On a rainy, overcast day last week a small team of poncho-clad volunteers worked diligently to demolish a house on Esperance’s Priddle Road.
The house was once across the street, but floodwaters threw it to the opposite side, where it has been sitting for nearly a month: damp, crumbling and ultimately unsalvageable.
The owner, Donna Waszcak, has vowed to rebuild. Her old house had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, lots of windows and vaulted ceilings. She wants her new house to have similar features.
Waszcak is staying at a neighbor’s place, but is expecting a camper to arrive by the weekend. Her brother, a builder, would work fast; she wants the house completed before winter. In the meantime, she has planted flowers on her land, creating an oasis of beauty and hope that she refers to as her recovery garden.
Deadline for help
People who suffered property losses in Hurricane Irene have 30 more days to register for assistance with FEMA. The 60-day registration period ends on October 31; no later registrations are allowed.
“Registration keeps open the possibility of a wide range of assistance,” said Philip E. Parr, FEMA federal coordinating officer. “If your insurance coverage comes up short, or other damage appears later, you need to be registered for us to help."
More than 33,000 people have already registered for assistance and more than $65 million has been approved for individual assistance, including $7.5 million for Schoharie County.
To register, call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or go to www.DisasterAssistance.gov.
“My heart is here, it really is,” said Waszcak, 57, who has lived on Priddle Road for 23 years. “But a lot of people aren’t coming back. This isn’t going to be the same place.”
Today Priddle Road — a small, creekside neighborhood affectionately referred to as “Priddle Camp” — looks something like a ghost town.
The neighborhood lost about 20 houses, and others were heavily damaged. Piles of debris stretch as far as the eye can see: downed trees, garbage, rocks and pieces of housing are strewn throughout the area.
But there are also signs of life, and pride: a battered American flag that has been placed in the foundation of a home, a mailbox that has been carefully set upon a pile of cement blocks, hand painted signs that inform visitors whose house once stood there.
State of limbo
One month after the flooding that devastated parts of the Capital Region, many flood victims remain in a nightmarish state of limbo, undecided as to whether they will rebuild or relocate. Some are reluctant to return to the site of so much pain, particularly if there’s a chance of another flood. Others want to return, but are unsure whether they’ll be able to afford to rebuild and are waiting for information from insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
So far, 32,000 people statewide have applied for FEMA assistance, $63 million has been approved and $61 million disbursed, according to spokesman Chris McKniff.
“As far as scale, this is one of the bigger disasters New York has seen,” McKniff said. Part of the reason the storm was so damaging was because it hit such a broad geographic area, stretching from Long Island to the Canadian border. Statewide, 40 disaster recovery centers have been set up, and these centers have received about 9,000 visitors.
In Schenectady County, 1,200 people have applied for FEMA aid and $2.8 million has been disbursed, according to latest figures. In Schoharie County, 1,500 people have applied and $7.4 million has been disbursed. In Saratoga County, 350 people have applied and $819,000 has been disbursed, and in Montgomery County, 479 people have applied and $1.4 million has been disbursed.
Officials and volunteers in Schoharie County are still trying to get a handle on how many people remain displaced from their homes by the flooding caused by the remnants of tropical storms Irene on Aug. 28, and Lee a week later. They say many of the displaced people are temporarily staying with friends and relatives, but others are living in hotels, camper, cars and trucks. And they also believe that the FEMA numbers understate the number of people who are suffering because not everyone has applied for assistance or learned the ins and outs of navigating the system.
“This is going to be a two- to three-year recovery process,” said Cassandra Ethington, a personnel officer with Schoharie County Emergency Management.
A group called the Human Needs team was formed after the storm to address the needs of county residents affected by flooding. Last weekend, volunteers and county staff began surveying residents, going door to door in an attempt to assess needs and gain a better sense of where people are living and how many have been displaced from their homes.
“We are still working to refine the major damage numbers,” said Alicia Terry, director of planning for Schoharie County and a key member of the Human Needs team, which is comprised of government officials, non-profit groups and other community entities. “We’re still trying to figure out where people are.”
But the preliminary numbers aren’t good.
Of 327 families surveyed last weekend, more than 60 percent owned homes that had been destroyed or needed major repairs. More than 800 structures countywide were significantly damaged, and that figure includes commercial properties as well as residences, Terry said.
About 83 percent of people surveyed have expressed a desire to rebuild or repair their homes in the same location, said Terry, who lives in Gilboa and considers herself fortunate because the only damage to her home was some flooding in the basement.
“We’ve also got some folks who have said they are going to walk away — out of the county, and maybe out of the state,” she said. People are also likely to change their minds about what they want to do because their decision-making is often influenced by the responses they receive from FEMA and their insurance companies, she said.
Many of the people the Human Needs team spoke with were severely depressed, said Ethington, who works closely with the teams. “They are still shell-shocked,” she said. “One team visited a house where the husband and wife were both talking about killing themselves.”
More teams are scheduled to go out and will focus on crisis management; county mental health staff will be on hand to listen to people, provide moral support and educate them about the county’s mental health services.
Winter a concern
The onset of winter is a major concern, and counties are trying to work as quickly as they can to make repairs and help people find safe, heated housing. Terry said that many people are “living in situations that are not appropriate for cold weather. They might be living on the second floor of a flood-damaged house, and they might not have a fully operational heating or plumbing situation. Time is critical. There’s also a huge concern about people’s health.”
