Four and a half months after the great flood caused by Hurricane Irene, you can walk through Rotterdam Junction and see house after house still standing empty, in some cases with waterlogged furniture and junk piled out in front as if the flood had been just yesterday.
It’s a dismal enough picture, especially since many of the houses were no great shakes to begin with but just modest little asphalt-shingled places already in need of a sprucing up. Old houses that had fallen behind on maintenance, strung out along the Mohawk River with nothing homier than Route 5S for a main street.
But more is going on than is immediately apparent. Retired people with time on their hands and generosity in their hearts are coming out to “the Junction” to help rebuild — ripping out soggy sheetrock and damaged furnaces and starting over, right from the studs. New walls, new windows, new floors, new electrical wiring.
It seemed to me on a walking tour the other day that it would be easier to bulldoze some of those saggy houses and start from the beginning. In one of them a basement wall had actually collapsed inward under the pressure of the floodwater and become nothing but a pile of blocks, but lo, volunteers built a new wall and kept that house standing, and now it awaits a new interior.
My guide was Jack Sleeter, an implausibly energetic and enthusiastic 66-year-old retiree from the General Electric Co. research center, where he used to design medical equipment. He is managing the restoration of five houses on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, where he is a regular volunteer. Habitat for Humanity, in turn, is working under the umbrella of a larger Flood Recovery Coalition, put together by a number of nonprofit organizations in the Schenectady area.
“My greatest pride,” Sleeter told me, “is when we turn over the keys to the owner and say, ‘Here’s your house.’ ”
Not that the owners are passive bystanders. They are expected to pitch in as much as they can. But some of them are old and feeble, and some of them work full time at their regular jobs to make a living and have only limited hours available.
It’s an overwhelming position for them to be in. For most their house was their wealth, and often they had not finished paying on it. All of a sudden the house gets turned into a smelly, water-soaked junk pit, uninhabitable, without gas or electricity.
They have to find another place to live — with friends, with relatives, in a rented trailer — while they deal with the disaster.
If they were lucky enough to have flood insurance, that helps, assuming they can pry the money loose from the insurance company and if it doesn’t go directly to the mortgage holder.
If they didn’t have flood insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would provide up to $30,000 in aid, which is also a help even if not enough to rebuild a house.
All this time later, homeowners are still coming forward, asking for help. They had held back out of pride or simply waited until they ran out of FEMA money.
About 30 houses are being rebuilt, mostly by Habitat volunteers. Other houses simply look abandoned. Sleeter says in some cases the owners haven’t decided what they’re going to do — make the commitment to rebuild, or just walk away.
Progress is slow, since volunteer crews work just two days a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and there are only 12 to 15 regular volunteers.
They don’t have to be master craftsmen — “Just bring me a smile, and I’ll train you,” says Sleeter, whose father was an industrial arts teacher at Washington Irving High School. But at this point a little skill helps. The ripping out of soggy carpeting is mostly done. What’s needed now is the fitting of crown molding, the refinishing of floors, the installation of cabinets.
Of course regular contractors are available for hire, but Sleeter has little regard for them, and so does his chief floor installer, Norman Torres.
“They’re just taking and not giving,” they both say, citing examples of shoddy workmanship and quick exits by so-called professionals.
Contractors do not want volunteers underfoot, and volunteers return the sentiment. They work separately.
Just so you don’t think everything is wine, roses and noble feeling in this rebuilding project.
How long it will take to finish is unclear. Sleeter says he hopes to be done by the end of summer but will make no prediction.
This is interesting to me, because I confess I had put the flood pretty much out of my mind and just sort of assumed that everything had returned to normal. Far from it. It’s a disaster that lingers, and there are people, especially older people, whose lives may never get back to normal.
The uplifting part is that there are people in our midst — little known, little celebrated — who get up in the morning and go to work helping others for no recompense other than the satisfaction of doing it.