“It looked like a war zone when you got there,” Neil Irwin recalled of the damage wrought by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Irwin is the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Blenheim, which, like so much of the town and the rest of Schoharie County, was devastated by Irene. Two buildings on church property were affected, including its thrift shop, which was washed away.
Although Irwin didn’t live in Blenheim, he was close by in the town of Fulton. But the roads around where he lived were flooded as well, so it was a week before he was actually able to see the impact of the flooding on the church and the town. He saw the roads uprooted and the mess that was left behind in its unforgiving wake.
On Thursday, Irwin, along with others in the community, attended an anniversary press conference that was hosted by the Schoharie Area Long Term Inc. (SALT) in Blenheim.
And although the devastation occurred three years ago, emotions over what had happened were still raw.
In the Capital Region, over 100 people were displaced, many farms lost entire crops and livestock, hundreds of structures were damaged, including businesses, streams and fields were damaged, and at least one person drowned. Damages ran into the millions of dollars.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez was one of the main speakers at the event and described the anniversary as a day for reflection. His voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes as he spoke of the lives that were shattered by the storm. Lopez’ own parents were affected by the storm, as their house in Schoharie was badly damaged by the flooding.
Sarah Goodrich, executive director of SALT, wasn’t directly affected by Irene, but she and her husband witnessed what happened to their friends and to the village of Schoharie.
“It’s hard to describe because it was so chaotic,” she said after the press conference.
She remembered seeing swing sets and tractor-trailers hanging from trees. Barns were moved around by the water. Mobile homes were scattered around like toys. Houses were flooded and had to be demolished or were simply washed away.
The storm set water volume records on the Schoharie Creek and was near record levels on the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.
The historic Blenheim covered bridge, at one time the longest wooden, single-span bridge in the world, was washed away.
Phyllis Olsen moved to Blenheim 40 years ago. Her house wasn’t affected, but her family’s cabin, which is also in town, was cut in half by the flooding and had to be demolished.
The cabin was where she and her family would gather to enjoy the summer when they were still living in Brooklyn. It was a special place.
The cabin was built by her father, “stick by stick,” according to Olsen.
It’s still hard to walk or drive by and see the empty space where the cabin had once been, she said.
“When I go and look at that empty lot, it’s just devastating,” she said.
“I’ve never been flooded until that one,” said Carolee Russell, who moved from Schenectady to Blenheim 45 years ago.
Her cellar was flooded, causing considerable damage. Aid from FEMA helped in paying for the recovery.
The storm also flooded the roads where she lived, which made it impossible for her and her neighbors to drive away. Instead, they had to climb the nearest mountain to escape. While climbing, they heard the alarm coming from the Gilboa Dam. It was a scary moment, Russell said, since no one knew if the dam would break, which would have made the situation far worse and far more deadly.
At the anniversary press conference, speakers talked about remembering what had happened, but also about continuing the county’s recovery and going beyond.
Afterward, Goodrich, whose organization SALT was formed to help with the recovery from Irene, talked about rejuvenating the community through economic development.
Irwin talked about the lack of strong cellphone service in the area, which is something he would like to see changed.
The weather during the press conference was particularly strange, fluctuating from random bursts of extreme sunshine to dark clouds above and strong winds tossing pieces of paper and napkins in the air.
But the speeches continued. And the hope remained that the county would continue its recovery.
After getting emotional during his speech, Lopez shifted the conversation to the resilience of the community and how people had gone from being victims of the flood to architects of the future in rebuilding.
Now, whenever it rains, Russell is more aware of what might happen.
“We pay more attention now,” she said.