The Hurricane That Flooded Ithaca

25 08 2011

Hurricane Agnes (1972). Image property of NOAA.

Ithaca weather is generally known for cool-season events (blizzards, ice storms and the like). I figured that with the current panic attack starting to set in on the East Coast regarding the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene, this entry is rather timely. Plus, most of my department is having a collective weather-gasm that makes doing work next to impossible (quoting one faculty member, “The Weather Channel has entered [for a disaster-addicted public] total ass-kissing mode”).

Anyways, Ithaca had actually seen some tropical-born activity over the years. I phrase it that way because typically, the storm has weakened into a remnant low or turned extratropical (i.e. becomes more like your standard cold-core mid-latitude low-pressure storm system) by the time the cyclone has passed into and over the region. Hurricane Hazel in 1954, for instance, passed over as an extratropical system with winds still at hurricane strength, but because the Allegheny Mountains wrung out most of the moisture from the east side of the storm, the region was mostly spared (Toronto was not so lucky). Wikipedia identifies 84 tropical cyclones that have impacted the state of New York, and as you might imagine, the majority of these have affected New York City and Long Island.

Reasonably, when a storm transitions to an extratropical state, it doesn’t just stop raining. Occasionally, if the conditions are favorable (i.e. moist environment and perhaps some topographical effects coming into play), the rain can be heavy and prolonged, resulting in flooding. This is exactly what happened with Hurricane Agnes.

Hurricane Agnes was the first named storm of the 1972 hurricane season. As a tropical cyclone, Agnes wasn’t particularly special; about the most unusual thing was that it was a June hurricane, a bit early in the year since the first hurricane isn’t usually until early August. Agnes formed off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and moved directly north through the gulf, strengthening into a Category 1 storm with sustained 1-minute winds of 85 mph. The TC (tropical cyclone) made landfall over the Florida Panhandle, moved northeast into Georgia while weakening into a tropical depression, and then passed over the Atlantic and redeveloped into a tropical storm before swinging back west and making a second landfall near New York City with 70 mph winds. Agnes merged with a non-tropical low on the 23rd, and this system impacted the region until it finally moved out late on the 25th.

This was a very dangerous combination. The combined system had large amounts of tropical moisture from Agnes, and was slow moving thanks to the non-tropical low. Therefore, rains of 6-12″ occurred over 2 days, with the highest recording at 19″. In perspective, imagine getting three months of your region’s normal rainfall in two days. The resulting flooding for Pennsylvania and New York was disastrous. In Pennsylvania, 50 lives were lost and $2 billion in damage (1972 dollars) was incurred. The governor had to flee his flooding mansion and downtown Wilkes-Barre was under nine feet of water.

As for New York, the hardest-hit areas were a swath from Olean east to Elmira and Corning. In Elmira, the raging Chemung River destroyed or badly damaged most of the downtown area. One of Elmira’s big industries was railroads and railcars, but the railways were washed out by the storm and the bill for repairs was so high that the railroad companies opted for bankruptcy instead. In my own experience, talking with the older Elmira locals, they say the city never quite recovered from the “Flood of ’72”. In Ithaca, where the rainfall came out to about 7 inches, several bridges in the city and in nearby Brooktondale were washed out and the low-lying areas near several of the local streams were flooded. The lake level also rose enough to flood and damage the facilities at Stewart Park. Thankfully, Cornell and IC were out for the summer, and neither sustained major damage.

Image property of TompkinsREADY

The final toll in New York was 24 deaths and $700 million in damage (1972 dollars). Keep in mind, Ithaca has had worse floods, in 1857 and 1935. But neither one of those had tropical influence.

So, Ithaca is far from the action of the tropics, but not necessarily immune to the passage of tropical cyclones. As for Irene, Ithaca will be on the edge of the circulation at worst, it’s simply too far to the west and under the “protection” of a short-wave trough. But if I were at Weill Cornell, I would be very concerned right now.

News Tidbits 8/22/11: Kappa Delta’s Swanky Renovation

22 08 2011

It would be nice to live in Ithaca, but since I don’t, I increasingly find about construction projects from word-of-mouth rather than investigating on my own. In correspondence with “BB” from the Milstein Hall entry, he briefly mentioned that he’d take some photos of KD’s renovation project.

It piqued my curiosity because that was the first time I had ever heard about it. My first thought was that it may not have been an immense piece of work because I hadn’t seen anything in the planning board minutes from the city. But, I decided to quickly check online to see if there was anything special about this construction project.

I barely recognized the house.

Here’s the before photo, from my own archives (dated July 16, 2008).

Here’s an after image from a construction blog on their website:

It’s a pitifully small photo, but I’ll rectify that when I take a photo at Homecoming. Note that the west wall (right side) visible in the before image is now the front entrance.

The most substantial change is the construction of a generous wrap-around porch from Sisson Place onto Triphammer Road. The construction itself isn’t expanding the structure much, about 800 sq. ft on the first floor (based off what my strained eyes can pull from the elevations image at top). But the exterior reclad with an emphasis on a traditional appearance does wonders for what was arguably one of the more rundown-looking sorority houses on campus, creating a more graceful, less bunker-like presence. According to the webpage, the renovation cost is around $400,000.

Regarding the comment on the webpage about Triphammer Road being the original entrance location, I don’t have any verification of that, but it is quite likely. KD moved to its current location around 1923 and underwent several renovations/expansions in the years since.

In terms of exterior alteration, this is probably one of the most substantial changes since Sigma Pi built a new house in the mid-1990s. I must admit that the final result looks impressive.

