Schenectady County

Irene, one month later: Recovery in Rotterdam Junction slow, uncertain

In Rotterdam Junction, many of the homes along Main Street remain vacant a month after massive flood

In Rotterdam Junction, many of the homes along Main Street remain vacant a month after massive flooding scattered the close-knit community and shuttered a number of its small businesses.

The worst-hit areas are desolate. About a dozen homes along Isabella Street and Scrafford Lane are uninhabitable and will likely be demolished, their interiors stricken with unhealthy amounts of black mold.

Damage figures compiled by the Rotterdam Public Works Department are bleak: 52 homes sustained damage up to the first floor, while 32 others were flooded up to the second floor.

Only 13 homes in the hamlet have been deemed livable. There is no activity at 10 homes, meaning the owners may have decided to walk away from the properties altogether.

Flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee wreaked havoc on many areas near the Mohawk River. Floodwaters washed through Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood and through Scotia’s Collins Park.

Upstream, debris choked the state Canal Corp.’s moveable dams from the river’s confluence with the Schoharie Creek in Montgomery County down to Waterford in Saratoga County. But Rotterdam Junction was particularly hard hit by the flood’s fury.

Emotional torrent

For many of the hamlet’s displaced residents, the shock and despair left by the flood has slowly been replaced by frustration. Many of the worst-affected homeowners were living on shoestring budgets before the flood wrecked their homes and ruined most of their possessions.

Yet there’s also a growing resolve to recover from the disaster, a resolve bolstered by the steady procession of volunteers who have helped cart away ruined belongings, rip down water-logged drywall and tear up damaged floors.

Rotterdam has issued 25 building permits for properties in Rotterdam Junction since the flood. More are coming in every day, said Pat Carroll, the town’s building inspector.

“We do know they’re out there working,” he said. “Is it possible for them to recover? Yes.”

The question now is at what cost. Many of the residents didn’t have flood insurance or at least not enough to cover damages ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It was an act of God,” shrugged Mary Lou Remillard. “And he’s not paying either.”

The 72-year-old Main Street resident wants to return to Rotterdam Junction, where she’s lived for more than five decades. But she has no idea how much the repairs to her home will cost or whether she’ll be able to afford them.”

“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I always told my kids they’d be carrying me out of this place.”

Further down Main Street, 80-year-old Doris Slager was spending her first week back in her home in about three weeks. She considers herself lucky: the floodwater came only a couple of feet into her home.

Slager has her doubts about the hamlet’s recovery. She pointed to a neighbor’s darkened home across the street as a sign of looming decline; nobody has been back to the badly damaged residence since the flood.

“It’s good to be back because I feel like I have more control over my life, but there’s much more to be done,” she paused. “So much more.”

Lessons learned

Others have shifted their recovery efforts to helping prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. For Randy Karl, a Rotterdam Junction fire commissioner and resident of Isabella Street, there’s nothing else to do until he determines what kind of money he’ll get to demolish his home.

Like others in the low-lying neighborhood near the old Erie Canal basin, Karl’s home remained submerged in the fetid flood water for nearly a week. He’s still pumping more than an inch of water a day out of his cellar, and black mold has infested his home. He’s bracing for it to be a total loss.

So Karl has turned his attention to advocacy. He’s lobbying the state Department of Transportation to elevate a flood-prone section of Route 5S so that residents will always have an evacuation route out of the hamlet when the Route 103 bridge over the Mohawk is shut down.

Karl is also demanding that state and county officials investigate the poor drainage situation in the areas south of Route 5S, an area that includes an old channel of the Mohawk, the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, a railroad bed and the remnants of the historic Eric Canal. Four beaver dams along this area created large basins of water, which only compounded the flooding in the worst-hit areas of the hamlet.

All our photos

From the farms of Schoharie County to the streets of the Stockade, our photographers captured the flooding in dozens of photos you can see by clicking HERE

“There’s been years of neglect regarding the drainage,” he said.

