Shortly after Tropical Storm Irene devastated large portions of his congressional district, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko knew he would need more than words to convince his colleagues about the dire situation caused by the flooding.
News of the effects stretched across the country, but he was worried that federal officials wouldn’t grasp the stakes and wouldn’t respond with enough force and speed. It then dawned on Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who fancies himself as an amateur photojournalist, that pictures of everything he saw in the ensuing days of the late summer flooding would be able to convey the level of need.
It was the old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words.
“It’s difficult to put into words sometimes what happened to the people and communities,” he said.
About a week after Irene, Tonko was in Washington, using the photos he took to convince other Democratic members of the House of Representatives about the need for fast action. The pictures produced audible gasps, he said, and highlighted the fact that the damage wasn’t limited to New York City, which members from thousands of miles away believed had been the lucky survivor of the flooding and no other areas had been hurt that badly.
On Aug. 28, when Tonko, who was armed with his pocket digital camera, began taking pictures of the Capital Region, it was just in keeping with a practice he did whenever traveling the state. Normally, though, he took pictures that highlighted the state’s scenic quality, unique grandeur or community events. “I have always enjoyed photography as a pastime,” he said.
In this case, he realized that his hobby could turn into a tool on behalf of the people and communities he visited during the storm and in the coming weeks. His travels took him all over the state but locally included Schoharie, Montgomery and Schenectady counties. The experience helped motivate him, and by taking photographs of what he saw, his hope was to share those motivating forces.
He ended up taking more than 400 photographs in less than a month touring the impact of tropical storms Irene and then Lee. In taking photographs, Tonko stressed to local inhabitants that he wasn’t trying to make a spectacle of their circumstances and was only trying to highlight their plight. Some people were still in shock and just going through the motions of trying to rebuild, but many people were more than happy to participate, and he said every picture he took has a story behind it.
Among those stories were standalone mailboxes that were placed on a piece of property in lieu of the home that had been destroyed. “People would just set up their mailboxes so they would know where their property was,” he explained.
Tonko was also moved by a handmade street sign that advertised local traffic only but also had the tagline “please” in one corner.
On Aug. 29, after the rain had stopped, he took pictures of Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam, which still had most of its first floor submerged. That historic location had been one of his district offices while he was in the Assembly, so he felt an extreme connection. “It was really painful to see it hanging by a thread,” Tonko added.
When photographing his travels, he tried to present different angles with each shot. He wanted to capture the depth of the situation, which meant highlighting the damage, big and small, and the recovery effort. For example, he photographed a lone unscathed toy sitting peacefully in front of a house that was in pieces.
His shots also included bird’s-eye photographs from a helicopter ride over flooded areas, which included Schoharie and Greene counties.
Four months after Tonko and other representatives began spreading the word about the damage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was providing New York with $41.7 million in flood relief for farmers and communities trying to rebuild.