“Some places you can see that people are making progress, and then you can go two blocks down and nothing will have been done,” Ethington said. She said the county epidemiologist has warned that asthma and pneumonia could be a bigger problem this year if residents continue living in damp, open houses. “We want to get the houses buttoned up, but many of them are still drying out,” she said.
Tina Dickinson, 42, lived on Priddle Road for less than a month when the storm destroyed the house where she rented an apartment.
Since then, she has been staying in an RV and camper owned by friends in the neighborhood, splitting her time between the two vehicles, which are parked across the street from each other. The friend who owns the camper lost his home in the storm and hasn’t decided whether to rebuild, she said, while the woman who owns the RV will be able to return to her home, which was damaged by the storm but not destroyed, though it isn’t clear when she’ll be able to move back in.
“This is a nice little community,” Dickinson said. “People don’t know what to do.”
Dickinson, who is unemployed, said she spends most of her time on Priddle Road. On Wednesday, she took shelter from the rain beneath a tarp while her fiance, Rick Eldred, 48, visited. She said she cooks her meals on a grill, and until recently she was also receiving meals through volunteer groups.
Dickinson received $1,400 from FEMA to help her relocate. At first, she didn’t realize renters were eligible for aid, and so she didn’t apply. But when she learned that assistance is available to renters, she applied for help. She said she lost all of her belongings in the storm, and that the money will be helpful.
Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began shipping emergency housing to Cobleskill, with the goal of helping dozens of Schoharie County families displaced by the storms. The county is also considering using the shuttered Summit Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility on Eagle Heights Road for housing.
“We’re trying to pursue as many options as we can for what we’re terming interim housing,” Terry said. Not everyone, she noted, will qualify for FEMA’s manufactured homes.
In Montgomery County, repairs to infrastructure and county buildings are expected to cost about $2.5 million, according to county Public Works Commissioner Paul Clayburn. The goal, he said, is to complete the majority of the work by Thanksgiving and Christmas. One area that was hit particularly hard was the community of Burtonsville, where several homes on Colyer Road were destroyed by flooding and there are still large piles of debris along the Schoharie Creek.
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
Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry said that repairing the damage to infrastructure and county buildings in Schoharie County is likely to cost $50 million. For Schoharie County, which is debt free and has always prided itself on its fiscal health, this is a tough pill to swallow. Under FEMA guidelines, the county is supposed to make repairs, and then apply to FEMA for reimbursement, with the hope that the agency will cover 75 percent of the cost.
“This is such a huge disaster,” Cherry said. “This is not going to be like rebuilding after some other events. We don’t know what is allowed and what is not, what will be reimbursed and what will not.”
Cherry said 95 percent of the homes and businesses in the village of Schoharie are uninhabitable, and that other communities along the Schoharie Creek, such as Gilboa and Blenheim, also suffered extensive damage. “For anyone who lives anywhere near water, rebuilding is going to be a long process,” he said.
Cherry’s Schoharie home, a Center Hall Colonial that was built in 1850, was severely damaged by the flooding — the house shifted off its foundation and has since been gutted. He said it is unclear whether he and his wife will be able to fix or rebuild their home because they do not know how much money they will receive through flood insurance. An engineer has visited the site and made an assessment, but his report has yet to be submitted to a peer review group, as is required.
“We’ve had no success with insurance to date,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to get, and I don’t know what the repairs are going to cost. There are too many unanswered questions.”
But Cherry counts himself as fortunate in one regard: Many Schoharie residents did not have flood insurance because they do not live in a flood plain. He said he and his wife decided to get flood insurance after watching an HBO film about Hurricane Katrina.
If possible, Cherry would like to rebuild. “It’s a beautiful old home,” he said. “We raised our kids there. It’s our home, and we’d like to be able to make it our home again. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it cost $250,000 to fix.” Right now, Cherry and his wife are renting an apartment in Cobleskill. After the storm, they stayed with his wife’s uncle, and then at a hotel.
There is still a need for volunteers to help with cleanup and rebuilding.
Sarah Goodrich, a Schoharie resident who was been coordinating volunteer efforts within the Schoharie Central School District, said that there is starting to be a greater need for skilled volunteers who can work with teams of unskilled volunteers and teach them how to do basic things, such as put up Sheetrock.
“Most people are thinking they will rebuild,” Goodrich said. “In the beginning, people were so discouraged immediately, and they didn’t want to rebuild. Now we’re seeing more and more people reconsider. They’re saying, ‘This is my home, this is where my heart is and I will stay.’ ”
Josh DeBartolo, a 25-year-old native of Middleburgh, was in town for his brother’s wedding when Hurricane Irene hit. He was scheduled to start a new job in Denver, assisting rural farmers for a non-profit agency, but called to say he wouldn’t be coming.
“I told them that I had something more important to do,” said DeBartolo, a Union College graduate who up until recently was working at the Goldman Sachs office in Salt Lake City.
DeBartolo’s parents’ house was damaged in the storm, and he helped gut the property, removing carpet, Sheetrock and furniture until “we got it to where it needed to be.” Then he turned his attention to the county’s hard-hit areas, leading small work crews in Schoharie and Middleburgh.
This was DeBartolo’s first week working on Priddle Road, and he was joined by four Amish men from Fort Plain. They worked through a steady downpour, tearing apart Waszcak’s house and throwing the rubble into a large Dumpster.
“I will stay here as long as there seems to be a need,” DeBartolo said. “We’re making progress, but we’re going to need skilled labor.”