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From ruin to recovery: One year after tropical storms Irene and Lee (with videos)

Sunday, August 26, 2012
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Dianna Waldron, left, gets a hug from neighbors Jodi Barnes and Nicole Barnes, 5, in front of what was left of Waldron Farms in Middleburgh on Sept. 3, 2011. The Waldrons lost their home, two barns and a car.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Dianna Waldron, left, gets a hug from neighbors Jodi Barnes and Nicole Barnes, 5, in front of what was left of Waldron Farms in Middleburgh on Sept. 3, 2011. The Waldrons lost their home, two barns and a car.

Shirley Malik was admiring one of her new flowers on a hot August afternoon, taking stock of what she had.

A new American flag floated in the breeze, as the Schoharie Creek which claimed her home on Priddle Road a year ago flowed gently in the background.

Malik, 76, is one of few who remain in the neighborhood where she once lived year-round, tucked away in a creekside valley beneath hills of the town of Esperance.

She was happy to be back home, but sad that it's a seasonal arrangement now.

More online

Stories from the Gazette's special section marking the one-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, along with coverage from the past year, click HERE.

Photographer Patrick Dodson and reporter David Lombardo produced three video documentaries that highlight some of the victims of the storm and their efforts to overcome the devastation. Those videos can be viewed on the Capital Region Scene blog by clicking HERE.

And there's a lot fewer people around.

Next to her property sits a mound of dirt and rubble left in the weeks after tropical storm Irene routed the entire neighborhood, destroying at least 20 structures.

She knows where many of the neighbors are.

One family moved to Florida. Another is living elsewhere but might be returning with a camper, another built another house farther up the hill.

A large parcel near Malik's has been vacated. The owner died in February so Malik is unsure what will become of the land.

Devastation on Priddle Road in Esperance is just one example of how massive flooding has changed the landscape in areas hit hard by last year's natural disasters .

And it's a small picture of the massive voids the disasters left in neighborhoods, in school and government budgets and in the minds of people for whom the year 2011 will remain a lasting memory.

As if to announce bad times were ahead, an earthquake rattled the East Coast days before tropical rainfall, vicious winds and then massive flooding shut out the lights, upended homes and schools and local economies and put first-responders and emergency officials to the test.

It was an emergency that required rescuers to pull dozens of people out of Rotterdam Junction by boat in Schenectady County, while others were delivering food and supplies by helicopter in the Schoharie Valley.

Farmers and their friends were rescuing cows or hacking down trees to get milk to market over seasonal mountain passes.

Livestock were lost and fat cows on farms in some instances proved they could swim.

Hay, sitting in flooded fields and soaked by incessant rainfall, was catching on fire spontaneously, in some places destroying farm structures.

Looking back a year later, Schoharie County Sheriff Anthony Desmond recalls it as a time when first-responders, police and firefighters and the military were needed the most, and they arrived ready for the task.

The county's deputies worked long hours, he said.

"They did everything that was asked of them and they went above and beyond," Desmond said.

The day after the Schoharie Creek plunged onto Main Streets, bright orange barrels and pickup trucks with flashing lights blocked roads and bridges throughout the Schoharie Valley.

A sense of helplessness didn't get much time to take hold.

Desmond recalls one of the most heartening sights to many in the days that followed — big, camouflaged military vehicles rolling down the streets, filled with stone-faced soldiers ready to do anything asked of them.

It was a sight that helped settle the minds of many who wondered if their plight was known.

"Certainly I have to say that the National Guard was probably one of the best things to the county. I heard a lot of people saying ‘thank God the National Guard was here. They said in a way that they felt everything is going to be all right," Desmond said.

Stoic soldiers who came self-sufficient with their own food and water drove right into the epicenter of disaster zones.

Some drove construction equipment right into a raging creek to save a house, while others crawled beneath the Middleburgh school building to muck mud out of the crawl space.

Soldiers went about their work passing out emergency supplies, many welcoming a handshake and “thank you” with a smile and shrug that said they were simply doing their jobs.

PICKING UP

As hours turned into days, streets began to fill with six-foot-high mounds of furniture and personal possessions.

Structures filled with muck left behind by receding floodwaters were filled with a fishy aroma with a hint of fuel oil and sewage.

The devastation brought a stampede of help from volunteers ranging from next-door neighbors to people from New York towns with unfamiliar names.

Scenes of dust-filled streets and the sounds of ATVs and pickup trucks with people passing out water and doughnuts eventually turned quiet.

Empty lots in Schoharie and Middleburgh are all that remain of some homes that were torn down.

By mid-July, the Federal Emergency Managment Administraiton was anticipating federal assistance to exceed $1.3 billion throughout New York state communities affected by tropical storms Irene and Lee.

The storms prompted more than 13,000 repair projects in 37 counties. Roughly 111 families were provided housing, more than 33,000 people applied for assistance that yielded about $155 million for housing grants, help with rent or for repairs, according to FEMA.

A total of 743 claims for Disaster Unemployment Assistance cost more than $1.82 million and another $136.5 million in loans were approved for about 2,501 applications through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

More than 14,000 claims under the national Flood Insurance Program have been paid out — worth a whopping $417 million.

