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Irene: Funeral homes part of flood recovery efforts

Sunday, April 29, 2012
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Mike Langan discusses items damaged but salvaged at the Langan Funeral Home in Schoharie after Tropical Storm Irene caused massive flooding in the village.
Mike Langan discusses items damaged but salvaged at the Langan Funeral Home in Schoharie after Tropical Storm Irene caused massive flooding in the village.

— Like churches, school buildings, taverns and libraries, funeral homes are important in villages and towns. And in the Northeast, many are situated where these early communities were built — along creeks and rivers.

Schoharie County lost two of its funeral homes to flooding in August and September. More than seven months after the Schoharie Creek inundated the villages of Middleburgh and Schoharie, one is still out of commission, the other is in operation.

The Palmer & Shaylor Funeral Home on River Street alongside the creek in Middleburgh should be back in operation in May, and the Langan Funeral Home on Main Street in Schoharie is again serving families.

Directors of both funeral homes said there was little discussion about whether to rebuild — communities need their funeral homes.

People seldom talk about funerals or funeral homes until the sad time when they have to prepare to bury their loved ones. But these facilities are as much a part of a small community as the local corner store, hardware store and tavern, said Mike Langan who, with his wife, Julie, owns the Langan Funeral Home in Schoharie.

“How can I walk away? It’s a small part of a bigger picture,” Langan said.

Floodwaters didn’t spare furniture in the chapel, nor carpeting, heating and air conditioning systems. But Langan, just a few hours before his exit was cut off by floodwater, saved the home’s fleet of funeral vehicles and the hearse by driving them uphill.

After roughly six months of work and help from family and volunteers, the Langan Funeral Home began serving the community again in March.

Recovery is about 90 percent complete, Langan said from behind a makeshift office where he’s using a card table for a desk.

Pointing to four file drawers sitting on the floor in the office, Langan said he never gave rebuilding a second thought. Those files represent hundreds of members in the community who have pre-arranged services they want to be held in their hometowns.

“I’ve got to provide a place in the community,” Langan said.

There’s a second Langan Funeral Home site at 195 N. Main St. in Central Bridge, and the Langans also run the Robert A. Guffin Funeral Home in Cobleskill. The two other sites helped the Langans continue to serve Schoharie residents, although not in their hometowns.

Rebuilding the Schoharie home wasn’t easy. The home didn’t have flood insurance, but Langan said that after hearing the difficulties people with flood insurance had, he wasn’t sure he regretted not having it.

Dire warning

Still vivid in his memory is the last-minute phone call Langan made to a friend in the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Department who told him water levels at the Gilboa Dam were massive compared with the flood of 1996.

Langan recalls officials bringing two people who died in that flood to his funeral home — so he got out as the only exit from the village, Prospect Street, began to flood.

He remembers friends pulling apart the flood-soaked, cherry wainscot he’d built by hand inside the funeral home. They washed it, dried it and put it back in its place.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of help from family, volunteers and friends. People that took time off from their own jobs,” Langan said.

He got some furniture from a friend in another funeral home who’d helped furnish the Main Street facility back in 1983 when the Langans took ownership. “It’s funeral directors helping funeral directors,” Langan said.

The interior had to be gutted, then fitted with new carpeting, trim, windows, light fixtures. The chapel was overhauled and the preparation room was completely rebuilt.

Julie Langan is making new window dressings; she made the ones destroyed in the flood too.

Mike Langan said members of the community have noticed all the work. “People so far have said it’s absolutely beautiful. That’s the finest compliment you can get after 71⁄2 months of what we’ve been through,” he said.

Like other structures being rebuilt in the flooded Schoharie Valley, the Langan Funeral Home has a new, heating system Langan said is “super efficient.” That will help with costs, he said, because the flooding put the business in debt, despite a $25,000 grant from National Grid and $30,000 from the state.

“Every little bit helps but we’re way, way short,” Langan said.

Help from association

The New York State Funeral Directors Association saw six of its member funeral homes severely damaged in the storms triggered by tropical storms Irene and Lee, spokeswoman Rana Huber said.

The destruction prompted the member agency to offer $1,000 to help each one, and the association’s Directors Choice Credit Union established low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to help.

“They’ve endured a lot during the last eight months,” Huber said. “It doesn’t go a long way, but it goes to show how they’re thinking about the other members. It’s a token of support.”

Many funeral homes unaffected by the flooding offered unused or extra equipment.

“One funeral director had tons of equipment available to donate. The biggest thing I would say about our members is funeral services is definitely a family and we help our own,” Huber said.

Richard and Janet Putnam waited for months to learn whether they’d get money through their flood insurance to rebuild the Palmer & Shaylor Funeral Home, which was flooded when the Schoharie Creek rose across Route 30 in the hard-hit village of Middleburgh.

They finally got it a few weeks ago, and recently the funeral home was getting new windows. Contractors were pulling plywood off an entrance that was boarded up for months and the family had rebuilt the facility up to sheetrock.

More work remains, but the Putnams have a bit of an advantage: their son Austin, owner of Putnam Construction Services. Austin Putnam and his crew installed doors and windows recently while his parents took stock in what the flood didn’t claim.

They lost two houses they owned not far from the funeral home; both have since been demolished.

They’ve were able to salvage three out of a dozen monuments stored on the site. The others were tipped over, scratched up and chipped by pieces of the village that flowed downstream during the flood.

Call to service

The family also owns a funeral home in Cobleskill, making it possible to continue serving local families.

“We tried hard not to inconvenience the families,” Richard Putnam said.

They all understood.

“A couple of them were walking right in our shoes,” Janet Putnam said of flood victims who were also contending with the death of loved-one.

Cleanup was made easier with the help of volunteers and residents concerned as much with the funeral home as other businesses. Volunteers’ determination to help, Richard Putnam said, was “the one thing that kept us going.”

“They want their church, they want their local businesses,” Janet Putnam said.

It took Tropical Storm Irene’s wrath to destroy the funeral home — it’s been sitting near the creek for four different floods and the water never made it into the facility before.

Most of the home burned to the ground in a 1977 fire that hit a year after the late Joseph Spink, Janet Putnam’s father, took it over.

Spink, a longtime Schoharie County coroner, sealed windows and other gaps with monument caulking any time he’d hear high water was coming. It must have worked: the funeral home survived three earlier floods where water got up to the site but not into the building.

The funeral home is getting improvements with the rebuild. The family took out some walls, opening up space. They’re making the bathrooms handicap accessible — one of the requirements for rebuilding includes following guidelines from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and local zoning codes.

The old boiler has been replaced with one that’s smaller, more efficient and runs on natural gas rather than heating oil. There’s a new hot water system and plumbing, and added spray-foam insulation will help improve efficiency too.

As the reconstruction winds down to final details, like choosing paint colors, Janet Putnam said it’s difficult to think back to what they saw in August 2011. They also didn’t want to discuss the difficult claims process that stalled the start of reconstruction.

Putnam said tasks that would have been simple before, like buying furniture, remain difficult. They’ve made six trips to different furniture stores. “We’re having a hard time with it, just because we aren’t mentally there yet.”

 
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