Irene 10 years later: Horrific scenes, tales of resilience still etched in minds of Schoharie Valley residents
Ten years ago, on Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Irene blasted through Schoharie County, forever changing the landscape of the communities of the Schoharie Valley.
Today, the area has rebounded significantly thanks to the long-term volunteer efforts of individuals and groups who are still working to facilitate economic development and foster a continued sense of togetherness.
Middleburgh Mayor Trish Bergan said that while Tropical Storm Irene — followed by Tropical Storm Lee’s less-impactful deluge on Sept. 8 — was devastating, it brought out the best in the people of Schoharie County.
“There was a lot of really horrible things that happened, but there was a lot of good that came out of the flood, too,” she said. “I saw a sense of community,” after 1,958 Schoharie Valley structures were impacted, she said.
When Middleburgh began to flood, Bergan was living in an apartment directly across the street from the rising Schoharie Creek. “I don’t think anybody realized it was going to be as bad as it was,” Bergan said of Irene.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For the final installment of our three-day series, we revisit the storms’ massive impact on Schoharie County, and we explore the equally devastating effects in the Adirondacks.
She bought water, granola and peanut butter to prepare.
“When the sirens went off” signaling that the earthen Gilboa Dam — which holds more than 17 billion cubic tons of water — could potentially breach or fail, she said. “That was scary.”
Such an event could easily submerge and destroy Middleburgh.
Bergen “threw some clothes on and left,” her apartment. “I didn’t get that far because every single pathway out of the village was blocked by debris.”
“The only thing to do was go up,” said she, and she headed for higher ground.
Traveling to the highest point possible, Bergan ran into a resident with the same goal. Hopping into the woman’s truck, the two took an old logging road up a mountain to safety, where they waited for the rain to subside before descending.
After she returned to the village, Bergan found her street and apartment underwater. “It was really alarming to look down the street I lived on and see the water was halfway up my living room window.”
“I think we just lost our home,” she told her daughter during a disheartening phone call.
Leslie Price, a resident of the village of Schoharie and business owner of nearly 43 years, as well as the village clerk and treasurer, was visiting her mother in Saratoga when her hometown flooded.
When she returned to the village after the flood, she found her home destroyed. She located only one of her two cats when first responders let her in through the back.
“Seven feet and 6 inches of water went through that house” — a one-floor dwelling with 8-foot ceilings — “and my cat survived,” she said.
Price owned two businesses at the time, both of which were decimated. Her salon in Middleburgh opened just 18 months earlier and had just started to turn a profit. Her other business, J. Lacy Unisex Hair Salon and Barber Shop in Schoharie, was destroyed. Water filled several feet of space, and bricks were torn from the wall. She managed to rebuild the shop with help from a master carpenter and volunteers. J. Lacy Unisex Hair Salon and Barber Shop reopened exactly a year later.
The Schoharie Village Office was filled with 9 feet of filthy floodwater following Tropical Storm Irene, Price said, and the mucky mess completely submerged her computer. The extensive contents of her hard drive were recovered by an employee from the state Office of Information Technology Services and records management.
Despite the fact that her home and businesses were destroyed, Price said, “I had to focus my first priority” as the village clerk and treasurer. “I had to keep working” full time, she said. “I had to keep the bills and employees paid.”
After learning that the Schoharie Free Library was flooded — water rose in the parking lot to 7 feet, and 2 1/2 feet of water filled the first floor — board member Debbie Paden said, “It was scary and it was very sad.”
A third of the extensive children’s collection of books was destroyed. So were the library’s HVAC and electrical systems in the basement, along with furniture and historic Victorian pocket doors, which were smashed by first responders searching for anyone trapped inside.
The Hotaling family — Trisha, Dan and then-8-year-old son Camron — were alerted the day prior to Tropical Storm Irene that their home was in danger. The family moved their possessions from their basement to a space across the street and left in search of safety.
“When the dam sirens went off, we grabbed our animals,” including dogs and cats, “and tried putting them in the car,” Trisha said. One cat “tore us up and wanted to stay.” Panicked and with little time to spare, the family left their pet behind.
The entire home was submerged in the floodwaters. When they returned the next day, the family found the cat that refused to leave on the roof.
“He must’ve climbed the chimney flu and was perched on top of the roof the entire flood,” Hotaling said. Dan waded through 6 feet of water to the roof and held the cat until the waters receded.