The flooding in Rotterdam Junction was worse than elsewhere along the Mohawk largely because of the blockages at Lock 9. Though considered a 100-year flood, the event from Irene inundated parts of Rotterdam Junction’s 500-year flood plain because the debris-choked dam at the lock caused the river to jump back into its historic channel, said Alan Springett, a senior engineer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Because we can’t identify how much debris is going to be attracted to the dam at any one time and because [the moveable dam gates] are taken out for a period of the winter, we do not have a model of the obstructed flow,” he said.

Disastrous forecast

After the weather predictions about Irene’s heavy rains, the county Emergency Operations Center only evacuated the areas listed in the Mohawk’s 100-year flood plain. County spokesman Joe McQueen said areas outside the 100-year-flood plain — such as Lock Street and Isabella Street — didn’t appear in jeopardy until it was too late.

“In every other municipality, the flooding did mimic the 100-year flood plain in the maps,” he said. “Rotterdam Junction is the only area where it didn’t.”

Advance notice helped Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood prepare for Irene and Lee. The Stockade was ordered evacuated on Sunday, which gave residents some time to prepare for the coming flood.

North Street resident Jim Duggan had enough time to move most of his important belongings to higher ground. He raised his refrigerator and stove onto borrowed sawhorses before leaving his home the day before the floodwater began encroaching.

“We took deliberate pains to prepare,” he said. “This was so foreseeable that it was just a question of where the actual flood surge would hit.”

In the end, he had about two feet of water in his first floor, which was enough to rack up a repair bill he’s still tallying. With help from his family, he’s pulled out the sheet rock from around the high-water line, replaced his damaged hot-water heater and rebuilt several brick support columns in his basement.

“We’re still drying out though,” he said, “We’ve got three high-capacity dehumidifiers going on in here and they don’t shut down.”

What rankles Duggan, a Stockade resident of more than four decades, is that he believes the damage caused by the flooding was largely preventable both in the Stockade and further upstream in Rotterdam Junction. He pointed to the blockages caused by the Vischer Ferry hydroelectric dam near Lock 7 and those presented when the upstream locks become choked with debris. He faulted the state agencies with regulatory power along the Mohawk for not creating an action plan to reduce flooding.

“We’ve fallen through the cracks decade after decade and no one has risen to the challenge to say this is preventable,” he said.

Troubled figures

The flooding also revealed that some of the instrumentation used to monitor the river is no longer functioning property. Valerie Ackerman, a Stockade resident and member of the Stockade Association’s board, said meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Albany suspected the U.S. Geological Service gauge was wrong, but finally showed it during the flooding associated with Lee.

“It was reporting numbers almost four feet lower than they actually were,” she said.

Ackerman, who wasn’t affected by the flood, is also spearheading relief efforts in the neighborhood. She said nearly all of the residents displaced by the flooding have returned, but few have started rebuilding because they’re still trying to dry out.

Some of the neighborhood’s elderly residents still haven’t gutted their homes to a point where they can be restored, something that is creating a growing concern with Ackerman. Others aren’t exactly sure how they’ll pay for the repairs.

“Even if people have insurance and FEMA assistance, no one is going to have enough money to put their houses back together.”

Across the river in Scotia, Jumpin’ Jacks owner Mark Lansing is still in the process of sorting out the damage to his seasonal restaurant left by the flooding. The buildings and cabanas were under five feet of water at the apex of flooding, which left a silty film over all of its equipment.

“You have to clean everything two or three times,” he said.

Lansing often contends with flooding, but was still left astonished by the power of the Mohawk. He found some of the restaurant’s picnic tables lodged in the trees of Collins Park.

“It’s a reality check,” he said. “It shows you the power of the river.”

The state’s canal system is also slowly recovering since the flood. Canal Corp.n spokesman R.W. Groneman said workers are trying to replace the tons of earth that was scoured away from around the moveable dams and are still optimistic about reopening for a brief period after Thanksgiving.

Getting the canal open is expected to cost about $20 million, which will be paid for through the agency’s bonded reserve. But the full repair cost won’t be known for some time.

“That number is still being evaluated,” Groneman said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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