On May 13, 2014, when a total of five to nine inches of rain fell in just three hours in Penn Yan, the result was a flash flood. Swelling Jacob’s and Sucker Brooks surged into the village. The first calls for power lines down came in at 8:54 p.m. Flood-caused damages could take years to completely repair.
“Penn Yan was flooded badly in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes, but that event was anticipated, and the rain came down for days. Plus I was only six years old during Agnes,” said Brendt Bodine, director of public works of the village of Penn Yan. Brendt quickly became the de facto manager of the disaster, which was responded to not only by his department, but by the county, the county’s Office of Emergency Management, the fire department, law enforcement, Mennonite neighbors, various church groups, and even college students who mobilized to help clean up the wreckage.
Penn Yan (thought to be shorthand for “Pennsylvania Yankees”), with a population of 2,500, is surrounded by steep hills and located at the bottom of a natural, bowl-shaped, commercially strategic location with an outlet to Keuka Lake and access to Seneca Lake.
Unforgivably, just a little more than two days later on May 16, just as people had dealt with their losses, another heavy rain fell, and the water rose in the village once again.
For the first storm, which came without any warning, Brendt was caught unaware of the havoc that he would still be confronting months after the water receded. Debris quickly clogged storm sewers and uprooted drainage pipes, roads washed out, and basements flooded, taking out hot water heaters and furnaces in at least 250 homes. Fifteen houses were quickly condemned.
“It was around 10 p.m. when I got a call to go out. At the end of my driveway you could have ridden a kayak down the street. I get downtown and there are dumpsters floating by. Tanker trucks are floating. I knew we were in trouble. I called in the crew (five men including Brendt) and said there is nothing we can do right now but try to keep people safe,” he said. They worked relentlessly on the first flood from 10 p.m. until 8 p.m. the next night.
Don Rapalee, who has been street supervisor in the village since 2009, got the call about the same time as Brendt. He said of the village’s 400 catch basins, “They were plugging up and major flooding was taking place. Certain basins are always trouble spots so we went there first, but the force of the water made us stop until it diminished in force. You have to let it do what it is going to do.” Given enough time, assessment efforts will lead to a recovery plan.
The water continued to flow, leaving behind its ugly stains on walls and oozing, heavy mud. Brendt said he worked throughout the night doing assessment patrols, mostly on foot and armed with a flashlight. He said the water was rising so quickly that he had to constantly be aware of his surroundings.
“We had infrastructure (mostly electric poles) that were in danger of falling into the waterways. We had to shore them back up. We back-filled them after putting the poles back up straight as a temporary repair. For a more permanent solution we will be creating a box culvert around them. We had debris-blocking supports for the trestle pedestrian bridge, which was choking water from the outlet. The following day, at 8 a.m. we got another wave of rain.”
Brendt said they used two excavators to get the debris from beneath the trestle bridge to open up the flow. Fortunately, a level of gravel had been deposited nearby, creating a natural shoal for staging the heavy equipment. He said it took about two weeks to open up all the streets, but there are still lots of repairs left to do.
“A lot of shoulder work, sidewalks, and one wall on a stone culvert arch under the street,” he said. “Structurally it is OK, but the sidewalk fell off.”
Brendt described roads covered with debris, logs, gravel, and stone that needed to be opened up immediately for safety’s sake, if only just one lane. Initially the village was cut off from the east side because of high water in Jacob’s Brook. Firemen were positioned on that side of town in case of emergencies and to aid in sandbagging and help pump out basements. Outside the village, plenty of drainage pipes were dug up and driveways were completely washed out — leaving residents stranded, either at home or unable to get back in. The television media from Rochester swarmed the town looking for a good story.
On the private sector, Birkett Mills, built in the 1800s to take advantage of water power, had one wall in the boiler room blown out from the flood. Many homes are still uninhabitable. Some automobiles were crushed. Even inside the ever-popular Wagner Restaurant, where the waitresses are known to serve customers almost as fast as the drive-through windows at a franchise, the water was several feet deep. A trucking company headquartered in the village had truck cabs underwater and cargo floating in some trailers. Depending on the insurance coverage, the company may not be back in business again.
