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Irene's landscape of losses

Irene's landscape of losses

In just four days, Harry Ioannou saw his livelihood reduced to shambles.
Irene's landscape of losses
CSX workers repair the railway bed off Route 5 after flood waters heavily damaged Lock 10 and took the foundation out of one of the rail beds Tuesday, August 30, 2011.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Harry Ioannou’s sorrowful gaze spoke for itself.

The owner of the rolling 140-acre Pindar Farm on Route 30 in Middleburgh was already coping with the loss of his entire crop to the murky rush of the Schoharie Creek this week. Then on Tuesday, he noticed the lower bales of hay in his barns were starting to heat up. Some of the bales were soaked and began to ferment in the late summer heat. And by the time Ioannou started to move them from one barn Wednesday morning, they were near spontaneous combustion.

Moments later, one of the barns erupted in flames. Firefighters could do little to knock down the inferno and instead trained their hoses to save three adjacent silos.

In just four days, Ioannou saw his livelihood reduced to shambles. Crops of soy beans and corn were devastated by the creek water laden with fuel and silt.

He had 250 chickens before the flood. Only 17 remain.

On the edge of Ioannou’s farm, state Department of Transportation and Army National Guard crews operated heavy machinery over his destroyed soy crop in an effort to stabilize Route 30. Much of the road surface was scoured away by the rushing creek.

Ioannou had hoped to sell the freshly harvested hay right up until he discovered it was getting dangerously hot. Instead, he watched one barn burn and used a bulldozer to push the remaining stock out of an adjacent barn.

“It’s either lose the hay or lose the barn and the hay,” said Dan Neaverth, the district chief of the Orchard Pond Fire Department of Erie County.

Ioannou sat on his four-wheeler looking dazed. Thick plumes of white smoke billowed into the sky, making the fire visible from more than five miles away.

“I don’t even know,” he said quietly, staring out at the farm he purchased five years ago. “I don’t even know where to start.”

The feeling is the same across much of the Schoharie Valley, as residents and business owners returned to the devastated landscape. In Central Bridge, Chris Wilkens had many of his possessions drying in the afternoon sun after more than 4 feet of water swept through his two-story home on Route 7, a short distance from the west bank of the Schoharie.

Friends and family shoveled out more than 4 inches of silt from his first floor. Heirlooms from generations were swept away.

“It’s kind of upsetting to come back and see 30 years of my life have been destroyed,” he said.

The sheer force of the floodwater was astounding to Wilkens. The torrent smashed into his garage and carried away a 450-pound slate pool table. One of three picnic tables in his backyard was tossed nearly 7 feet into a tree.

More shocking was what the raging creek did to the neighboring trailer park. Several of the mobile homes were washed from their footings and pushed through Wilkens’ side fence. Belongings from the ruined trailers were washed into piles in his yard.

“I’ve seen floods before, but this one takes the cake,” he said.

To make matters worse, there were reports of looting in Central Bridge. A tenant of the trailer park apparently discovered someone rifling through one of the destroyed mobile homes.

Chris Corina and Tammy Cota were able to secure their trailer after being warned of looters. Other tenants were too distraught by the flood damage to see if any of their belongings survived, not that there was much to salvage.

Still, Corina managed to rescue a bowl full of sweet cherry tomatoes from the remnants of his garden. The plants were tied to his trailer’s front steps, which were swept between a pair of other homes pushed into Wilkens’ backyard.

“It’s just a total loss here at the park,” he said. “I can salvage some things, but there are people who lost everything.”

The flood also knocked out the main grocer serving Middleburgh and Schoharie. Like many of the structures near the creek basin, the Grand Union on Route 30 was enveloped by the flood waters and filled with a heavy layer of silt.

A rear trash compactor was ripped from the building, allowing the rushing water to shoot inside. The store’s front windows were blasted out by the force of the water.

“The opening in the back was like a jet,” said District Manager Ken Ratcliffe. “It was like a water cannon.”

Ratcliffe said the building appears to be a total loss. But he vowed the company will rebuild. “Our goal is to re-open as a company and we’ll go from there,” he said.

Several miles away in Schoharie, residents began assessing the damage to homes. Ruined furniture and belongings were piled on most streets, as firefighters gradually pumped out flooded basements.

One home on Bridge Street appeared to be a total loss after catching fire earlier this week. Neighbors said the family living there bought the property only a year ago.

At the Schoharie Free Library, Director Cathy Caiazzo started sifting through the thousands of ruined books in the collection. More than 26 inches of water covered the first floor of the Victorian structure on the corner of Knower Avenue.

Books, computers, and paper records were all badly damaged. The shed containing books to be sold at an upcoming sale was lifted from its footings and carried several blocks away.

“I think that might be it,” she said, squinting at the small yellow building barely visible in the distance.

Only the library’s collection of non-fiction books — stored in the second floor — was unscathed. Caiazzo said the library will try to replace some of the lost books and equipment through the Mohawk Valley Library System, but not until the building can be thoroughly cleaned.

“We lost maybe a quarter of the collection,” she said.

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