Part of being a firefighter, according to Fort Hunter Volunteer Fire District Commissioner Jason Downing, is taking care of everybody else first.
In the weeks after tropical storms Irene and Lee the fire district’s more than 20 volunteers did just that, pumping mud from basements and hauling damaged wallboard to landfills. They helped bring the small hamlet back from ruination, but the fire station is built on the same flood plain as the houses.
“We had 7 inches of water in here,” Downing said, “but we were running around helping everyone else.”
It took more than two years, $150,000 and countless volunteer hours, but Sunday afternoon Fort Hunter firefighters declared their station back to pre-Irene standards. They held a small open house to celebrate. A handful of local residents showed up and looked around, but mostly firefighters hung out eating doughnuts and discussing Irene’s profound effects.
“We stood up the street and watched the water come in,” Downing said.
At the confluence
Fort Hunter sits at the confluence of the Mohawk River and Schoharie Creek. It’s low and flat, and when floodwater crested the banks, there was an instant river reaching all the way back to the firehouse.
Those 7 inches deposited enough Schoharie Creek clay to ruin the interior of the whole station.
“It smelled like sewage,” said firefighter Kyle Bedell. “It probably was sewage, but I don’t like to think about that.”
He and a few other firefighters found the time between short naps and long shifts helping locals to shovel out the station, but when things calmed down the whole place had to be gutted.
Kitchen appliances had to be replaced, along with computers and nearly everything left on the floor.
The district brought in specialty contractors to professionally clean between the studs and dry everything out.
“They had to wet the mud in the walls back down,” he said. “It dried as hard as concrete.”
None of that was cheap. All told, FEMA chipped in $110,000, with the last $40,000 coming from fire district savings.
“And it could have been a lot more if we hadn’t done so much with volunteers,” Downing said.
Downing himself put in more than 1,000 hours over the last two years painting, installing new doors and kitchen cabinets — and he was not alone. On Sunday afternoon, a TV slide show of Irene mayhem was the only real clue of what the place looked like two years ago.
It took a long time for the fire district to get back to full strength. In part that was down to the firefighters’ selfless priorities, but Fort Hunter itself hasn’t totally recovered.
Jay Richards got 4 feet of water in the basement of his Railroad Street home. He wasn’t a firefighter at the time.
“When we got the order to evacuate, I said I wasn’t going,” he recounted to a few other firefighters leaning against cars in the station’s parking lot.
Fire Capt. Cody Lewandowski smoked a cigarette and laughed at Richards.
“I handed him a Sharpie and told him to write his name and Social Security number on his arm,” he said. “So when we found his body we could identify him.”
It got the point across and Richards spent a few days out of the area. He came back to a ruined basement and months of work stretching out before him. The fire district helped a lot, prompting him to join up, but there’s more to do.
“I still haven’t replaced my heating system,” he said. “I have a pellet stove. I can’t leave the house for more than 12 hours at a time, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Such worse examples are visible from the firehouse. Bedell pointed down Main Street.
“That place on the corner,” he said. “No one will ever live there again.”