Two months later, one street is still cordoned off because they had to cut out all the pavement at an intersection because a storm sewer blew. That street in places is reduced to its historic red brick surface and requires repairs with back-filling and new asphalt. Several more electric poles started to lean dangerously, which required concrete blocks to be put into place and major back-filling. In time, Brendt said, they will make more permanent repairs with box culverts around the poles.
The expense to the village to date is $2.5 million. County-wide the damage was estimated at $28.9 million.
Calling in the DOT and Office of Emergency Management
Bill McNamara, civil engineer with the DOT, headquartered near Painted Post, has dealt with other flash floods in Steuben and Broome Counties as well as other places. His attendance in Penn Yan this spring lasted about six days. Bill took part in daily meetings with Brendt and the Yates County Office of Emergency Management. People who participated felt that the daily personnel meetings immediately following the storms were instrumental in quickly getting the village back on track even as culverts were being washed out and storm sewers swelled.
Bringing order to chaos became the new normal here.
“This was a test,” said one person involved in the recovery efforts. “You can’t really practice or have drills for this kind of stuff.”
After about a week of face-to-face meetings with township and village officials, the fire department, law enforcement, church agencies, DPW, DOT, and emergency management, everyone involved gradually returned to telephone and email to keep in touch.
“Communication was a big part of it. We pitch in and help our neighbors. That’s what we have always done here,” said one lifelong resident on the team.
Bill McNamara described his initial reaction: “You never know what is happening right in front of you until the water recedes.”
In this instance the water diminished and then came right back up again during a second storm just two days after the first event. Despite lots of scouring in the ditches, the state roads held up “pretty well,” he said. As for tips, he said it helps to have people on board with many “life experiences,” adding, “We worked really well together. You probably couldn’t have planned for it because of the size of the event.”
It is a point of pride with everyone involved that no one was seriously injured or died. The storm began on a Tuesday, and by the following Monday, school was back in session again after all the streets were open.
Diane Caves is the deputy director of the Yates County Office of Emergency Management, which is headquartered in Penn Yan. Diane was in a meeting at the fire hall in nearby Branchport when she was called in for the flood. By the time she drove to Penn Yan in 10 inches of water, the debris was beginning to block the culverts, and water was going to other places and causing erosion as it swept through. Diane, her boss Brian Winslow, and others spent the entire night fielding phone calls. Dispatchers received approximately 1,000 telephone calls during the first 36 hours of the original event, while 911 recorded 2,000 calls.
Diane clearly remembers one senior who broke down in tears saying she and her husband, who uses an oxygen canister, were doing OK cleaning up after the big storm until the second storm put a tree through the basement window and completely flooded their living space.
Months later, code enforcement officials are still determining which buildings are still uninhabitable.
“These things tugged at your heart,” said Diane. “Being part of the response was really empowering by coordinating and meeting those human needs.”
Then Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, who coincidentally owns property on Keuka Lake, came to Penn Yan in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He managed to secure grant money up to $10,000 for homeowners and up to $25,000 for businesses who apply for it. In July, the village received federal disaster funding to help in its recovery.
Mennonites are a big part of life in Penn Yan, living high above the village on farms they work with horses. Since they couldn’t work their fields because they were under water, the Mennonite community was well equipped with manpower to help others hurt by the floods. Diane described their efforts as “working like a bee hive,” as they took a list of things to do and quickly checked each chore off the list. Another group that was invaluable on the private side of things was a Methodist ministry called The Living Well. These folks organized all the volunteers, which included lots of college students. If people needed food, clothing, and supplies, The Living Well met those needs, no questions asked. The Salvation Army also had a food truck on site to support the rescue workers.
Brian Winslow heads emergency services in Yates County. As a retired full-time deputy sheriff (still part-time) and current volunteer fire chief, he can handle a crisis, or he thought he could. He probably never imagined having to order an 18-wheeler full of traffic cones or using prisoners to help fill sand bags. “Everybody,” he said, “was caring and concerned.”
“These storms that hit us were not predicted. Sharing services was a big help. Dundee, for one, had a brand new inflatable boat they had coincidentally acquired that week. They inflated it that night and had to take some people out of the second floor of their homes,” Brian said.
How Brendt Came to Be Director of DPW
Brendt has deep roots in Penn Yan. He was born here and married a woman he met in junior high school. Also very active in the fire department, Brendt trained as an EMT for 10 years, five of which were as a paramedic, which helped him assess the flood’s quickly moving situation. He said watching his neighbors suffer during the flood caused him significant personal pain. Brendt became an assistant in the DPW in 2009 and became director in February 2010.
