Upstate New York Villages Struggle to Rebound After Irene

November 30, 2011

Storefronts in Schoharie, N.Y., a quaint village flooded out by Tropical Storm Irene, remain mostly empty and temporary trailers are plunked down alongside grand old homes.

A bank branch is serving customers from a truck and a government building’s hand-painted sign offers directions: “Temporary Courthouse by Dunkin’ Donuts.” Vacant houses advertise “for sale” signs and a lot on the village’s edge is scattered with tires, appliances and a house-high pile of construction debris – a massive reminder of what was lost.

Almost three months after Irene, people in the hard-hit village of Schoharie are still rebuilding their community and their lives. Progress has been so slow because the damage was so widespread.

“You know, one foot in front of the other,” said Leslie Price, who lost her home and had to close her two hair salons after the storm.

Price plans to re-open her J. Lacy salon on Main Street and decide what to do with her second salon in nearby Middleburgh in the spring. She is still employed as village clerk and treasurer, though she works from a temporary office in the elementary school.

Though the 54-year-old had to raze her damaged home after Irene swept through, she is thankful for the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer that was recently placed on her lot. It was big enough to host her sisters for Thanksgiving dinner, plus it’s her first steady place to stay in months.

“I’ve been going 11 weeks with my shampoo never in more than one spot for five days,” she said with a laugh.

Irene deluged a broad swath of the East Coast on Aug. 28, but a few dozen rural towns in Vermont and upstate New York, including in the Catskills and Adirondacks, endured a disproportionate share of property damage. On Irene’s heels, a second round of torrential rain from Tropical Storm Lee focused havoc in New York’s Southern Tier in places like Tioga, Broome and Chenango counties, as well as in eastern Pennsylvania.

In this village 25 miles west of Albany, Irene created a surge along Schoharie Creek that damaged 275 of the village’s 350 buildings – almost 8 out of every 10 structures – including all the businesses on Main Street. Residents who were forced to evacuate say the floodwaters reached higher than seven feet up their living room walls.

Thousands of volunteers and contractors have helped gut and rebuild houses but many residents have yet to get back into their homes.

“I tell you, it’s tough. Nobody knows unless they went through it. Nobody,” said Patricia Lawson.

Lawson and her 82-year-old mother are staying with a 93-year-old aunt nearby. Lawson sleeps on the floor. She got a FEMA grant to help with the dry rot in the basement and hopes to be back home this winter.

Mayor John Borst said one problem is that some residents are still waiting on insurance payments needed to rebuild. But he said the village’s mood has clearly lifted since the dark days right after Irene when things seemed hopeless.

“There are a lot of people – and I mean a lot of people – who at first blush were going to leave, were indecisive at best,” Borst said. “And they decided to rebuild. They’re staying. And when I find that out I give them a hug and I ask them, ‘What changed you mind?’ And they say ‘This is home.'”

That’s exactly the answer Cappy Santos gave when asked why she was renovating the home she has lived in since 1955. The 81-year-old widow lives within site of the creek, which rose eight feet up her first-floor walls, tipping over the refrigerator and floating her dining room table into the living room in a muddy tide. She escaped with wedding photos and letters from her late husband, but the interior of her home was wrecked.

Work on Santos’ home is almost done. Walls once stripped down to their studs have new drywall and a fresh coat of paint. Standing in her driveway, Santos shows a photo album of how the house looked right after Irene and chokes up at the loss.

“Oh you don’t know,” she said. “It looks so good compared to what it was.”

She hopes to be back in a few weeks.

But not everyone is staying. Price said one of her daughters and her husband saw Irene as an opportunity for a new start and left for North Carolina. A number of homes have “for sale” signs; one front-yard sign notes the water-damaged house comes “as is.”

Price and others say they are confident that enough people will stay to keep Schoharie vibrant. More worrisome is the rebound of the Main Street business district.

There are some encouraging signs. The Parrott House is open to guests and diners, and the local Stewart’s convenience store reopened with a flourish last month. While local business people like Price have vowed to come back, Borst said he is concerned that “absentee landlords” from New York City and elsewhere might have less incentive to re-invest in the village.

But Borst is still convinced Schoharie will come back, in time.

“We’re in a deep hole and we know it,” he said, “and we’re going to dig our way out.”

Topics New York

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