After flood, recovery rises in Schoharie
After flood, recovery rises in Schoharie
Ann Ryan in her Magical Printing and Design shop on Main St. in Schoharie, NY Wednesday May 8, 2013.
(John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union)
On Main Street in this picturesque village, a plaque on a storefront shows the high-water mark — the height of a grown man — when the Schoharie Creek roared through on Aug. 28, 2011, after spilling over its banks during Tropical Storm Irene.
Across the street, at three buildings that make up Schoharie County’s offices, workers are still rebuilding the basement and first floor, where water was 6 feet high and left behind a half-foot of sludge formed by mud, manure, farm fertilizers and oil. Businesses have been returning slowly to Main Street, although some storefronts remain vacant, marked by dust-streaked windows and half-demolished interiors. More economic life should return when county offices fully reopen and workers move back into the clerk’s and motor vehicles offices, as expected, in the next several weeks.
“It will make a big difference to have people here again, going out on their lunch hours, shopping,” said Ann Ryan, who owns Magical Printing and Design on Main Street. She shares space in the store with a landscaping company and photographer who recently relocated downtown.
Ryan opened in the rebuilt storefront in June after the flood hit her home-based business in the village, destroying her equipment. “After the flood, it was a ghost town down here,” she said. “The only way to help make the village grow again is to have business success.”
And she sounded determined, like others in the village. “If it floods again, I’ll come back and rebuild again,” Ryan said.
That conviction was echoed by Leslie Price, who lost her hair salon, her home and another salon in nearby Middleburgh.
“Tell people we are not victims anymore, we are survivors,” said Price, who in August reopened the salon she started in 1979. Her home was so badly damaged it had to be demolished. She now lives in an apartment over her shop.
Schoharie County is looking beyond restoration and preparing to defend against the next flood with a barrier system used in only a handful of places in the country.
“The goal is to make our buildings waterproof,” said Bill Cherry, county restoration coordinator and treasurer, as he gave a tour of county offices. “The water could rise again, and everything in the buildings would stay dry and all systems would remain intact.”
With $5 million in federal aid approved this month, the county will armor the lower walls of its buildings with insulation meant to enable walls to stand up to the weight of rushing water, install heavy-grade window glass that also can withstand water pressure, and finally, seal off its historic 1870s courthouse and complex entrances behind a built-in system of automatic, heavy-duty floodgates up to 10 feet tall.
A half-dozen folding gates will be installed, Cherry said, and can be made to raise either automatically, when sensors detect rising water, or manually.
This floodgate system, made by Houston-based Floodbreak, was in place around Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton during Tropical Storm Lee, which hit the state a month after Irene. The gates kept the hospital dry, even as several thousand homes and businesses were flooded by the Lee-fueled Susquehanna River. Deciding to put in the gates after being hit by a 2006 flood that caused $20 million in damages, Lourdes is one of just six locations in the country to use the system, according to the company.
Protecting county offices against flooding is expensive, but still cheaper than writing off the complex to the next flood and moving elsewhere, Cherry said. “The entire complex would probably cost $60 million, $70 million to replace,” he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is giving the county $5 million to rebuild its damaged offices, so the additional $5 million in FEMA money for the floodgate system is roughly what it would cost to rebuild the offices should another flood hit.
Because of the flood risk, the county also has installed its backup diesel generator — which had been in the basement and was destroyed — on an elevated platform behind the building. The basement, which had been used for record storage and offices, will no longer house anything of lasting value, Cherry said.
Some of the historic paperwork that was in the basement — and emerged as soaked, muddy lumps — is now being restored by a Texas company that freeze-dries the lumps, draws out the ice and has workers separate the pages.
“To someone who did not know what happened here, and just drove through today, it might look like things are normal,” Cherry said. “But there is a lot still to do … on some of these side streets, half of the homes may be still uninhabited.”
Cherry is among those former village residents who were forced to leave, and have not returned. His home, an 1850s center hall Colonial, sustained significant damage that compromised its foundation. He was one of the few residents of the street to have federal flood insurance, which he decided might be a good idea after he watched a television program about Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in New Orleans.
But the insurance turned out not to be enough to save his home, where he and his wife, Sherry, lived for 13 years and raised the youngest of their five children. He got into a long battle with his insurance company over what it would cover. He ended up spending tens of thousands of dollars to gut the house at the insurance company’s insistence, and then to hire his own adjuster, structural engineer and lawyer to fight his claim. He and his wife had to stay in an apartment in Cobleskill as the months dragged on.
Cherry finally received a settlement from the company that he said still left him with a quarter-million-dollar loss. This month, he sold his home — which before the flood was appraised at $284,000 — for $70,000 to a contractor who is going to rebuild it.
And Cherry still had a court fight over a $93,000 demolition bill from a company that had first quoted a price of about $12,000.
“It was hard to leave this place,” he said, looking at his former house, where the bleeding hearts and tulips planted by his wife were in bloom. “But I could not afford to put more money into it … we just bought a smaller home in Cobleskill. My wife and I were some of the lucky ones in town. At least we had our jobs after the flood, and could afford a hotel to live in and to hire our own experts.”
Farther down Main Street, Dawn McDermott-Failing, a lifelong Schoharie resident, talked about the town’s comeback as she stood in front of her mother’s craft and farm goods shop, The Little Posey Place. The store opened in September in the former office of an abstract firm.
“The first Christmas here was pretty sad, there were no lights or anything downtown or in the houses on Main,” she said. “It felt so much better last Christmas, when the lights were on.”
She recalled the first Halloween after the flood, when residents wanted to give children a way to trick-or-treat.
“So they came up with ‘trunk-or-treat,’ where people parked their cars along the street, and decorated them,” McDermott-Failing said. “They had their trunks full of candy, and were handing it out. It was so popular that they did it again this last Halloween.”
She said her family moved to South Carolina before the flood, and then decided to come back and help revive the village.
“You get Schoharie in your blood. It’s a great place to live.”
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