While in college he earned a degree in electrical engineering from Gannon University in Erie, Pa., and worked in that field for several years.
“I really like the diversity of this job. For most of my career the focus has been on the electrical side. This job has given me the opportunity to learn more about electric, but also about streets, water, and waste water. It has also taught me how to work with people, including employees and the public.”
He said his background as an engineer helps immensely in directing the multitude of DPW assignments and being the go-to guy for approximately 50 employees.
Once upon a time a favorite uncle once sat in his seat. Wes Ryder ran the DPW for many years. His photograph sits not far from the desk where Wes himself once directed public works.
On the master plan for Penn Yan are several initiatives to bring the town closer to its lakefront on Keuka Lake. Long an active place for boat building (remember Penn Yan boats?) and pleasure boating, Keuka Lake was once used a lot to transport goods, which was often easier than using pioneer-built roads. Now we know that any water-centered development leads to increased activity, especially for tourism, which is one of upstate’s emerging mega-trends to sweeten the state’s bottom line.
“We are working toward improving the access from the lake to downtown along the outlet that connects Keuka and Seneca Lakes. On the waterfront there is a developer looking to put in 30 condominiums and a four-story hotel with 75 rooms. The property was acquired by Yates County; it used to be Penn Yan Boats.”
As the project progresses, Brendt and various crews will be putting in sewer lines and doing street rebuilds and resurfacing. “Before the flood,” he said, “we already had $2.5 million in improvements to do. Penn Yan has 26 total lanes miles of streets (what are called roads in the country are called streets in a village) and follows a paving plan. The village’s street budget is a million dollars. CHIPS is responsible for $100,000. The village’s entire DPW budget is $700,000.
Streets — Twenty-Six Lane Miles of Them
Are the streets in good shape?
“Depends on who you are talking to,” Brendt said. “We have an approach. We don’t like to put a new top on a road unless the infrastructure beneath it is good. There are plenty of roads that even before the flood weren’t in good shape in terms of infrastructure. For example, we have one street that needs to be repaired, but it has a four-inch water line beneath it with lots of breaks. We do have a block grant in the works to improve it with the water main replaced. Until then we wedge it, and top it, and patch it. A lot of potholes have been filled in, but it takes money and time to resurface. Overall I’d like to say we take a proactive approach to our streets.”
“The flood kind of sucker punched us. It accelerated the damage on streets that we hoped would last a lot longer because of all that water washing over the top of them.”
Penn Yan’s street crew includes a foreman and five heavy-equipment operators.
“One thing I am proud of,” Brendt said, “is leveraging the NYS Office of General Services for a purchasing price on new trucks. When the resale value is just below the purchase price of a new one (roughly three years) we trade it in for a new one.”
The situation is not as rosy in the sweeper department.
“We were hurting for a sweeper,” he said. A new 159,600 Ravl is expected in time for fall's falling leaves. They are also replacing a bucket truck. Two material handlers, an aerial bucket truck and a larger truck, are destined for the electric crew.
He cited the comparative ease of replacing a pickup truck, which is less complicated than heavy equipment, where the number of hours and market changes largely determine the cost of replacement. He uses information from department heads about the replacement cycle. The payloaders and Bobcats are replaced annually.
In addition to being responsible for an older active cemetery, his department also maintains two lakefront parks and some other smaller, well-used neighborhood parks. He said he just closed a grant for $300,000 to rebuild one of the waterfront parks.
“We replaced the bath house and completely redid the parking lot.” He said the old bath house was run down and located right near the road; it blocked the view of the lake.
The crew helps groom a five-mile-long nature trail, favored by walkers and bikers, along an old railroad bed from Penn Yan to Dresden. He said much of it was asphalt but he eventually used some grant money to mill it and turn it into a cinder trail while repaving the path closest to the village and boat launch. He explained that tree roots continually pushed up the asphalt, causing a nuisance and a potentially dangerous situation. They also care for two wooden-decked pedestrian bridges that are part of the nature trail.
For routine communication they use cell phones and radios.
“I wish we used radios exclusively. Cell phones can be very frustrating in an emergency situation.”
The crises caused by flooding also helped him further appreciate the value of shared services for manpower and equipment and cites Yates County and the towns and villages of Milo, Jerusalem, Torrey, Barrington, and Potter as being especially supportive.
