The crushing despair that washed through Rotterdam Junction after Tropical Storm Irene was no easy task.
Water surged through the small hamlet after the swollen Mohawk River burst over its southern bank. A storm surge from the river washed down Main Street, leaving some homes submerged in more than eight feet of fetid flood water in a matter of minutes.
Many residents fled just as the water poured in. Others had to be rescued from second-floor porches and windows.
In total, 91 homes were affected by the initial flooding. Residences in the low-lying areas of Isabella Street and Scrafford Lane remained underwater for nearly a week until firefighters could pump the excess into the old basin of the Erie Canal.
Then came Tropical Storm Lee. Though the Rotterdam Junction didn’t receive nearly the degree of flooding it did during Irene, Lee washed away a nearly 50-foot section of the already damaged Route 103 bridge over the Mohawk and compromised a utility line feeding the hamlet.
Rotterdam Junction looked like a war zone after the storms. Dazed residents stacked towering piles of their ruined possessions at the curb for trash pickup; some began gutting their homes while others simply walked away despondent.
During those first days, the anguish was palpable. Arnold and Camile Serpilio were rescued by their grandson, Matthew Torres, who swam through the floodwater to help them into a canoe from the second floor of their Lock Street residence.
“I tried to go back downstairs to get something and there was 10 feet of water,” the 73-year-old woman recalled earlier this month. “My refrigerator was floating in the bathroom.”
The Serpilios home was devastated. Everything had to be gutted down to the studs and two porches had to be demolished.
But with a steady procession of volunteers, the work went quick. Pretty soon, they were putting the finishing touches on the interior and telling them they’d be able to host the family’s Thanksgiving dinner at the restored home.
For Norman Torres, their son-in-law, the energy the volunteer effort brought to the home became infectious. Once his in-laws were settled again, he felt compelled to help others.
“Now you’ve got neighbors helping out neighbors,” he beamed. “Everybody is coming together to help out.”
Indeed, the progress of the volunteers has been extraordinary. So far, they’ve helped restore 57 homes across Schenectady County, with the bulk of them located in Rotterdam Junction.
In part, this success has come as a result of an organized effort among the volunteers. The so-called Flood Recovery Coalition for Schenectady County has served as an umbrella organization to unite the various charitable groups willing to aid the rebuilding effort.
The coalition embraced a multifaceted approach toward recovery, including case management to consult residents struggling to cope with the devastation and project teams able to coordinate the skilled volunteers helping them rebuild. The coalition has also helped generate a monumental amount of funding for the recovery effort, including roughly $280,000 in cash and more than $100,000 worth of in-kind donations.
Since the fall, Nathan Mandager has served as the coalition’s coordinator. He’s watched the volunteer effort grow hope within a hamlet that didn’t have much of it after the floodwaters receded.
“Since I’ve been here, I feel like the community has strengthened,” he said.
Torres echoes this sentiment with booming enthusiasm. The disabled veteran proudly points out the homes he’s helped restore throughout the hamlet and the ones that are nearing completion.
He stops at a brick home on Main Street, a one-story structure that was in the path of the water that rushed through the hamlet. Within three weeks, the 90-year-old woman who thought her home was damaged beyond repair will finally come home.
“From the darkness into the light,” he said proudly. “This tells you the story.”
The volunteer effort also builds on its successes. Able-bodied residents helped by the coalition are almost always willing to lend a hand whenever they can.
Main Street homeowner Lisa Squires is one of them, now helping Torres install floors in the flood-damaged homes. She still gets emotional when she recalls what her house looked like after the flood washed through it.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was so horrible,” she said,
With volunteer help, Squires was able to dig out. And when a contractor she hired to restore her home didn’t pan out, the volunteers effort did — she returned to a fully restored home in January.
“All I can say is thank God for friends and strangers,” she said.
Yet the recovery effort is far from complete and Rotterdam Junction still isn’t back to a state of normalcy. The devastated homes on Isabella Street stand dormant and awaiting demolition —a stark reminder of the residences that cannot be salvaged.
Rotterdam Junction also has a number of ‘for sale’ signs dotting yards and homes —property owners who either didn’t have the strength or will to rebuild. There’s also a degree of complacency that has set in as the one-year anniversary of the flood approaches; a false sense that the work is completed.
The coalition estimates about two dozen homes still require work and roughly $25,000 needing to be raised to complete it. Demolishing those homes beyond repair will require near $250,000 in funding, according to coalition projections.
“The biggest problem we have now is that everybody thinks we’re all done,” said Mike Blair, a volunteer project manager with the coalition.
Torres likes to put a more positive spin on the state of the hamlet today. He points to another badly flood-damaged home on Lock Street that remained untouched for months and is now being rehabilitated by volunteers.
At first, the owners refused to do anything with the home. When they saw others rebuild on the street, they reached out to the coalition.
“The ones that didn’t want to come back see what’s happening,” he said. “Now they want to come back.”
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