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2011: The year of Irene

Saturday, December 31, 2011
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The Western Gateway Bridge cuts through the rain-swollen Mohawk River between Scotia, bottom, and Schenectady.
The Western Gateway Bridge cuts through the rain-swollen Mohawk River between Scotia, bottom, and Schenectady.

— When Tropical Storm Irene hit last August, floodwater from the Schoharie Creek smashed a large log through the storefront of Conglomerate in downtown Middleburgh and then carried away countless items from the eclectic gift shop.

Days later, owner Patty Eddy-Beal was gutting her devastated shop when a friend stopped by with a peculiar find. Apparently, the raging Schoharie washed away an 11-inch ceramic bowl from the store and then carried it nearly a half-mile before gently depositing the piece intact beneath the woman’s deck.

The friend knew it was from Eddy-Beal’s store because she recognized the still-legible handwriting on the price tag. The bowl quickly became a conversation piece when she opened a temporary storefront in October. Within a few days, the bowl was sold.

Eddy-Beal marvels about how the bowl survived the massive devastation left by Tropical Storm Irene and the improbability of it landing in the hands of someone she knew. But in the aftermath of the late-summer flooding, she now says nothing seems all that far-fetched.

“It’s been awful and incredible at the same time,” she said Thursday. “But there’s a long way to go to repair everything.”

Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused incalculable damage throughout Schoharie Valley and among communities near the Mohawk River, making the late-summer flooding clearly the most significant news event of 2011. Some areas of the Catskills received more than 13 inches of rain during the late-August storm, which rapidly turned docile creeks into untamed waterways.

Parts of the Schoharie Creek swelled to roughly a mile in width in a matter of hours, causing untold damage to the communities near its banks. The neighboring villages of Schoharie and Middleburgh were left coated in a thick layer of oil-laden silt.

Outlying homes that weren’t structurally compromised by the flood were left uninhabitable, their contents ruined by toxic porridge swept in by the creek at the peak of the flooding.

Debris carried on the raging Schoharie plowed into the equally flooded Mohawk, forming massive blockages at the Erie Canal locks and other structures spanning the river. These blockages caused the river to course out of its channel into one that it hadn’t traversed in more than five centuries.

Houses, cars, cows

The damage left by the storm left more than physical destruction. Many flood victims were traumatized by the devastation; an entire home was swept downstream into a bridge abutment far away from its foundation; vehicles were tossed around like Matchbox cars; dead cattle were left rotting in a sunbaked field where they were haphazardly pitched when the water finally receded.

In some areas, the water never did recede on its own. In Rotterdam Junction, the flood from Irene left a bowl-like neighborhood submerged for nearly a week until the toxic water could be pumped away.

The still-reeling creek and riverside communities were slowly starting to clean up when another storm struck less than a week later. Tropical Storm Lee didn’t pack nearly the wallop, but still wore upon the badly frayed nerves of flood victims and the emergency responders desperately trying to help them recover.

Schoharie County bore the brunt of the disaster, but riverside areas in Montgomery County and Schenectady County also were significantly damaged.

In addition to homes, roads and farm fields, the floods hit historic structures hard. The Blenheim Covered Bridge over the Schoharie was swept away; built it 1855, it was considered the longest single-span wooden bridge in the world. There was also significant damage at Amsterdam’s Guy Park Manor, a Revolutionary War-era residence that housed the Walter Elwood Museum; the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter; Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood and the Old Fort Johnson Historic Landmark in Fort Johnson.

Flooding swept away a 300-foot swath of roadway leading up to the already battered Route 103 bridge on the Glenville side of the Mohawk, cutting off all utilities to Rotterdam Junction and closing one of only three ways into the hamlet.

Along the Erie Canal, the havoc was dramatic. Roughly $31.6 million in damages were sustained at five locks, forcing the state Canal Corporation to close a 50-mile stretch of the Erie from late August until Thanksgiving.

“It was a historic flood,” said R.W. Groneman, a spokesman for the Canal Corp. “There was a lot of water coming at one time.”

Thousands volunteer

But with the flooding came an unprecedented response from people watching and reading about the devastation in the media. In the weeks that followed the storms, thousands of emergency responders and volunteers descended upon the rural valley to a lend a hand.

Some helped gut the ruined structures, while others brought food and donations to power the recovery effort forward. Flood victims credit this sense of community for giving them the fortitude to power forward through the recovery process.

Chris Wilkens, a Central Bridge resident whose home along the Schoharie was inundated by more than four feet of flood water, said a stranger pulled into his driveway about a month after the flood. She handed him an envelope with $500 cash and then drove off. She never game him her name.

Several weeks later, a group of teachers from the Schoharie Central School District showed up at his doorstep. Over the course of several days, they insulated the entire first floor of his home, which had been gutted down to its studs after the flood.

“This is the way the whole story has been going,” he said. “The whole attitude of the community has changed.”

Across the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency registered more than 44,000 people for disaster aid from Irene and an additional 16,000 from Lee. The agency has already distributed more than $271 million in disaster aid from the storms.

Spokesman Peter Lembessis said the storms represent the largest, most-extensive disaster New York has seen in modern history. And while the recovery process is under way, he said there’s a long way to go before any of the affected communities return to normal.

“We’ll be here for a long period of time,” he said.

Both Schoharie and Middleburgh remain badly pockmarked by the disaster. Both villages are filled with badly damaged homes, empty storefronts and an increasing number of properties bearing for-sale signs.

Boarded-up businesses

The Grand Union that once served as the only supermarket between the two villages remains closed. A bold sign on the storefront offers it for sale or lease and the inside remains gutted.

Farther down Route 30, the Mill Farm Flower Shoppe and Greenhouse remains empty. On a front window, someone painted a warning to interlopers: “shooter waiting for looters.”

Across the street, the Turtle Rock Cafe remains boarded up with plywood. The floodwater blasted out an entire wall of the building, which is just a short distance away from several vacant residences.

At the Schoharie Free Library, Director Cathy Caiazzo continues to make strides toward reopening. The library lost more than 5,000 volumes of books, all of its computers and most of its furniture.

Fans continue to whir inside because there’s an indication that the building is still wet. Restoring the drywall, repairing building’s damaged wires and replacing its duct work are all jobs Caiazzo will have to wait to complete due to a scarcity of labor.

“You have to wait your turn in line,” she said.

At night, the village has an eerie feel. Most homeowners are still living elsewhere, meaning the downtown is generally darkened.

“A lot of people have left the village because there’s no place to live,” she said. “At night, it’s spooky because there aren’t a lot of lights.”

Yet few seem ready or willing to abandon hope. For some, the flooding created an unbridled resolve to recover and a renewed sense of pride in the community stemming from its resilience.

“We could have taken it on the chin and said we’re done or we’re beaten, but we haven’t,” said Esperance Supervisor Earl Van Wormer III. “There’s still a lot to be done but I think we’re going to continue moving forward.”

 
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