Every village and town is being asked to work with fewer people. An office staff of 10 helps run Brendt’s well-oiled department. Those workers, in addition to being personally involved, are often part of the matrix that unfolds as rescue operations are assigned to somebody’s budget. For example, when additional dumpsters were requested, whose budget was going to pay for them? During emergencies it is easy to lose track. Everybody involved in this disaster has been told to hang on to every piece of paper the emergency generates.
As for electric, Penn Yan has municipal electric, and DPW services 3,300 electric meters. The peak load in winter is about 20- to 21-megawatts. Penn Yan’s water plant, also run by the DPW, takes its water from Keuka Lake.
Because the sewer system is old, Brendt said it needs “tender loving care.” A year ago, the village did a house-to-house home inspection for possible violations. When they found homeowners pumping water (for example from sump pumps) into the sewer system (which is illegal to do), the residents got a letter mandating that they fix the situation. He said the homeowners were taught how to reroute the water to the storm sewer system mainly through catch basins in the roads if necessary because it can cause lots of problems if the treatment plant is taxed over capacity, especially during a rain event. His current chart of the entire village is color coded to show properties that were inspected and re-inspected following the mandate.
“The message was conveyed very well,” he said. “It reduced a problem and delayed the need to upgrade a plant to treat what is basically rain water at an additional cost to the residents.”
A Quiet-Spoken Family Man
Brendt described his family as “a very wonderful family. My wife is a great lady.”
Brendt’s wife, Tracy, whom he met in junior high school, is a physician’s assistant in an OB/GYN practice. He has two sons and a daughter who was born in China. Brendt and Tracy spent 14 days in China to receive their one-year-old daughter, now age 10. He calls her a whipper-snapper. Their oldest son has moved on to a job in California, where he works for IBM.
If Brendt has a hobby other than an occasional golf game and some hunting and fishing, it is puttering around the house.
Following Flood Waters
Even two months after the flood, the water’s devastation continues to wreak havoc. In Penn Yan, one of the hardest-hit commercial buildings was the Owl’s Nest, an old one built along what was then a boat basin. Just 24 hours before the Owl’s Nest was due for total demolition, it collapsed and fell into Seneca Street, taking two light poles with it.
“I was pretty flabbergasted,” Brendt said. “It just collapsed due to all the water I had seen surging through it.”
The electric wires were live.
“The first step is to get everything de-energized. We got the wires grounded. We got the debris cleaned up and the wires disconnected. Then we reset new poles.”
The building fell around 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. By Sunday morning, he said, they had the street back up and working. “That was a long night,” he said.
“It has hurt to see people I’ve known all my life have their lives disrupted by the floods. For a lot of them this is all they know. And when the weather starts getting colder I am worried we will see basically homeless people taking shelter in buildings that have been condemned. I still get nervous when they say it is going to rain.”
About the Village Penn Yan
Sucker Brook and Jacob’s Brook, which flow south through the village and empty into the Keuka Lake outlet, were the principal sources of recent flooding in Penn Yan. Both brooks, and the power they once generated, were the main reason the village was established where it lies today.
It was the reports of Indian attacks that caused George Washington and Congress to send General John Sullivan and 5,000 men to central New York in 1779 to rout the Native Americans. Soldiers burned and pillaged Indian settlements from Elmira (then called Newton) to the shores of Seneca Lake. Following a well-worn tale here in upstate, soldiers returning from that assault were quick to come back to make their homes in this rich and beautiful land. The government encouraged their settlements as a buffer against British encroachment.
Penn Yan remains an iconic upstate village. At least 210 structures on 65 acres helped determine the village’s national historic status. Rife with important 19th- and 20th-century buildings that represent ecclesiastical, commercial, industrial, and residential uses, Penn Yan exudes charm. The noted architecture dating from 1820 to 1929 reflect Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Romanesque, Eastlake, Queen Anne, Georgian Revival, and Neoclassical architecture, spanning almost 200 years of building styles.
One inspired local builder did such a distinctive job creating summer-breeze-catching porches with elaborate scrolled brackets, colonnettes, and round or ogee arches, that the structures became known as the Penn Yan porch.
One building right on Main Street, Birkett Mills, is one of the largest active historic mills in the country. Their buckwheat pancake mix is widely available in grocery stores and on the Internet.