Though the cat ended up surviving, the family lost all its possessions in the flood, including the items they had moved across the street for safekeeping.
Though Tropical Storm Irene was devastating — dumping 16 inches of rain on the Schoharie Valley in just 24 hours — it also brought the community together, facilitating a massive response not just from locals, but also from volunteers traveling to Schoharie County from across the United States.
In the aftermath of the high-water event, resident Sarah Goodrich immediately went to the Schoharie Methodist Church, where a group was organized to divvy up responsibilities across the area.
“At the time everybody was responding very locally” since roadways were impassable and the area’s capacity for communication was completely wiped out, Goodrich said. “Even if your house wasn’t impacted, the banks, gas stations and convenience stores were closed and destroyed.”
For many, there was literally nowhere to go aside from the Schoharie Central School, which was spared.
While Goodrich continued to assist with post-flood remediation in the months following the disaster, several local individuals decided that volunteer efforts might run more smoothly — and the state might be more receptive to funding requests — if an official group was organized.
Schoharie Area Long Term, Inc. (SALT) was formed and received emergency 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in early 2012. Goodrich — who had experience in coordinating volunteer efforts — became the group’s executive director in April.
SALT was created, Goodrich said, when local people became frustrated with national plans for recovery. “They got together and said, ‘We don’t necessarily agree with how the nationals are saying how we should recover.’
“The national models,” said Goodrich, who remains a SALT board member, “were dealing with urban and suburban areas” and using plans “that were not going to fit” Schoharie County.
An additional goal of SALT, she continued, “was to be able to coordinate what was happening in smaller areas, and to distribute funds and better serve the area as a whole.”
Part of SALT’s multifaceted recovery plan involved the day-to-day management of communications, volunteer assistance and disbursement of donations, which Goodrich said “came flooding in.”
“People started coming very early on and donating food,” Goodrich said. “We never knew from day to day what was going to show up, but it always did.” The continual food donations were used in the preparation of hot meals, which were served daily for two years.
Volunteers traveled to Schoharie County from places as far away as Alaska and California in the first two months after Irene, with individuals and groups from states such as Michigan and Minnesota remaining long term. Green Shirt Volunteers were stationed in the Schoharie Valley for two years after Tropical Storm Irene, with many faith-based groups also sending help.
“These were organizations that would send teams that had building skills, and we would coordinate to tell them where they were needed,” said Goodrich.
About 10 to 12 volunteers assisted daily in cleaning out the Schoharie Free Library, mucking out dirty spaces and removing tainted Sheetrock, carpets and furniture. A local spelunking group even volunteered to clean out the previously submerged crawl space, which was filled with mud and glass.
“It was great to see all the help we got,” said Paden, noting that library officials were overwhelmed. “We didn’t know how we were going to get the library back up and running.”
Village of Middleburgh Trustee Timothy Knight was just 17 when Tropical Storm Irene struck Schoharie Valley.
Working his first job at Howe Caverns, Knight said he could tell a unique storm was brewing the night before Irene hit. “It was perfectly still,” he said, “and if you looked down I-88 going west, there was this encroaching cloud system that left this ominous air over everything.”
The day Irene devastated the area, Knight was sidelined with pneumonia and remained in bed at his home in Richmondville for the next two weeks.
When he felt better, he traveled to Middleburgh to help with the community’s recovery, cleaning mud out of basements, scrapping destroyed carpets and furniture — traveling house to house along River Street to assist wherever needed.
“It was a formative process,” he said of witnessing “the amount of work and effort it took seeing our community recover and get back to basics.”
The recovery process for Trish Hotaling’s family was painful and drawn out.
“It was a lot of work and fretful,” she said. The strangest moments of the entire post-flood era came when she was ordered to paint her family’s name and number on the side of their destroyed home.
“That was surreal. It’s something you see on TV,” she said, “not something you think you’ll ever have to do yourself.”
Her Hotaling family was technically homeless for a while and lived with her parents while waiting for financial assistance. The family didn’t have flood insurance. They only ever received a check for $55.72 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which they kept.
Price, too, was rendered homeless and moved into the Schoharie Central School for some time before going to live with her sister, then eventually relocating to a FEMA trailer.
