USGS, FEMA assessing Lake Ontario flooding impact

Jul 13, 2017

U.S. Geological Survey scientists are using drones, radar and water-pressure sensors to track the effects of flooding along the Lake Ontario shoreline to help emergency managers track and respond to historic levels of flooding.

USGS Research Oceanographer Chris Sherwood said the drones are equipped with a camera and GPS and they will use software to analyze stereo images to create detailed shoreline mapping.

"We fly in a lawnmower pattern so we get a lot of overlap between each image, and then we use stereo photography to make a 3D reconstruction of the surface," he said. "So they're pretty much as accurate as you can do up in the air and a lot more dense than you can do on the ground walking around with survey gear."

With Lake Ontario 30 inches above normal, scientists said New York state officials have not dealt with levels like this in a generation. So they are trying to equip leaders with the latest technology to improve their tracking and response efforts. Sherwood said the information gathered will be made public.

"Individual residents will be able to have a look at it and see how they're doing compared to their neighbors and see damage in the natural areas and stuff like that," he said. "The people who want to plan for the future and think about coastal protection can use the images to assess what kind of structures did well, what kind of structures didn't survive, that kind of thing."

Hydrologists from the USGS are also installing water-elevation measuring devices to determine the exact extent, depth and duration of the flooding.

USGS Surface Water Specialist William Coon said the data collected can be used to calibrate an operational model for releasing water at the Moses-Saunders dam near Massena.

"What that will do is let people know you know if we release X amount of water at Massena, how long will it take for the lake to drop an inch if we release this much water or not," Coon said. "Just that information in a model would be very insightful for a future - hopefully it won't happen again like this - but future flooding events along the lake."

He said that data then will be online and available to the public and emergency responders and the public so they can monitor for themselves what the lake is doing at the various points.

The Federal Emergency Management, through the state, is funding the research. Coon said they are working with FEMA to install 14 water-level sensors. The drones were used to map Braddock Bay and Sodus Bay.

This comes as FEMA is trying to determine whether a federal disaster declaration is warranted in the area impacted by this year's Lake Ontario-related flooding.