Many commercial buildings made from brick reflect the many brickyards that once were located in or near the village. The use of this fireproof material helped spare this part of the village from the fires that ravaged other structures in 1831.
Land agents Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham bought the original land from the Indians of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in 1788. The purchase was for more than two million acres of land between Lake Ontario and Pennsylvania west of the pre-emption line, which ran north-south slightly west of Seneca Lake.
The first individual landowner in the area that is now Penn Yan was George Wheeler, whose purchase in 1791 encompassed what is now the village. Water power was always critical to settlement. Lewis Birdsall built the first saw mill in 1792. Other pioneers built mills along both sides of the outlet. The Keuka Outlet, a seven-mile channel of water connecting Keuka and Seneca Lakes, harnessed power for many mills, distilleries, asheries, and tanneries. The manufacture of paper, linseed oil, wool products, wagons, and carriages all contributed a pioneer success story.
The creation of the Crooked Lake Canal (its name describing the Y-shape of Keuka Lake), completed in 1833, represented a high-water mark of achievement for the village. With 27 locks to facilitate a dramatic drop of 269 feet over an eight-mile length, the canal supported economic growth by linking Penn Yan and Dresden. The canal, in operation for 40 years, was abandoned in 1877. Railroads quickly obtained rights of way along the outlet—now transformed into the same nature trail so popular with outdoor enthusiasts today.
Roads paved the way to more development. Abraham Wagener, who built the area’s first frame house in 1800, was instrumental in surveying and constructing a highway from Canandaigua to Elmira. The road came through Penn Yan, and a post office was stationed in Wagener’s homestead. He also laid out Main Street and in 1823 donated two acres of land for the county buildings. That same year Yates County was formally organized by an act of the New York State Legislature and incorporated in 1833. The village is still the county seat, resulting in a more robust downtown than some other villages of the same size.
Timbers continued to be raised to build mills along the outlet while the commercial sections of the village grew thanks to its proximity to a popular stagecoach route. Because of its prime location on a major north-south trade route that connected cities on the eastern seaboard to the interior of central and northern New York state, the village thrived.
Today Penn Yan lies primarily in the town of Milo, with a small section in the town of Benton, and a still smaller section in the town of Jerusalem.
Among many notable pioneers were the followers of Jemima Wilkinson, a religious enthusiast from Rhode Island who led a group called the Society of Universal Friends. Jemima is known as the first American-born woman to found a religious group. Following General Sullivan’s trail in 1788, she and her followers first settled in Torrey, and due to land disputes, two years later they settled a large tract of land in Jerusalem. In 1794 after more land disputes, she again moved her community and founded the village of Hopeton at the outlet of Keuka Lake. Jemima gathered her flock there until her death in 1819, and gradually the community disbanded.
The name Penn Yan is said to come from “Pennsylvania Yankee,” reflecting the origins of the village’s earliest settlers — Pennsylvania and New England (Yankees). More recent arrivals, beginning around 1974, have been a steady influx of Mennonite and Amish seeking inexpensive but productive farmland. Their homes are easily spotted by the enormous amounts of laundry on complicated clotheslines and the buggies parked in the driveways. Always industrious, these farmers were instrumental in bailing out their neighbors following the recent floods.
Boat enthusiasts may also recognize the village’s name in the Penn Yan Boat Company founded by Charles A. Herman in 1921. They continued to manufacture boats on the outlet until 2001.
Wild grapes have always thrived in abundance here. Viticulture (grapes and wine) has long been an important part of the agricultural landscape. At first the market was table grapes, carried to market by boat and rail. In the 1860s the Seneca Lake and Wine Company got the area started in making commercially available wine. In addition to thousands of acres of grapes surrounding the hillsides, which makes this an exceptionally picturesque place to visit, more small wineries with visitor shops and restaurants are opening every year.
In order to ship grapes, another business took hold — basket manufacturing. To protect perishable fruit, the Hopkins Brothers founded the first basket factory in 1866. The growth of the grape industry also sparked the number of commercial boats on the lakes.
Today, both the wine industry and the lovely waters of Keuka continue to please visitors and summer residents who help to just about double the population in summer and fall. Among the village notables of national stature are three U.S. congressmen, an NFL running back, and a Wisconsin state assemblyman.