Two years ago, Dwight Schwabrow was poring over maps and charts in the basement of the Montgomery County Office Building in Fonda and taking frantic phone calls.
“I got a call from [Burtonsville Fire Chief] John Gross,” he said. “He told me there was a 30-foot wall of water coming over the Burtonsville bridge. I was just trying to imagine what that might do downstream.”
The night of Aug. 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused major flooding across the region. These days, Schwabrow lives in Florida. He retired from his post as Montgomery County emergency management director but still remembers that night vividly.
“At one point, I was talking to Audie Miller,” he said. “The guy was standing down by the Fort Johnson fire station, watching the water rise. Then he said, ‘Hold on, I just heard an explosion.’ It turned out to be the gates at Lock 11 giving way.”
The worst thing, Schwabrow said, was the uncertainty. The flooding happened under cover of darkness. He and scores of volunteers worked through the night, taking calls and covering the county on the ground. They waited for a better view with the sunrise.
“I hate to say it, but we were flying by the seat of our pants,” he said. “We’d dealt with flooding along the Mohawk and Schoharie Creek before, but nothing like this magnitude.”
In the space of 10 days, the region was hit with Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, then a couple of tornadoes “for good measure,” as Schwabrow put it. Then residents started to put things back together.
Even after the weather stabilized, operations were seat-of-the-pants in Montgomery County. While Schoharie County, Rotterdam Junction and Schenectady flood victims organized and got down to business, Schwabrow said Montgomery County residents got lost in the shuffle. Media attention focused on more dramatic damage in other counties, as did government and volunteer aid.
Two years later, Montgomery County’s recovery is hard to quantify. There are plenty of hopeful sights. Old Fort Johnson at the corner of Route 5 and 67 outside of Amsterdam, which was flooded to the mantelpieces, is back to pre-Irene condition.
Karen’s Produce & Ice Cream along Route 5S lost its founder, Stephen Terleckey, to the flood, as well as ice-cream equipment and interior walls. That place, too, is open and flourishing.
But few complete numbers are available for the original damage. Different agencies have different estimates of impact and recovery.
Linda Brown, who’s been working as a disaster case manager on an 18-month state contract, pulled some statistics from her FEMA database.
“FEMA agents went door to door after the floods,” she said. “They listed 165 impacted homes.”
That number is far too high, according to Adam Schwabrow, Dwight’s son and the new county emergency management director. He said roughly 70 homes were badly damaged, mostly in Burtonsville, Fort Hunter, and low-lying sections of Amsterdam. A handful were condemned or abandoned — several in Burtonsville were actually washed away completely — but he said that’s a small number.
“Maybe FEMA was counting people with six inches of water in their basements,” he said.
Brown’s case list is 68 homes long. In two years, roughly 50 of those were squared away with the help of the thrown-together Long-Term Recovery Committee, which is set to take on the remaining 19 when Brown’s state contract runs out at the end of this month.
“There are definitely more impacted homes that need help,” she said. “Some people just didn’t ask.”
From a chair in sunny Florida, Dwight Schwabrow explained his view of Montgomery County’s disjointed recovery effort.
“It’s a hard-working area,” he said. “People looked around. They looked at Schoharie and Rotterdam Junction, and they didn’t want to complain. A lot of people were too proud to ask for help, and now it’s overwhelming.”