The emotional toll the disaster took on people also prompted a cash outlay — more than $7.1 million in FEMA grants for crisis counseling.

That toll was described succinctly by students at the Gilboa-Conesville school district in Schoharie and Greene counties that includes youth living in Prattsville, Greene County, some of whom described in their artwork the horrors of natural disaster.

Farmers have made strides to recover and turn last year's disaster into valuable crops and products, but they'll be paying off debt wrought by the storms into the future.

"Since last summer's storms, things are much better now," said Tom Della Rocco, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency offices covering Albany, Schenectady and Schoharie counties.

Dry, sunny weather made for a pretty good year in terms of farmers working to re-stock their supplies of hay for the winter.

"It's been one of the best years for haying in memory," Della Rocco said.

The dry weather made it easy to cut and bale the hay - the yields were "fairly good," he said.

"Stocks and reserves are being built up. Most actually planted more this year than typically they would because their stocks were depleted," he said.

But many had to purchase feed to replace that they'd lost, and that will cost them.

"That's a slower recovery. It will take more than one or two years to pay that additional debt load," Della Rocco said.

At the same time, feed prices have increased significantly, he said, putting extra pressure on dairy farmers' grain purchases.

Della Rocco said he's unaware of any farm put completely out of business by Irene and Lee.

"It's a pretty resilient and dedicated community. They don't give up easy."

SCARRED NEIGHBORHOODS

Subtle signs of the storms' damage are all over: neat squares of new pavement dot roadways like state Route 30 and others where repairs were made.

Other signs are more overt. A home teeters on the edge of the Line Creek in Middleburgh, trees hang precariously above the water.

"For Sale" signs are prominent along side streets and neighborhoods near the Schoharie Creek.

On some streets in Schoharie and Montgomery counties, some homes remain as they were after the flood — still displaying the massive holes left by raging water that tore through them.

For some people the year 2011 and changes the weather brought are unforgettable.

Mike Schalkham, 21, walked along Colyer Road in Burtonsville on his way to join friends cooling off in the Schoharie Creek on a hot Tuesday earlier this month.

He was walking toward an area hit hard when the creek overflowed.

An empty lot where a small house once stood sits alongside two houses that were all but submerged by the creek and left uninhabitable.

One of them belongs to his grandfather. There are plans to tear it down, he said.

It's a new view now, compared with the decades before.

"It definitely looks different and it will never look the way it did. Not a chance," said Schalkham, who’s 21.

Pockets of devastation like Burtonville in Montgomery County remain in other communities including Rotterdam Junction in Schenectady County and Central Bridge and Priddle Road in Schoharie County and others.

Tucked off of major roadways, they serve as less-overt signs of the scars left by tropical storms Irene and Lee.

The power of the weather of 2011 is perhaps most visible in the hamlet of Cranesville in Montgomery County just east of Amsterdam.

There, residents get the view of acres of shredded trees that look more like broccoli after a tornado touched down between Irene and Lee's visits.

Still visible from Cranesville is the southern shores of the Mohawk River — a view that features a moonscape left by the raging river in parkland once filled with grass and little cookers people used for hot dogs.

It also features a new pond left alongside Lock 10 where a green buoy floated around for months.

In some neighborhoods in Schoharie County, some lots still feature the distinctive look of the white, rectangular mobile homes the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent up to Cobleskill.

Some victims got their homes fixed up within the year and they've given the trailers back.

Seeds of thought about the need for organized rebuilding efforts blossomed first into localized efforts and then into a machine of disaster restoration like the Schoharie Area Long Term Recovery Inc. that's drawing people from all over into the valley to help put things back together.

It's work SALT director Sarah Goodrich believes will stretch out as many as five years or more.

Whether there's been lessons learned after the flood is unclear.

Many people no longer live where they used to.

They include even the financially-savvy who figured they were covering themselves by getting flood insurance when they didn't have to. People like Bill Cherry, Schoharie County's treasurer and flood recovery director.

After spending months in an apartment while working to get help from insurance, he's purchased a home in Cobleskill and put his historic house on Main Street in Schoharie up for sale.

"I think I'm probably in the majority in that people that lived here — and this is home — have found it just too tough to figure out how to come back," Cherry said.

"It's been a tough year, it's one that nobody's going to forget," Cherry said.

Many things have changed for Shirley Malik, who lived year-round in her tiny house on Priddle Road before the flood.

She was surrounded on both sides by neighbors in places that now hold empty lots where pieces of foundations and debris is gradually being covered by weeds.

The backyard that used to get mowed behind Malik's place isn't there anymore — that was claimed by the creek too.

But Malik said she's amazed at how many flowers came back on their own — especially since they were covered with a foot of silt and debris when the floodwaters receded.

Some of the birds she would feed year-round haven't returned, and she said she's unhappy she won't be able to feed them as she used to.

She expect to be living there in the winter.

The camper she got isn't fit for winter weather, so Malik will move when it gets cold.

She said it would be bad for the birds if they get used to a meal only to find nobody there to feed them during the cold season.

She's happy she had insurance because she can still enjoy her quaint spot by the Schoharie Creek, though only seasonally.

"I'm just glad I had what I had and I'm able to be where I want to be."

 
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