Early on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, in Schoharie County, heavy rain fell from dark skies as Hurricane Irene climbed up the Eastern Seaboard. The storm had already done irreparable damage to the Bahamas, North Carolina, and Virginia. New York City was warned that it would likely be next, and officials went as far as shutting down the subway system in preparation.
Residents of the Capital Region and Mohawk Valley, however, were largely unruffled by Irene’s approach. Forecasters were not predicting that damaging conditions would hit inland regions. Weather earlier in the weekend had been sunny and beautiful, a nearly perfect late summer day.
That Sunday Undersheriff Ron Stevens drove south on Route 30, a road that follows the Schoharie Creek from Esperance in the north to Gilboa in the south. Stevens was headed to a press conference at the Gilboa Dam in Blenheim. He hadn’t checked the weather reports that morning, and he wondered how long the downpour would last. As he drove, he noticed that the water was getting high, splashing over barriers and into the roadway.
The water rose rapidly as he drove back toward Schoharie after the press conference. By the time he arrived in the village of Middleburgh, the fi re department had received a call that a person was trapped by water in the second floor of their house. The creek, which runs under a bridge along the western side of the village, was starting to overtake both Routes 30 and 145. Stevens and another officer began directing traffic away as the rain poured. The water in the streets was rising up their legs in some spots. The situation was becoming severe.
Shortly before noon, Stevens received a phone call from the Sheriff’s secretary.
“The secretary called and said, ‘Are you aware that the alarms went off at the dam?’” Stevens said in a recent interview.
He was not. Back at the Gilboa Dam, the Schoharie Reservoir was rising and employees were struggling to control the flow of water over the dam. The alarms were from extensometers, according to the New York Power Authority Emergency Response After-Action Report released after the storm. The meters measure how the dam moves under stress from the water.
Later in the afternoon, downed power and telephone lines and bad cell service caused communication between dam officials and county officials to be difficult and limited, the report said. Throughout the storm, the 15-story dam remained completely intact, but three Tainter gates were opened to let out water that was reaching high levels in the reservoir. This caused a large amount of water to flow from the reservoir down the Schoharie Creek and through the valley.
Undersheriff Stevens, seeing that the Village of Middleburgh was about to be inundated by water, knew that other villages downstream would likely suffer the same fate. He decided to blow the dam-failure horns and begin an emergency evacuation of the Schoharie Valley.
“I made the decision then,” he said. “I could see the rate that the water was coming, that we were going to have to get people out of this valley.”
ACCUSTOMED TO FLOODING
Fifteen miles north, the loud whine of the horns reverberated through the Priddle Road neighborhood in Esperance. Residents of Priddle Road were accustomed to flooding. They had withstood the flood that soaked their homes in 1996 and many high water incidents after that. When the creek rose, they stayed put. Some even made a game of it by placing stakes in the ground, watching to see how fast the water came up the bank.
But none of the residents, including Donna Waszczak, had ever heard the dam-failure horns blow before. Waszczak knew there would be no stake games this time around.
“We had always been told that if the sirens went off, that means that the dam had gone, and you have 45 minutes to get your ass out of there,” said Waszczak, who has lived on Priddle Road for nearly three decades.
Waszczak rounded up her four dogs and a sack of dog food and left her house with nothing more than the clothes on her back. She picked up some neighbors and their pets and drove to higher ground, but not before stopping to warn others in the close-knit community that they, too, needed to leave.
On their way out, Waszczak ran into firefighters who told her there was a loss of communication with dam officials. No one really knew what the situation was, but they knew they had to get away from the creek as it surged and engulf the bank.
Despite the uncertainty Waszczak expected her house would withstand the flood.
When Hurricane Irene struck New York State five years ago, it left an appalling aftermath that no one in upstate New York could have predicted. It’s estimated that between 13 and 16 inches of rain fell in some areas. New York City escaped virtually unscathed, but the force of the raging floodwaters devastated the rural villages in the Schoharie Valley. Much of the quiet, picturesque county was officially declared a major disaster area by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Days later, the county was hit again by tropical storm Lee, which caused further flooding. There were no deaths in the county caused by either storm.
“Nearly as fast as the water came, it went,” said Undersheriff Stevens. “We experienced the water for 24 hours maybe. We’ll be experiencing the aftermath for the rest of our lives.”
While residents lost their homes, photos, records, and mementos, many agree that the disaster brought the community closer. Over the past five years, new businesses and agencies have emerged with determined visions of a bright future.
Schoharie Area Long Term, or SALT, formed immediately after the flood to lead rebuilding and recovery efforts in Schoharie County. SALT began as a group of leaders from the Schoharie Reformed Church, and later officially became a non-profit to support economic renewal in the county.
SALT estimates that 1,674 residential properties were affected by flooding in the towns and communities that dot the Schoharie Creek. The most recent survey in 2014 showed that 79 percent of those had recovered fully, and 9 percent were still in the process of rebuilding.
The remaining 12 percent were either destroyed or remain in a state of limbo for various reasons. Some have had owners completely walk away, some are in foreclosure or are being held for taxes, according to SALT director Sarah Goodrich.
CELEBRATING A COMEBACK
Others took FEMA buyouts, which means no permanent structures can ever be built on the land, but they can be turned into parking lots or community parks.
