Jenny Annas & Shaniya Graham
(Buffalo, N.Y.) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency May 2 for several counties along Lake Ontario, including Niagara, Orleans, Monroe and Wayne counties in western New York, due to flooding.
Widespread rainfall across the Great Lakes and early snowmelt, from an unusually warm winter, have caused Lake Ontario’s water level to rise higher than it has been in 24 years.
Response teams, including the National Guard, have been dispatched to ready sandbags, generators and rescue boats, in case of extreme flooding.
“Everyone is preparing for kind of a worst case scenario,” said Dr. Stephen Vermette, professor of meteorology and climatology at SUNY Buffalo State. “The flooding that’s occurring now can get worse if we continue to get the rain.”
Vermette appeared on the Buffalo Review May 4 to discuss the flooding and its effects.
Above average rainfall, Vermette said, has contributed significantly to the damaging floods on both the American and Canadian shores. The past two months have seen rainfall totals more than six inches above average in western New York, along with unusually high rainfall over all of the Great Lakes region.
“It’s an extreme event we’re having Across the Great Lakes. April has been one of the wettest since the 1900s,” said Vermette.
He said excess water is flowing downstream from the other Great Lakes, so rain that falls into Lake Superior, then travels to Lake Huron and Lake Erie and eventually collects in Lake Ontario.
“All of the Great Lakes water levels are higher than average, but Lake Ontario is at the end of the pipe,” said Vermette.
Additionally, unusually warm winter temperatures caused a rapid expansion in water volume across the entire region, due to snow melting at a faster than normal pace.
“February was a very warm month, not just in Buffalo but across the region. Buffalo was about 8.5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. That caused snow we did have to melt, not only here but across the Great Lakes and added a great volume of water,” Vermette said.
Unfortunately, he said, Residents living along the shoreline of Lake Ontario may not have seen the worst yet.
“What’s really going to make problems worse, is if we get a north wind and a lot of wave action. That is really going to increase the flooding potential,” said Vermette.
Several residents in the flood prone areas are blaming Plan 2014, which went into affect this January and allows the levels of Lake Ontario to rise higher than they were allowed to rise in the past.
Vermette, however, noted the significant efforts that were put into studying the potential pitfalls of the plan and does not think that it was a contributing factor to the widespread flooding.
“They’ve spent a lot of time and money studying this, the best that triggers this and the best procedures. You just have so much…water.”
One possible solution to alleviate the flooding on the U.S. shores would be to let more water pass over the dam along the St. Lawrence River, which Cuomo supports.
However, The levels along the St. Lawrence River are currently higher than they are for Lake Ontario. Allowing more water to pass over the dam would cause severe flooding for those along the river, including parts of Montreal, according to Vermette.
“Do you flood upstream or downstream? It’s a horrible situation to be in. There’s just so much water in the system going through so fast that you can’t do much about it,” he said.
Vermette said climate change may play a role in this type of unusual weather. He said he expects that we will see more low pressure systems stalling over a particular area, causing increased amounts of rainfall and flooding.
He said additional research is needed to better understand changing weather patterns. “The more we can understand, the more we can prepare, the more we can adapt to these changes,” said Vermette.
* Karla Weidenboerner and Will Fahlbeck contributed to this report.