At morning stops to a family-owned restaurant, a Main Street hardware store in Middleburgh and a church-turned-volunteer-center in Schoharie, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko saw the hope in a struggling valley.
He observed shops up and running again, production resuming at The Harva Co., a plastic fabrication company in Schoharie, and business owners whose resolve hasn’t wavered in the face of massive rehabilitation following record flooding in the valley last summer.
The image of a Schoharie Valley getting back on its feet gradually shifted Saturday at a town hall meeting, however, to that of an area still stagnant, still scorned and still stressed to the brink.
“I always knew I represented a strong people,” Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said to a packed auditorium at Schoharie High School, “but until the occurrence of these ravaging storms, I didn’t understand just how deep-rooted that strength is. You are remarkable people, and I’m blessed to represent you in Washington.”
He was there to gauge ongoing flood recovery efforts, take concerns back to the House floor, find solutions where he could and let the community know they don’t have to do it alone. When residents were given a microphone and a platform, they did not hold back.
Trish Nelson said she had no reason to play nice anymore. The Esperance resident bemoaned the weeks upon weeks she waited for FEMA to respond to an appeal after she was denied assistance because of miscommunication between the federal agency and her mortgage company.
“I’m homeless now with two children, and we’d like to move forward,” Nelson said. “My family is suffering. This little boy right here, he has nowhere to live, and when the phone rings, he keeps asking, ‘Was it good news?’ and I don’t have any for him.”
Nelson lost her home on Junction Road after Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters tore through the valley. She prepared documentation that explains why she believes FEMA’s original denial was wrong, but lamented Saturday that she has been kept waiting in agony for a reply.
FEMA representative Sue Carlson said she wasn’t aware Nelson hadn’t been given a response and agreed to put a timetable to her appeal request. But by the end of Nelson’s emotionally charged outpouring, Carlson was struggling to hide her own tears.
Frustration was palpable during the second hour of the meeting, as longtime valley residents used the opportunity to air grievances, most notably with their insurance companies. Nicole Molesky has flood insurance, but if anything, it just makes her “one of the poor saps,” she said.
After years of paying for the policy, she said her insurance company gave her a check for a little more than half of what her home was worth. She can’t move back, since it was red-tagged after Irene as uninhabitable.
Her parents’ home, situated behind hers on Route 20 between Sloansville and Esperance, was completely submerged by flood waters. When an insurance person arrived to inspect the damage, they said that because the home had been converted to a doublewide years ago, the company wouldn’t be able to compensate them fully.
“Where is the justice?” Molesky demanded. “This is ridiculous that they are getting away with this. They have our money that we’ve been paying on these policies for years. And we were denied FEMA aid because we have the flood insurance. I hope they rot in hell, that’s what they deserve. And all they can tell me is to get a lawyer.”
But she doesn’t have money for one, and she said others in her same situation don’t, either. They used up any disposable income and savings to try to get life back to normal, she said.
“I had nothing left after the flood,” she said. “I had to go to Walmart in my pajamas the next day to buy underwear for my family. I’m just like everybody else in this room with flood insurance. I met a person yesterday who bought a house on Main Street in Schoharie, and she said, ‘But I have flood insurance,’ and I laughed in her face and said, ‘Good luck, read the fine print.’ ”
The Schoharie United Presbyterian Church will soon be hosting scheduled hearings for people to share their insurance woes, said Rev. Bebb Stone, interim pastor of the church. She urged Tonko to support the church’s efforts to bring as many insurance company representatives to the hearings as possible.
flood of stories
The stories of struggle did not stop coming. Audience members peppered the panel of FEMA, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives with questions ranging from amending tax returns to claim disaster losses, where to find grants for multi-unit homes, debris removal fees, potential dredging of the Schoharie Creek and whether the Army Corps of Engineers could survey changing creek beds in the area.
Panel members helped with answers to some of the technicalities the community has faced since the floods, while Tonko took notes of some of the broader concerns he wanted to bring back to Washington.
Earlier this week, his office announced $41.7 million in flood assistance to New York state from the USDA for cleanup efforts on damaged farms and debris-clogged waterways. A reason for his tour of the Schoharie Valley on Saturday was to better understand what residents are facing, he said, as funds begin flowing into communities.
“This aid is something for which we had to fight long and hard,” said Tonko. “It’s a sickening thought and a draining thought, but there were those in Washington who tried to play politics with the aid — aid that we desperately need to rebuild the agriculture in this region. And I fought for those dollars as a counterforce against those who wanted to simply cut at a time when they weren’t paying attention to the pain and loss that was being lived here in Schoharie.”
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