In addition, farmers who had spent months cultivating their livelihood in the ground lost their entire fall harvest, a hard financial hit for a county where agriculture is a primary industry. Many sustained damage to their barns, homes, and farming equipment as well.
Richard Ball, commissioner of Agriculture and Markets for New York State and owner of Schoharie Valley Farms, said some private farms are still recovering from the loss, but the county has a lot to over in way of its beautiful land and bountiful harvests.
“Farmers are definitely well-suited to recover,” he said. “We’re used to taking a beating from Mother Nature.”
Priddle Road was arguably the most heavily devastated area in Schoharie County. Waszczak drove back the Monday after the storm to assess the damage, with no doubt that her house had withstood the night.
Waszczak crossed a bridge that lead to her house. She saw familiar, off-purple colored wood siding of a neighbor’s house smashed against the side of the bridge. She came across the sister of one of her other neighbors and stopped to talk.
“And [the sister] said, ‘Your house isn’t there anymore.’ I said, ah no, my house is there. Maybe the barn went. She said, ‘I think Joey said your house is gone’, I said no, no, no.”
When she arrived on Priddle Road, all that remained of Waszczak’s house was six cinder blocks. Other houses on the road had been crushed to pieces, splinters and personal belongings scattered throughout the neighborhood. Waszczak said she was in shock, and walked around totally dazed.
Like much of the rest of the county, Waszczak eventually found the strength to begin recovery. She built a new house just 80 feet back from the old location, and raised her new home 8 feet in the air. Waszczak estimated that only two out of more than 20 property owners returned to Priddle Road after Irene
“I wasn’t going anywhere. Do you see where I live?”
Waszczak pointed out of a large window in her front room. The docile creek water glistened and sparkled in the early morning sun. A handful of green leaves fluttered off of a tall tree, and a bald eagle circled overhead. The chickens in the front yard clucked as they wandered through the garden.
“That’s why I’m never leaving, because it’s home.”
Waszczak is thankful the alarms were sounded even though the dam didn’t fail. She believes it saved the lives of many people, as residents would have attempted to wait out the flood.
“We would have all been dead, because nobody was going anywhere,” Waszczak said.
Despite the hot summer heat and backbreaking labor required to clean out homes and businesses, a majority of Schoharie County residents persevered to rebuild after the flood. It’s a process that took months for some, and years for others.
Sarah Goodrich, director of SALT, says the recovery can largely be attributed to the resilience of the people of Schoharie County. She explained that the immense kindness, hard work, and dedication of volunteers and community leaders helped save both the spirits and properties of residents.
“When I look back I’m totally amazed at all that’s been accomplished and I’m amazed in a positive way at the commitment and the resilience of people who live here,” said Goodrich. “Commitment to the long term, to keep working at it, to not give up, to bolster their neighbors when they are down… we couldn’t be where we are if that weren’t true.”
Now five years later, SALT is reshaping its purpose for community renewal. The group is working on several projects with local business and government to bolster the local economy in areas that have been lacking since the recession in 2008.
New projects underway at SALT include: a study to analyze the feasibility of creating a 38-mile trail along the creek in hopes of creating recreation for locals and attracting tourism; a project to improve housing, appearance, and livability of the hamlet of Central Bridge; and a business initiative to bolster small businesses throughout the wider region. Goodrich also said they hope to further engage the creek with the community
A task force also exists to address solutions to the vacant properties in the county.
SALT seeks financial assistance for its projects through fundraisers applying for grants, and it never received money from large government agencies like NY Rising or FEMA.
In the NYPA report on the incident released following the flood, NYPA said that the stress on the dam was “within a safe range based on engineering guidance incorporated into the control center standard operating procedure.” However just after noon during the storm, there was a point where communication with instruments and video feed were lost.
Reconstruction of the Gilboa Dam was in process before Irene, but was hindered for a few months after the storm. A $138 million reconstruction was completed in October 2014 two years ahead of schedule, according to the DEP. Further work is underway to build a release tunnel that will drain water from the reservoir to the creek, going around the dam instead of over it.
The dam is owned by New York City and its purpose is to provide city residents with 15 percent of its total water supply.
Undersheriff Stevens said he’s proud of how first responders handled the emergency despite the offices being evacuated and having no facilities to operate from. The magnitude of the flood of 2011 was unprecedented, but did help point out areas where emergency response can be improved, he said.
Since 2011, the Schoharie County Sherriff’s department has applied for and been awarded over $4.2 million in competitive grants. The money is being used to purchase upgraded communications technology and processes.
The jail in Schoharie is still not in use. Schoharie County prisoners continue to be boarded at Albany County Correctional Facility. Plans are being drawn to build a new jail funded by FEMA, north on Route 30 just outside the village.
The road to recovery has not been without diffculty. Some businesses were not able to return, for emotional, financial, or other reasons.
Richard Vilegi, owner of Middleburgh Hardware, was able to recover his business despite suffering $180,000 in losses. He was even able to use his business to help others rebuild.
“When [the flood] happened we had no registers, we pretty much were on the honor system for a while. If you need something, just come back.”
He also said it’s good to see how Main Street businesses in Middleburgh have recovered and grown. However, Vilegi said he feels frustrated by NY Rising and FEMA. Some local businesses may have been saved if state and federal aid was more easily accessible, he said.
“I wish there was help quicker,” Vilegi said.