Irene 10 years later: Rotterdam Junction rebuilds from flood, but faces new challenges

Rotterdam Junction fire chief Shawn Taylor stands Aug. 13 near the bike path tunnel under the CSX railway tracks that also serves as a drainage tunnel in case of a flood 

Rotterdam Junction fire chief Shawn Taylor stands Aug. 13 near the bike path tunnel under the CSX railway tracks that also serves as a drainage tunnel in case of a flood 

As Sandy and Dave Orologio sat at their dining room table inside their air-conditioned home, a garage was visible through the patio doors.

That garage was the only thing left after Tropical Storm Irene took the home Dave grew up in.

The morning of Aug. 28, 2011, started out fairly sunny, said Sandy Orologio. The couple knew the nearby Mohawk River was rising because they saw indications of flooding in other parts of town.

They decided to go to their daughter’s home in town. Not long after, neighbors began congregating on side streets and along Main Street, and then the water rushed in.

Rotterdam Junction Fire Chief Shawn Taylor saw the same scene play out as he was in the middle of evacuating people from areas where flooding often occurred.

“As we were monitoring that, we noticed this odd ponding of water starting to work its way into areas that it never really ever settled in before and then realized it was coming from the river, and it started to get faster and faster,” Taylor said. “It started coming right down through the center of the town, so fast that you could watch it roll like a surf down through the center of the town. I kind of knew right away we were in for something a little different than what we had ever had in the past.”

The significance of the flooding didn’t hit then-Town Board member Robert Godlewski until he was at the Carmen Road Senior Center, where a shelter had been set up and he saw many people going there, including some of his own family members.

“The Junction,” as Rotterdam Junction is affectionately known by locals, is like a bowl, Taylor said. While the water was flowing in, there was no way for it to really leave, meaning it was stuck there until it could be pumped out, he said.

“Instead of fighting a fire, you were fighting water,” Taylor said.

Even at the time, locals knew Rotterdam Junction would never be the same again.

That was certainly the case for the Orologios. Not only did the flooding destroy their home — reaching the second story — but it also took the lives of the couple’s two cats.

“It was like a nightmare,” Sandy Orologio said. “It was dark and it was smelly. It was like a dream, like ‘this can’t be true, this can’t be right.’”

The days, weeks and months that followed weren’t easy. The Rotterdam Junction Fire Station became home for many people. Food deliveries arrived, and showers and services were set up to support residents.

Firefighters finally began pumping water from homes, and eventually started taking people back to inspect their dwellings for damage and safety issues.

“We started seeing the destruction as the days went on,” he said.

Trees were uprooted, propane tanks floated in the water and trash was everywhere.

Once people were able to get back into their homes, Taylor said, is when the chaos began.

“People started to take all their belongings out,” he said. “The Sheetrock in their homes, they started ripping it out and throwing it out of their houses in piles. You just started seeing a construction dump right down Main Street.”

The smell that came with all the destruction was unforgettable, survivors said.

“The stench, the garbage — I can still smell it 10 years later,” said Godlewski.

Once the Orologios returned to their home they saw firsthand the devastating damage. Cupboards were torn from the floor or hanging in a shambled state. “The mud, it was everywhere,” Sandy Orologio said.

“The first thing in my mind, because I had seen all of that, was that I would never rebuild in that house,” Dave said. “I would have it demo-ed. Luckily, to my surprise, they condemned it.”

The house was condemned because it had shifted off of its foundation, he said. That decision enabled the couple to apply for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After living elsewhere in Rotterdam, they built a new house in the same spot.

It took a while for FEMA money to reach people, including the Orologios.

Godlewski stayed on the board for two years after the storms hit. He saw many residents come back and back again to Town Board meetings looking for information.

“That was the hard part,” he said. “Yeah, FEMA does reimburse you a certain amount. But to be honest with you, I don’t think those people were ever made completely whole.”

The Orologios rebuilt in 2015, and for a few years they felt uneasy about the prospect of another flood. As drainage projects were completed in the region their concerns dissipated.

The state built a tunnel along the Mohawk Hudson Bikeway underneath the railroad tracks to provide a conduit for floodwaters to flow into the nearby quarry in the event of future flooding.

Schenectady County also received money to help the towns with flood-related work, said Deputy County Manager Jackie Falotico. Five projects were funded: u$55,000 for wellhead protection in Princetown uAbout $150,000 for reinforcing and bridge protection measures for Old Route 30 u$26,000 for repairs to Youngs Road Bridge u$190,000 for sediment and debris removal in Rotterdam Junction u$61,000 for streambank revitalization in Rotterdam Junction

Drainage improvements were completed and many people returned to their homes, Taylor said, and since then additional infrastructure challenges materialized.

“We’re starting to see some real issues that we really didn’t anticipate that took place underground with shifting of soil and gravel and everything this town is built on,” Taylor said. “The parking lots in town are a disgrace. They were nothing like this before the flood.”

But it’s not just the parking lots, Taylor said. Drainage problems have eroded road shoulders and sidewalks. Elevations have changed as well.

“Now it’s heaved,” he said. “Now we’re seeing it. There’s no insurance companies that will cover it because it’s 10 years ago now, and we slowly watched this happen.”

Some homeowners are also just now finding problems with their foundations, he said. Water also isn’t draining in areas where it used to before the floods “because the river has plugged up the Junction’s ability to drain.”

The Fire Department is just finishing up a $150,000 project to repair a part of its building where a wall had begun breaking off because the support underneath that part of the building had been washed away.

That residual damage can be traced to the flood, Taylor said.

“I have people here in town who sold their house because they knew they were going to have a problem with their foundation,” he said. “Cobblestone foundations, you know they were swimming pools for two weeks.”

State Route 5S, the main road through Rotterdam Junction, is cracking from the water that had engulfed it, Taylor said.

“It’s got a major crack that runs from our Fire Department right up to the pump station,” he said.

Taylor said that during big rain events, drainage in town doesn’t work the way it should, causing a large ponding of water.

The issues have persisted with no solutions, he said, and in many cases have just been forgotten.

“It’s unseen tragedies later in time, and that’s the stuff that there’s nobody to go to bat for anybody for,” he said. “Once these tragedies hit, they address the initial stuff to get the homes looking good again, get the people back in them. They don’t ever look at what’s going to happen from this big situation 10 years down the road.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County


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