Woman likely killed in flood: officials

FORT PLAIN – A woman was likely killed Friday after her mobile home was washed into the Mohawk River during flooding, authorities said.

Fort Plain Police Chief Robert A. Thomas III said county and state officials are conducting a search of the Mohawk River for the body of Ethel Healy, age 87, and for debris from her mobile home.

“Ms. Healy was most likely inside the building as it washed away,” Thomas said. “Witnesses interviewed have confirmed that they saw her minutes before [her home] left its foundation, and unfortunately, she has not appeared at the Red Cross shelter or contacted family members. We have now turned our efforts into a recovery mission attempting to locate her.”

Montgomery County was declared a disaster area by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after water levels rose several feet on the Otsquago Creek and Mohawk River. Flooding from the Otsquago Creek did damage to homes and businesses in the village, especially near Abbott and Reid Streets.

Jeff Smith, undersheriff for Montgomery County and chief of the Fort Plain Fire Department, said the fire department was dispatched to the scene of flooding on Reid Street at 6 a.m. Friday morning.

“When we arrived there were high waters, but nothing out of the normal, unfortunately, when we receive heavy rain, but within a five-minute-time span that water had encompassed all of Reid and Abbott Streets, making them impassable,” he said.

Smith said the fire department immediately asked for a “hyper-reach” reverse 911 call to be made to residents of that area shortly after 6 a.m. to advise them to evacuate.

“Within that five-minute time period there wasn’t even time for the calls to begin by the time the order was put in. We immediately told people to remain in their homes instead of evacuate at that point, until they could be rescued safely,” Smith said. “We had some uniformed police officers who made access with Ms. Healy, they did speak with her, and they did move some personal property, but along with her and her neighbors they discussed the need to stay in their homes. They had been through some high-water incidents before …. but they never, never expected it to do what it did.”

Thomas said police believe Healy’s home was washed away with her inside it sometime between 6:15 and 7 a.m.

He said witnesses have been interviewed about the incident, but he isn’t certain if a more exact time for when the trailer was washed away has yet been established.

“The fire department was [dispatched to the scene] at 6 a.m., I was called at 7 a.m. when one of my officers advised that he was trapped at the end of Abbott Street. I was there 15 minutes later and by then the house had been washed away,” he said.

County and village officials conducted a news conference Saturday to update information from Friday’s flood disaster and the search for Healy.

Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Adam Schwabrow said the flood did significant damage to about 70 buildings in Fort Plain. A Red Cross disaster relief shelter was set up at Harry Hoag Elementary School and it provided overnight housing for 109 people Friday night. The number of people using the shelter fluctuated Saturday as some residents attempted to return to their homes, dipping down to 23 people but then rising back to 45 by mid-day as it became apparent that some homes were too damaged to be reoccupied immediately.

The clean-up effort was well underway in Fort Plain on Saturday. All throughout the flooded areas of the village, mudcaked debris lined the sidewalks as volunteers and professional emergency personal worked together with buckets and shovels and electric pumps to remove thick muddy water from basements.

Thomas said New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Rangers as well as state police K-9 units and volunteer fire department officials have been searching the banks of the Mohawk River and Otsquago Creek for any debris from Healy’s double-wide trailer. He said there’s no way of telling how far the home may have traveled down the river.

“We’re not going to suspend the search, we’re going to continue the efforts in our area and as the days progress we’re going to continue to widen it,” Thomas said. “We’ve requested assistance down-river from other agencies in the state to inform them we have somebody who is missing. At this point, we have no other indication that anyone else is missing. Most of the residents, we’ve been able to ascertain where they’re at.”

Mike Sheely, grandson of Ethel Healy, said he is hoping officials can find his grandmother’s remains before they are pushed as far down river as Yonkers. He said Healy was a lifelong resident of Fort Plain who had experienced many floods of the Otsquago Creek in the past.

“She was probably the healthiest 87-year-old woman you’ve ever seen. She was at my recent wedding up and dancing. We did not expect her to go out this way, we were prepared for her to reach 100 years of age,” he said. “She actually called my aunt to come help her during this flood but she couldn’t because the water had risen too high. This has happened numerous times before, a couple of floods had been bad and she’d been evacuated before.”

Schwabrow said New York State Emergency Management officials surveyed the village Saturday and determined there was enough damage to meet federal requirements for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send assessment teams to the area on Monday.

Minden Supervisor Thomas Quackenbush said his experience with the June 28, 2006, flood of the Mohawk River, exactly seven years before Friday’s disaster, has convinced him that people should be skeptical of the availability of FEMA aid or promises made by state or federal officials to help the area.

“This Otsquago Creek has been a problem that the federal and state government has known about, at least since I was mayor in 1997, but long before that, and they have failed to help us,” he said. “It just floods continually, not this significant, but those homes along that creek have lost land for decades. They just refuse to come in and help us. Every year we’ve had land erosion. A solution would be for them to bring in the aid that we need – the structural engineers who could determine what has to be done and then help us fund it.”

Schwabrow said officials are monitoring the potential for torrential rains Monday.

“People in low-lying areas and flood-prone areas need to be vigilant of the water. If the need arises – and we feel evacuation is necessary – we’ll evacuate the people,” he said.

A mandatory evacuation of the Abbott Street area was issued by Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton Saturday night, as well as an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. village curfew.