By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — On Wednesday, July 2, as an unexpectedly fierce summer storm raged through the Capital Region, Niskayuna firefighter Chris Nobes hurried to Merlin Drive to investigate a report of a waterlogged car with people trapped inside.
He found the vehicle and looked inside: empty. Nobes was relieved. He called dispatch to report what he had found and prepared to leave the area.
Just then, standing waist-deep in rainwater, he saw another vehicle approaching. He motioned for the driver to stop. Neighbors waved frantically. Finally, the van came to a halt. The engine had flooded just before crossing into a current of water flowing out of a nearby back yard.
Suddenly Nobes really did have an emergency to deal with.
At first, he thought there was just one person in the car. “As I made it closer to the vehicle, the driver identified that there was a man in there,” he said. The second passenger was elderly and needed help walking.
Nobes, a veteran firefighter of 22 years, rapidly assessed the situation. He was alone, and resources were spread thin due to the heavy rains. He called for assistance from other firefighters, then enlisted the neighbors, who were watching the rescue.
“You just have to use the resources that you have at hand,” Nobes said. “I knew that we had an inflatable raft that we use for ice rescue or water rescue down on the Mohawk, so that was my initial thought.
“I asked neighbors if they had a raft or some sort of flotation device, because I wasn’t sure how quickly the car was going to fill with water,” he said.
They didn’t, but they did have rope, which he and the van’s able-bodied driver tied around the older passenger, just in case the vehicle started to shift.
“We had to be prepared for any circumstances,” Nobes said.
Not long after, backup firefighters arrived with the enormous yellow raft, affectionately referred to as a banana boat by the rescuers.
“Myself and firefighter Tony Romano assisted the gentleman out the window of the passenger side of the front door and onto the raft,” Nobes said. There were no injuries, and the two passengers went home by a different route.
He estimates the entire rescue may have taken only 15 or 20 minutes, although he says looking at his watch wasn’t exactly top priority.
“It seemed like forever, I can tell you from my standpoint,” he said. But everyone, including Nobes himself, remained calm throughout the process. “Once I kind of determined that the water had leveled off, I knew it wasn’t a critical, critical issue,” he said.
Surprising as it may be to find oneself waist-deep in water on a normally quiet, residential street, Nobes said he hopes people will remember to be more cautious during severe storms in the future.
“You definitely don’t want to go into water where you don’t know how deep it is,” Nobes said. “If there’s a current, you don’t know if the road’s still going to be there. The road could’ve washed away, leading to sinkholes,” he added. “Your life isn’t worth getting home a couple hours earlier.”
He said he revisited the area just an hour or two after the rescue, and the flood water had drained.
Town Supervisor Joe Landry said the town would investigate ways to prevent flooding in the area going forward.
“The systems were over capacity,” he said. “Yes, it was an unusual event, so we’ll look and see if, other than the obvious, there was anything that caused it that we can prevent in the future.”
Pollock confirmed that both stormwater and sanitary sewage systems had become overloaded during the intense rain. He had already begun to informally investigate the cause of the flooding, and suggested heavy housing development was largely to blame.
Many of the flooded development areas in southeast Niskayuna, including the Avon Crest and Lisha Kill areas and Merlin Drive, were developed during a time when the prevailing wisdom was to fill in wells, ponds, and ditches to make room for impermeable structures such as homes and driveways. The natural drainage was then replaced with pipes.
“As we’ve found over the years, our pipes aren’t big enough,” Pollock said.
One solution is, of course, to simply increase pipe size. This strategy was applied to drainage infrastructure the last time Troy Road was reconstructed. Pollock said the pipes under that road were doubled in diameter, from 2 feet to 4 feet.
However, increasing pipe size sometimes means water moves to narrower pipes faster than the system can manage it.
“You’ve just moved the problem from point A to point B,” Pollock said.
Partly because of that problem, Pollock suggested another tack the town could take to address the problem without digging up pipes. “The other way is to put in more storm water detention,” such as wells, ditches and ponds, he said.
The town will likely have help as it works to prevent flooding during the next big storm.
“It’s many people’s problem, so to speak,” said Richard Pollock, Niskayuna’s superintendent of water and sewer. He predicted the town, county, and state would all work together to decide what should be done to improve the situation in the future.