Exploring Milstein Hall

16 08 2011

So, fortunately for me, I’m not the only person out there who has an interest in Cornell construction projects. By good fortune, I happened to receive a series of emails from a newly minted Cornell graduate, “BB”, who took the time and opportunity to explore the nearly complete Milstein Hall and pass along some photos to this blog. For that I am thankful, as my trips to Ithaca have become fewer and further between. While I am glad for the photos, I’m still going to push the token disclaimers that I do not encourage or condone the exploration of unfinished buildings, due to a safety risk and legal concerns with trespassing. Also, while he is kind enough to share the photos here, they are his property, with all associated rights and privileges. I would encourage those that want to use his photos to contact him directly.

For those who wish they could answer nature’s call while on a spaceship…

They’re not even stalls. They’re more like bathroom pods.

I’m looking at this photo, and immediately, “The Imperial March” pops into my head.

Cornell’s Rapidly Evolving Late-Night Scene

8 08 2011

This entry was inspired by the latest set of news, that Johnny O’s is closed. This follows the news that Dino’s closed earlier this summer, reducing the number of bars and primary drinking establishments to four. While it seems there’s enough interest in the property that a desolate Ctown won’t be an issue, the article raised a very good point about late-night activities that I think bears a little bit of thought:

For many Cornell students and alumni, the closure of another bar in Collegetown prompted concerns about late-night life at Cornell.

“What is happening to the bar scene in Collegetown?” said Cara Sprunk ’10, a former Sun writer.

Lee Moskowitz ‘13 said that Dino’s and Johnny O’s “probably held about 300 people each, so now you’ve got 600 people going to about four bars, instead of six, and those bars were already crowded to begin with.”


Lee Moskowitz has a very valid argument. Fewer bars would seem like a good thing on the surface (less noise and rowdiness), except that that isn’t going to deter the large percentage of older students who want to party it up in the evening. I can vouch from my own experience that even when there were six bars, it was not uncommon to wait in line outside to get in, because the bars were absolutely packed. Less bars means longer lines, and eventually people are going to give up and just do more house parties to compensate (especially considering the tighter restriction on the Greek system’s parties). I firmly believe that it’s a naive notion that student drinking would somehow decrease.

While there’s no problem with house parties per se, the issue lies with the fact that while bars and Greek houses have formal regulations that they’re expected to follow, house parties don’t. If the hosts and servers aren’t careful, that can go a couple of unfortunate ways – an IPD free-for-all for citations and fines, and/or a greater risk to partygoers.

With any hope, Cornell’s new pub in the Ivy Room will open as scheduled in the fall. But elsewise, late-night life at Cornell seems to be heading in a less regulated direction, and is going to be a much bigger issue.

Cornell’s Geneva Campus

6 08 2011

So, when we think of Cornell’s campus, most people think of Ithaca. Occasionally, someone also might mention the medical school down in New York City. But in the ag school, asking the right person, might result in an unexpected response – Geneva, New York. Geneva is a small city of about 13,000 located about 50 NNW of Ithaca, on the northern end of Seneca Lake, and although most folks could not care less about the community, it does have some importance for the university thanks to the presence of the Geneva Lab.

The formal name of the Geneva campus is the “New York State Agricultural Experiment Station“, often referred to as the Geneva Lab for short. It also started off as a rival to Cornell, at least when it came to research grants. The Geneva Lab was started in June 1880 thanks to state funding, although Cornell had sought the funding from the state (Bishop 223). The lab started off with a staff of seven scientists. After the Hatch Act provided further funding for agricultural experiment stations in 1887, the competition created between the two created tense relations throughout the turn of the century. To is credit, Cornell had their own experiment station since 1879, but it sorely lacked funding (keep in mind this was during a time when the ag school had an almighty 50 students, give or take a few each year). Thanks to increased state and federal funding with the second Morrill Act, state appropriations, and the Smith-Hughes Bill, money became easier to obtain, and relations had improved enough by WWI that Cornell professors routinely exchanged with researchers at Geneva for various ag-related projects (Bishop 440).
By 1923, the state authorized the Geneva research station to be placed under Cornell’s control. At this point, the two were basically working together on most everything and trying to avoid redundancies in administration, so by 1920 they were already informally affiliated. The Geneva station had a staff of 55 and hundreds of acres would benefit the ag school’s research, while taking advantage of Cornell connection, including the Cooperative Extension program.

More funding started coming Cornell and Geneva’s way with the Purnell Act in 1925, which led to Cornell-owned ag research facilities in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island, near Riverhead (Bishop 477).  The Geneva facility’s research shifted from helping farmers produce good crops, to making better products, such as making pears disease-resistant, new apple varieties, and working with Birdseye Foods on better quick-freezing techniques for vegetables. By 1940, the researchers at Geneva were made faculty in the ag college.lastly, animal-related research was shifted over to the Ithaca campus at the end of WWII, leaving the Geneva lab to strictly plant-based work.

Today, the Geneva campus comprises 20 buildings (623,000 sq ft), 870 acres, and about 300 faculty, staff and grad students. Most of the work done these days is the development of improved food safety and storage techniques and genetic enhancement of crops to create more productive or tolerant varieties. The four programs shared between the two campuses (which were merged as a post-recession cost-cutting measure last year) are Entomology, Food Science, Horticulture and Plant Pathology.

In summary, Cornell has a large presence in upstate New York, and it’s not just in Ithaca. So, maybe the proposal for the new school on Roosevelt Island in NYC isn’t all that unusual for Ezra’s research university.