flooding by installing mitigation measures such as automatic floodgates will be expensive and without any guarantee that they will succeed.  Flood protection measures have a very high failure rate based upon FEMA’s own experiences, and if a future catastrophic event were to result in water levels that even moderately exceeded the levels of Irene, the protection measures would almost certainly fail.   But even if the flood protection measures did succeed, this facility, which serves as the emergency command and control center for all police, fire, ambulance and emergency services for a population of 32,000 people, would be rendered completely useless, just as it was during the critical hours before, during, and after the events of 6:00 p.m. on August 28th, 2011.

Our second appeal to FEMA is based not only upon economic common sense and fairly predictable future events, it is based upon FEMA’s own legal and regulatory requirements.  First and foremost is the fact that when dealing with a critical facility located within a designated flood-zone, FEMA is legally obligated to comply with local and state code requirements when evaluating whether to repair the existing damaged structure as compared to relocating that structure to higher ground outside of the floodplain.  You will find included in our appeal, a letter from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation dated January 21, 2014 which points out that rebuilding the Schoharie County Public Safety Facility in its present location would be in violation of Part 502, Title 6 of the Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York.  Section 502.4(17) of that code says, in part:

“In order to prevent potential flood damage to certain facilities that would result in serious danger to life and health, or widespread social or economic dislocation, none of the following new projects shall be undertaken within any flood hazard area:  (ii) correctional facilities; (iv) major communications centers or civil defense centers; or (v) major emergency service facilities, such as central fire and police stations”.  
The letter from DEC Floodplain Management Chief, William Nechamen, goes on to state:

“Because a substantially damaged structure is treated like a new structure, Part 502 would not allow a correctional facility, major communication center, civil defense center, or major emergency service facility (to be rebuilt) within a flood hazard area if state funding or state land is involved.”

Clearly – state money is involved here because, while FEMA will be paying for 75% of the costs, New York State will be paying the remaining 25%.  New York State’s share of the projected $14 million cost to repair the existing facility amounts to $3.5 million dollars, and Part 502 prohibits that expenditure of state funds.  We believe that this code-compliance requirement taken on its own merits obligates FEMA to relocate the facility outside the floodplain.   

Please understand that we in Schoharie County are deeply and forever grateful to both FEMA and New York State for your financial assistance as we struggle to recover from the devastating flooding that swept through our valley destroying homes, businesses and government infrastructure.   Our core reason for filing this second appeal regarding the Public Safety Facility is based upon our firm conviction that relocating this critical facility outside of the floodplain once and for all, is the only logical choice at this time.  We would never try to take advantage of this unfortunate circumstance just to get a new county building.  The fact is that spending millions of dollars to repair that repeatedly-flooded structure one more time simply does not make sense.  When you consider that fact in conjunction with the New York State code-compliance requirement that demands that FEMA relocate it out of the flood-zone, and the potential loss of life should our emergency communications center be rendered inoperable in the event of another flood, relocation out of the floodplain is the only logical, and legal option.

Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully,
                 
William Cherry,
Recovery Coordinator

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