Patricia Lawson was sitting on the front porch in Schoharie last week with her mother, enjoying the sunshine and taking a break from painting.
Painting is among several chores the village resident began tackling months after a flurry of volunteer relief workers left after dealing with some of the tougher aspects of recovery from the flooding after Tropical Storm Irene hit the region two years ago.
Lawson still has vivid memories of the scene on Grand Street in the heart of the village: the eight-foot-high piles of destroyed belongings that lined the curbs, and firetrucks from faraway parts of the state.
• For some in Rotterdam Junction, renewal, for others, regrets. Click HERE
• Irene’s less dramatic flood victims seek recovery. Click HERE
By the numbers
FEMA public assistance by county for Tropical Storm Irene recovery
Note - Data as of Aug. 19, 2013
FEMA individual assistance by county (with number of applicants)
Albany, 915 applicants, $2,059,514.17
Montgomery, 563, $1,859,751.16
Saratoga, 434, $1,152,224.05
Schenectady, 1,365, $3,475,388.09
Schoharie, 1,813, $10,156,354.58
Total, 5,090, $18,703,232.05
Note - Figures include housing assistance and other needs under Individual and Households Program.
“It’s been a tough journey for a lot of people, a heartbreaking journey,” Lawson said.
And the journey is not over for Lawson. After the flood, volunteers came to muck out the house and replace wiring, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped pay to replace the heating system. Other items deemed non-essential were not covered, including the garage and the awning on the back of the home, which washed away.
Other things were gone as well — the air conditioner, her staple gun, a can opener and “little bits and pieces” of her life that accumulated over the years.
Her kitchen remains unfinished, and a garage in the back is all but unusable because of flood damage. But she has a new refrigerator, and she’s gradually scraping and painting the clapboards of her home, giving it a fresh look.
“You have to live with what you’ve got and take one step at a time,” Lawson said.
Lawson said she and her 80-year-old mother, Mary Ann Salisbury, were grateful that relatives in Central Bridge had a place for them while the home they share was being gutted.
On the street she can see where volunteers have helped fix homes and where others have been torn down, with government aid. Lawson’s not worried about living in the flood zone — she said the old home withstood floods in 1996, 1984 and, her mother tells her, 1955. The neighborhood’s different, though. Many senior citizens left and some younger families moved in.
“The whole village is different,” Lawson said.
Irene slammed into the Capital Region on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, two days after it began lashing the southern part of the state. Ten days later, massive rainfall from Tropical Storm Lee added insult to injury, inundating the Capital Region on Wednesday, Sept. 7. Between the two deluges, two tornadoes touched down in Montgomery County on Sept. 4.
In the Schoharie Valley, a estimated 1,958 structures were impacted. Schoharie Recovery director Josh DeBartolo said that number includes homes and business that suffered any damage, from minor problems to “the house washed away.”
Volunteers and relief workers have completed a full survey of 981 of the damaged homes. The volunteer rebuilding teams that sprang from local churches — called Schoharie Recovery and Schoharie Area Long-Term recovery — have put 616 homes back together with 63 percent of families getting back home, according to DeBartolo.
That work reflects more than 35,000 hours of labor from volunteers, an estimated value of $7 million.
Another $2 million in cash donations have come in, and companies donated the equivalent of $1 million in work and materials so far.
But DeBartolo said some of the remaining properties that were damaged have complicated issues, such as owing back taxes or needing building permits. In some cases, it’s hard to find out whether owners just walked away.
Schoharie County planner Shane Nickle said more than 40 homes are on the roster for FEMA’s buyout program and several have been torn down. They include 13 in the village and town of Middleburgh, nine in the village and town of Schoharie, seven in the town of Esperance and a few each in the towns of Blenheim, Fulton and Gilboa.
But numerous properties were leveled without making it into the buyout program. In the end, DeBartolo estimates approximately 150 homes will be lost altogether to the storms of 2011.
On the county level, Schoharie County and consultants Simmons Recovery are engaged in a bureaucratic dance with FEMA, one that county treasurer and recovery coordinator Bill Cherry said can be expected from a federal agency with “very complex rules and regulations.”
“And rightfully so. They have a task, which is to assist communities in recovery, but like any tax-funded organization, they’re responsible for pinching pennies,” Cherry said.
There have been “wins” so far, including a recent decision that will provide funding for the Blenheim Covered Bridge. The historic icon was washed away by the Schoharie Creek during the Aug. 28 flood.
And there’s still paperwork going back and forth as the county fights for funding for a new jail. The old jail, on the first floor of the Depot Lane public safety building about 2,000 feet from the Schoharie Creek, was inundated with seven to 10 feet of water during the floods. Some 40 inmates had to be evacuated; prisoners are still being boarded at the Albany County jail.
County officials want aid to for a new jail on higher ground, while FEMA wants to repair the jail where it is. Cherry contends it would cost at least half the price of building a new jail on higher ground.
Despite the bureaucratic entanglements, Cherry doesn’t view the county’s relationship with FEMA as adversarial, just complicated. To date, Schoharie County has received $15,949,637 in disaster aid from FEMA and another $5,023,284 from the state Emergency Management Office.
But Cherry said he’s heard it takes 10 years to recover from the kind of devastation the region saw.
“It’s a long process, and I don’t think there’s any shortcuts. I don’t believe there is a fast track,” Cherry said.
SALT director Sarah Goodrich said neighborhoods in heavily flooded areas are changing. It’s easy to count concrete things such as structures and families returned, but harder to describe the emotional impact that will continue.
“The emotional impact is long term, and it’s step-by-step healing, and it’s very much still in progress,” Goodrich said.
The agency is partnering with the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare to bring students in to “help people in moving ahead with the emotional feelings.”
“It’s always difficult, particularly after a tragic incident. The first instinct is ‘I want everything to be the same again,’ and eventually you come to the reality that it will never be the same,” Goodrich said.
It may be the same house, but it’s got new walls or even a new toilet that makes it different, she said.
“But it’s not the same. You have to work at recreating a comfort zone again and feeling normal in that new environment,” Goodrich said.
The same goes for neighborhoods with new neighbors and the lack of some familiar faces — and inside towns with different neighborhoods, she said.