September 28, 2021

Rain turns winter to wet in a hurry

Tioughnioga River flood in Cortland

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Matt Seyfried of Hickory Park Road in Cortland looks out past his back yard at the Tioughnioga River, which went over its banks Friday as rain and 50-degree weather melted a foot of snow cover. He's seen enough floods in his yard, and is standing on 120 tons of fill and a retaining wall he built to protect his property.

Cortland County woke Christmas morning to a choir of sump pumps and a symphony of overflowing stream banks as temperatures that topped 50 degrees Thursday, followed by rain, melted more than a foot of snow cap.

However, the rain stopped sooner than predicted, and temperatures fell earlier than expected, so damage was limited largely to closed roads and soggy basements — for now.

Barely 0.15 inches of rain fell in Cortland — but more than 2 inches at the Binghamton Regional Airport — forced the Tioughnioga River over its banks in Cortland. The river was at 11.3 feet at 4:30 p.m. Friday; flood stage is 8 feet. The Otselic River in Cincinnatus crested at 9.9 feet earlier Friday morning.

Still, as Matt Seyfried looked over over what was left of his back yard Friday afternoon on Hickory Park Road in Cortland, it could have been so much worse.

“We have a lot to be grateful for,” Seyfried said he told his three kids Christmas morning. The river was just a few feet from a 25,000-gallon, 12-foot-deep in-ground pool. It was lapping at the retaining wall he built a few years ago after earlier floods ate away at his back yard. It had undercut part of the yard where he dumped 120 tons of fill to keep the river back.

“It’s the highest we’ve seen since we’ve been here,” said Seyfried, who has lived on Hickory Park Road since 2005. “We’re losing a lot of our back yard to erosion.”

What worried him more was the threat of losing another tree — not because it would tear up his yard, but because of the threat of creating a block down stream, making floods worse for others. “Any of these trees goes down and it’s going to create a dam,” Seyfried said.

Just up Route 13, East River Crossing had been closed as the water spilled yards into a corn field and came within perhaps a foot of the bed of teh steel-grate, one-lane road. It was one of 11 roads and intersections closed through the day, Cortland County dispatchers said.

Otselic washes over Cincinnatus

“It started at 2:38 a.m. with the first basement,” said Cincinnatus Fire Chief Richard Roberts. Firefighters pumped out a handful of basements by Friday afternoon, and navigated the road closures.

“We had an interesting morning,” he said. “But we’re gaining the upper hand.”

Davis Burritt of Cincinnatus had watched anxiously late Thursday as the river 40 yards from his house rose as rain fell steadily and warmth melted the snow.

“It’s not exactly a white Christmas,” he said, standing outside his house early Christmas afternoon.

By 2 a.m. Friday, the Otselic River had spilled over its banks and reached the back of his house, filling his basement with 4 feet of water. He went to the nearby Cincinnatus Fire Department station and asked for help.

“We had fantastic help from our volunteer fire department,” Burritt said as the hum of the pump filled the air around his house at 2719 Lower Cincinnatus Road.

“I made them a bunch of breakfast sandwiches,” said Burritt, whose family has lived in the house for 16 years.

This is the fourth time the flooding has been this bad while he has lived in the house. He said his wife, Carrie, struggled walking through the swirling water to reach her car in the garage to get to her job as a technician at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center’s intensive care unit.

One of the picnic tables in his yard floated away and a lawn mower and small refrigerator were among the other losses, Davis Burritt said.

Across the street, one basement pump was running from the basement of Steve Shufelt’s house at 2718 Lower Creek Road, and another was ready if flooding worsened.

“We’re prepared,” said Shufelt, who has lived in the house with his wife for eight or nine years.
He’s lived in the neighborhood for most of 40 years, so he knew the worst of the flooding was not over. Due to unusual hydrogeology in the area, basement flooding worsens when the nearby the Otselic River recedes, he said.

Shufelt said his wife’s grandfather built the house and placed the furnace 2 1/2 feet above the basement floor to account for the flood risk.

No flooding in Marathon

In Marathon, Mayor William McGovern and Fire Chief Norm Forrest were knocking on wood. Despite getting 22 inches of snow just a few days ago, and more rain than Cortland, the Tioughnioga hadn’t come over its banks.

“It didn’t start out so good,” Forrest said, with a 4:20 a.m. call to pump out a basement. “But the rain stopped and the temperature is dropping, so I hope we’re going the right way.”

“It came up considerably overnight, but it hasn’t flooded yet,” McGovern said. “I’m am keeping my fingers crossed.”

“It’s not all that bad,” he added. “I think Broome County is going to bear the brunt of it. If it had continued raining, we’d be in a world of hurt.”