It may just be a pole barn, but the new three-bay garage serving as the temporary home of Niagara Engine Co. No. 6 is more than a building; it’s a symbol of gradual flood recovery.
People gathered by the dozens Thursday on Fort Road in Schoharie to celebrate completion of the $173,000 facility, to be paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The pole barn, with automated doors tall enough to fit any fire truck, gives Schoharie firefighters a single place to store their gear for the first time since Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding shut down the old station on Grand Street.
“Today we’re just taking a moment because it’s a big step forward for us,” said John Wolfe, chairman of the department’s building committee.
Firefighters showed off architectural drawings of a new firehouse that’s in the planning stages. Wolfe said its cost and how much help FEMA will provide for its construction aren’t yet clear. Officials last summer announced FEMA would be providing disaster assistance to build a new station, estimated then at a cost of $900,000.
Wolfe said “countless hours” went into paperwork to get help for the project and FEMA’s assistance wasn’t a certainty. That left a long list of people to thank, including state and local officials who lobbied for help, he said.
Fire Chief Marty Pierce said he still recalls one of his most difficult decisions — evacuating the village of Schoharie and the firehouse itself, both situated within reach of the raging Schoharie Creek, as Irene swept through. Since then, the department’s gear has been stored in different spots, making it more difficult to respond to emergencies, he said.
The fate of the former firehouse, situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood, is unclear.
Firefighters from around the state showed their support for the department during an October 2011 cleanup, when members were optimistic they’d be moving back in. But Grand Street is situated in a high-risk flood zone, and FEMA decided it would be best to move it farther from the Schoharie Creek. The new spot — high and dry on a hill down the road from the historic Old Stone Fort — is well outside the high-risk zone.
“This was the intelligent thing to do, get them out of the way. They’re the first-responders,” said Schoharie native and Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie.
People in communities hit hard by the flooding disasters in August and September 2011 are holding small celebrations with each step of progress, and they continue to be well-attended, Lopez said.
“I think many people recognize this valley, the Schoharie Valley, Binghamton, Prattsville, we’re ground zero,” he said as about 60 people mingled, laughed and shook hands in the new pole barn. “This is just a continued testimony of the will of the people to recover.”
Schoharie County Fire Coordinator Matt Brisley, a Schoharie firefighter and town councilman, said the new location isn’t as close to the residential center of town as the old one, but the move to Fort Road put it closer to some firefighters and farther from others, so it balances out in terms of any time difference.
Guests and local officials applauded as speakers recognized those who are helping the fire department progress. Longtime firefighter John Borst, who also serves as Schoharie’s mayor, said Thursday’s celebration can be seen as an example to others.
The village lost more than 40 percent of its tax base due to the flooding, and the recovery continues at a gradual pace. Some homes remain boarded up, others that appear repaired have “for sale” signs on them, and still others have been leveled, leaving empty lots.
Progress situating the fire department in its own station, Borst said, demonstrates the perseverance that defines Schoharie.
“It shows the outside world that we are willing to invest in this community,” he said.