Tragedy, triumph over Irene recalled
ROTTERDAM JUNCTION Claudia Nilsen occasionally dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she recalled the events.
Late last August, a wall of floodwater from the Mohawk River blasted through the foundation of her mother’s small, white cape house on Main Street in Rotterdam Junction. With help from donations, her family was finally able to finish repairs about two weeks ago, allowing Shirley DeLuca to spend her first night in the home since Tropical Storm Irene hit.
Some of those who lived through the disaster watched a 17-minute documentary about the flood and recovery effort Wednesday. Even a year later, the images were tough to handle.
“I can still smell the mud — and then seeing these pictures … ” Nilsen said, her voice trailing off.
Nathan Mandager, coordinator of the Flood Recovery Coalition, cautioned that the documentary could bring back memories that many had hoped to forget.
“If this tears off a scab of emotions, let it bleed a little bit,” he told a standing-room-only crowd that gathered to watch the film at the Mabee Farm Historic Site. “Talk to each other about it.”
The Mabee Farm overflowed with emotions throughout the afternoon and early evening, as the first anniversary of the flood was recognized by survivors and the volunteers who helped them on the path to recovery. They smiled, traded stories and exchanged embraces on a cloudless day that seemed eerily similar to the one in late August last year that changed so many lives.
Inside the George E. Franchere Education Center, pictures and maps of the destruction were on display; outside on the farm, hundreds of people celebrated the triumphant return of the Rotterdam Junction and Pattersonville — neighboring hamlets that suffered the brunt of Schenectady County’s part of the disaster.
Dave and Kathie McKeon recalled fleeing their Pattersonville home with only their toothbrushes and a computer after floodwater burst through their cellar door early on Aug. 29. Both expected some flooding, but neither thought it would chase them from their home for more than a year.
“We went to the Pattersonville Fire Department, and we just sort of hung there in a state of shock,” Kathie McKeon recalled.
Everything in their basement was gone — yearbooks, pictures and memorabilia of a lifetime. More than 4 feet of water swept through the first floor of their log home.
For months, the McKeons lived at their rug store on Main Street, at times debating whether it was worth returning to the badly damaged home. But as time passed and the volunteer effort gained steam, the couple found themselves with renewed faith.
Random people gave them gift cards and donations to get them back on their feet. Volunteers showed up at their home unexpectedly with a Christmas tree, decorations and wrapped presents so they could enjoy their holidays.
Today, the McKeons — featured in the documentary — are hoping to have their home livable by Thanksgiving. Until then, they’re staying in a rental home they restored on their 30-acre property and continue to marvel at how the two hamlets have bounced back.
“When I look back, it’s nothing short of a miracle,” David McKeon said.
Rotterdam police Lt. Tom Culbert vividly recalled the moments before the major surge from the Mohawk struck Rotterdam Junction. He was guiding traffic across the Route 103 bridge crossing the surging river at Lock 9.
At the time, the bridge was one of the only ways out of the hamlet, since floodwater had left parts of Route 5S impassable. Meanwhile, the bridge and adjacent dam structure were getting pummeled by large debris washing down the river.
The bridge and moveable dam structure were badly battered by the storm but held. The abutment leading up to the bridge collapsed into the river a week later, however, when Tropical Storm Lee struck.
“I was floored,” Culbert said of the devastation left by the storms.
Rotterdam Junction Fire Chief Shawn Taylor remembered being at Woestina Elementary School when the surge he described as a “massive wall of water” washed down Main Street. The sight left him torn, knowing the hamlet was facing certain destruction and understanding he needed to brace for the recovery effort ahead.
“We had a front row seat,” he said. “A full image right there — an unobstructed view of total disaster.”
The scars left by the flooding haven’t vanished. Some are still fighting to return to their homes, while others have moved elsewhere.
Dave Orologio didn’t leave Rotterdam Junction, but he’ll probably never return to his home on Isabella Street, an area where the floodwater was nearly 14 feet deep. He used his federal assistance to put a down payment on a new home on Bradt Street, but still misses the quiet seclusion of his former residence, a structure that was condemned and then stripped of its copper by thieves.
Still, Orologio tries to stay upbeat about the flood recovery. He watched the hundreds of people gathered at the farm and praised them for their resilience, their hard work and, above all, their ability to come together as a community.
“I still miss the place, and I always will,” he said, “but the people and the recovery effort has been great.”