Mike LaVallee sat on his front step the morning of Aug. 29, 2011. It was breezy and sunny, and he was hopeful his power might be restored after it was knocked out by storms the night before.
Around 9 a.m., he looked to his right and saw a rush of water surging down Erie Street and Main Street in Rotterdam Junction. It resembled a scene out of a movie, he said.
“It was so fast,” LaVallee said. “We were just watching water rise and rise, and we just said, ‘we have to get out of here.’”
Five years ago, Hurricane Irene swept through the Mohawk Valley, leaving devastating floods and damage in its wake. Entire neighborhoods remained underwater for days, especially in Rotterdam Junction. Sixty-two homes in the hamlet were inundated from the flood—52 on the first floor, and 10 up to the second floor, according to a 2013 report on the storm.
Many neighborhood residents have lived there for decades, and most can recall details vividly and describe the day-to-day effects of the storm. They remember the Volunteer Fire Department becoming the town’s command center and Main Street becoming a river. They remember neighbors pulling together in the wake of the storm. They are all linked by their experiences during what was deemed a storm that happens once every 500 years.
Hurricane Irene dumped about five inches of rain onto most parts of Schenectady County over the course of just a few days. The flooding, plus the wind, made for something residents had never seen in the Capital Region.
The resulting floods effectively turned Rotterdam Junction into an island, with debris-filled water drifting down streets and into homes. Multiple residents recall watching kayaks and pontoon boats drift down Main Street to retrieve those still trapped in their homes. Tropical Storm Lee poured more water onto the already soaked hamlet, impeding recovery efforts.
LaVallee’s family lost both their vehicles, his motorcycle and all their belongings stored in the garage and basement.
Others lost their homes entirely and were forced to rebuild, like David Orologio, whose Isabella Street house was destroyed in the storm. Orologio moved in March into a newly constructed house built with funds from a state program for flood victims.
For nearly all affected by the flood, there were some things that couldn’t be rebuilt.
“It’s some little picture your child that’s now older drew when they were a kid that you saved, it’s gone,” said Rita Truesdell, who lives on Putnam Street. “Certain things.”
Most Rotterdam Junction residents have a flood story. And by extension, most residents can recall seeing a neighbor or a volunteer step up to help in the days and weeks following Irene.
The Rotterdam Junction Volunteer Fire Department became a command center for the hamlet following the storm. Volunteering suddenly became a full time job as firefighters were tasked with aiding stranded residents, providing information and housing agencies and displaced people while recovery efforts got underway.
“Nothing could get us ready for this,” said Jim Corangelo, fire commissioner and a former fire chief at the department. “Everything was sprung on us in 48 hours, and then it went on for three weeks.”
Initially, firefighters pumped water out of homes and checked for gas leaks, Corangelo said. After that was done, they turned into a sort of recovery squad, paddling down Main Street in a pontoon boat to bring people to higher ground.
In recalling the storm, many residents are quick to point out the leading role the fire department played in the initial response to the flooding. They’re also quick to point out how the damage united the community.
“There are people that I know that had neighbors they hadn’t talked to in forever, and all of a sudden they were helping each other clean out their houses,” Truesdell said.
SI Group, which has a chemical plant just up Main Street from the fire department, offered some employees affected by the storm free housing and car rentals until they were able to get settled, LaVallee said.
REMNANTS OF THE STORM
Nearly five years after Corangelo paddled through Main Street in a boat to aid residents, he looked over photos from the flooding. There are about five posters at the fire house filled with rows of photos, from when the flooding began to when government officials toured the area. Corangelo said the volunteer firefighters talk about the storm once in a while.
Most who planned to move back after the storm have done so, residents said. But there are still reminders of the storm scattered throughout town, recognizable to those who have been there for long enough.
Some who chose not to return to their homes have left zombie properties behind. The abandoned homes are not uncommon throughout the area, but these particular properties have been sitting vacant for five years now — before the issue came into the political spotlight, Corangelo said. One resident estimated there are about half a dozen houses that were never taken care of.
The fire department itself will soon see a change in the aftermath of the storm. The building will benefit from a $1.4 million grant from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery to construct an addition on the building. The idea is that with an expanded building and facility, the fire department will be better prepared for the next major emergency, flooding or otherwise, Corangelo said. The upgrades include new ADA compliant bathrooms and a new, larger multipurpose room.
Some residents were able to receive FEMA grant funding depending on the severity of damage and were able to rebuild. For others, it became too big of a financial burden and they chose to move elsewhere.
For a neighborhood filled with families who have lived there for decades, it’s difficult to forget what they all went through together five years ago.
“The more time goes by, the less people want to talk about it,” LaVallee said. “You just try to move on and hope it doesn’t happen again.”