Irene, one month later: Schoharie students, teachers learn to live again after floods

For the teachers and staff who have a full grasp on the devastation left in Schoharie after Hurrican

They live in two separate, incredibly distinct worlds.

In one is the normalcy that students and teachers at Schoharie Elementary School have always known: a morning’s recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, multiplication tables, science lessons, lining up for recess, socializing with friends and coworkers they haven’t seen all summer.

In the other world is a painful reality check. The last bell rings and some kids ride the bus home. Some ride the bus to a trailer park in Esperance, where parents wait to pick them up and transport them to their temporary living quarters.

For the teachers and staff who have a full grasp on the devastation left in Schoharie after Hurricane Irene, the school day provides a dream-like respite.

Fourth-grade teaching assistant Bonnie Lewis can’t do the things she used to in the mornings before school. Her house was destroyed, her belongings gone. She can’t take the dogs out to play, or check her email, or even put on the same housecoat she always used to.

“So nothing in my life is normal,” Lewis said. “But coming to work is normal. Seeing the kids is normal. They hug me, they’re happy. If they’re not, I’m not either. But I’m right there with them.”

For the 433 kids at the elementary school, who range in age from 4 to 12, seeing their teachers and friends is normal, too. They’re the most resilient of those affected by the extensive flooding that inundated Schoharie County, said special education teacher Ellen Langwig.

Schoharie school officials estimate there are 142 to 145 displaced students in a district of more than 900 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The kids don’t have to worry about the details their parents do: applying for FEMA aid, saving receipts, meeting with assessors, potential for mold growth — the list seems endless.

“I feel like this is a very good place for them to be,” Langwig said. “And when I’m here, I can forget a lot of these things. But as soon as I get off of work, I change my clothes. I go down to my husband’s office and I scrub or I spray or I take down sheetrock.” Her husband’s Grand Street law office was damaged by the flood, as were many offices, businesses and homes in the town of Schoharie.

Kids perspective

As the height of pumpkin season approaches, fourth-grade teacher Debbie Schaffer is working around the clock when she’s not in school on her pumpkin farm, which lost its entire crop.

From the front of her classroom, she can’t tell which kids lost homes or belongings and which didn’t based solely on their behavior or mood.

“They’re very resilient,” Schaffer said. “I think that losing everything to a kid is not the same as losing everything to an adult. I think that things to them aren’t as important. Their parents have it under control and are taking care of things so that they’re not worried.”

As Schaffer taught her fourth graders the difference between inherited and acquired traits during Tuesday’s science lesson, 9-year-old Sally Stanton frequently piped up, eager as ever to answer questions.

Her family’s house no longer stands in Central Bridge, just off Smith Road. The floods demolished it, washing away her piggy bank that held $273 she has been saving since she was 3.

“We didn’t go back to the house until a few days ago,” Stanton said. “My dad told me because he was there just when the water was getting into the house. But I didn’t know that my house was not going to be there any more. I knew it was going to get flooded, because it’s flooded already twice since I was born. So I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s OK. It’s just another flood.’ ”

Stanton’s not too young to appreciate community outpourings and good will, though.

She and her sister were amazed to find five bags of clothes and three boxes of school supplies sitting at the door of the Canajoharie home where they’re temporarily living.

She shows off a brand new shirt someone donated, a salmon-colored top that almost matches her strawberry blonde hair. She points to her sneakers, brown with pink, green and blue glittery stripes.

“These shoes went through the flood,” Stanton said. “You can tell because some of the mud is still on there. But I just cleaned them this morning.”

Same but different

Hannah Cater couldn’t wait for school to start this year, two days before her 9th birthday. Her Sloansville home was carried by floodwaters down Route 20 and a giant hole now allows for a view right into her former bedroom.

“I was so excited because school was going to start soon,” said Cater. “But then my mom was like, ‘No, it’s not going to start. They delayed it because of the flood.’”

The start of the school year was delayed three days because of Hurricane Irene flooding. Though Schoharie Elementary School sits at the top of a slight hill on Academy Drive, it suffered flooding and needed to be cleaned before kids could use the buildings.

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

Village police and offices now occupy empty classrooms in the school, and its auditorium is filled with flood relief supplies.

But inside Schaffer’s fourth-grade classroom there are no signs of the flood. Students’ backpacks, coats and lunch boxes line a cubby area. The whiteboard features a Problem of the Day and the Day’s Assignment. And the kids sit antsy at their arranged desks, raising their hands higher than their classmates in hopes of being called on first.

“This is part of my routine,” said Lewis, who woke up feeling sick Tuesday. “My daughter said, ‘Call in, Mom. Call in and I won’t have to worry about you.’ But I came to work for a half day because to get a little bit of my routine back makes me feel good.”

Every day a new hurdle presents itself for the teachers and staff. Some are big, some are small.

Langwig needed cheese the other day and ended up driving out to Middleburgh to get some. She also gets gas there because there isn’t any in town anymore.

Lewis has to record everything she spends FEMA money on, she said, if she wants to qualify for any other types of aid. But she needs silverware, plates, pots, towels and sheets now, not after her paperwork goes through.

She spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to listen to the voicemail on her cell phone, which she only used sporadically before the flood but is her lifeline now.

On school days, things can return to normal. And because she always went home on her lunch break before the flood, she continues to go home, even though she rents a small apartment that allows dogs on Route 20 now. She sits outside where her home once was and she pretends to have a picnic.

“I went home for lunch for over 18 years to feed my dogs and let them out to go potty and to put on a new hat for the afternoon,” she said. “So I still do that, because that’s normal and I need normal. Even though my dogs aren’t there and my house isn’t there, just the garage. I still do it because it’s part of being normal.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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