NY Rising provided money in 2014 for Price to build a new home where her old one existed. She moved back in and lived there until last year, when she sold the property.
National Grid, Price pointed out, was the first to lend financial assistance after Irene. “They put money in our pocket.”
She won $350 on a $10 long shot at Saratoga Race Course the night before Tropical Storm Irene and used her winnings to buy meals well into October at the only two open area fast-food restaurants — Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts.
The Hotaling family did not rebuild on the spot where their home formerly existed. That land eventually was sold as — and remains — an empty lot. With assistance from then-state Assemblyman Peter Lopez, their home’s $100,000 mortgage was dissolved, allowing them to buy a new property high on a hill.
“We are on the highest mountain. We overlook the valley now,” Hotaling said. “Living where we do now is such a godsend. It’s such peace of mind.”
The Schoharie Free Library was provided about $150,000 for recovery from FEMA and various state grants. Recovery funding also rolled in from locals.
Paden said: “A lot of people in Schoharie who were hurt were individual families,” who she thinks “felt comfortable donating to the library,” since it was one of the only local not-for-profit spaces heavily impacted.
The library’s HVAC system was rebuilt between a higher elevation in the basement and in the attic. The library, which didn’t have flood insurance at the time of Tropical Storm Irene, has since had to acquire it “at great expense” as a contingency of accepting FEMA money.
The library, operating out of the same Victorian-era building for the past 100 or so years, finally reopened in June of 2012. Paden said, “We had a lot of community support in lots of ways, and I think people were very glad when we were back up and running.”
STRONGER THAN EVER
While Middleburgh continues its steady recovery, many chose to leave the area after Irene. “We bled population in the village and town,” Knight said. In fact, the municipality lost about 600 residents and 200 school-age kids over the past 10 years.
But Middleburgh’s residents and business district demonstrated resiliency, especially the village’s downtown.
“It’s actually stronger now and more diverse,” Knight said. Middleburgh only lost a handful of businesses in the long run, with most returning and not only restoring storefronts but also taking the opportunity to improve.
Now, Middleburgh has a brewery on Main Street, along with several restaurants and various retail locations.
“The amount of loss that the village and town sustained” was substantial, Knight said, “and yet, we still have a thriving business district. We have a community that’s the envy of this county and an amazing location for tourism.”
Bergan, appointed mayor of Middleburgh about a year ago, said that although she has always been community-minded, her run for the village’s highest office was partially inspired by the catastrophic flood that forever changed the area.
As mayor, she’s currently assisting with the second phase of a mitigation project — funded through the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and NYS Soil and Water Conservation District — scheduled for the summer of 2022. The project, aimed at directing water away from the business district during substantial weather events, will involve the installation of culverts in creek-adjacent locations.
The project’s first phase facilitated the installation of a retention pond on Gorge Road, the goal of which is to slow water heading in the village’s direction.
“Here, you live at the bottom of the bowl, so you have to be mindful of it — you have to prepare for it — and we’re making efforts to make sure that happens,” Bergan said.
“We definitely learned a lot from that experience,” which caused an estimated $130 million worth of damage to Schoharie County homes, she said. “We realized we can’t wait for these things to happen. We have to prepare.”
SALT continues to assist with local recovery, “but in a completely different way now,” Goodrich said. At this point, recovery “looks more like economic development,” she said, explaining that SALT regularly issues small grants to community members and nonprofit groups for a variety of improvement projects.
SALT’s ongoing goal “is to help the community not only recover but to develop for the future,” Bergan said.
“This really is the last stage of recovery: being stable enough and having built enough that you will go into the future as a community.”
The Schoharie County Office of Emergency Management named SALT an emergency arm, meaning the organization and its hundreds of volunteers can be called upon in any capacity during a crisis.
“We have a whole group of people we can call on at any time,” said Goodrich, noting that volunteers “have remained responsive” even a decade later.
In the summer of 2013, roughly 80 Schoharie County landowners impacted by Irene and Lee were the focus of meetings aimed at finalizing plans for a $21 million stream-repair and remediation project funded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection program.
Mitigation work began late in the year, impacting several long-neglected area streams: the Platter Kill, Line Creek and Little Schoharie Creek. Some $5.5 million was also issued to fix a tributary on Dave Brown Mountain, where Irene and Lee caused slope failures which put the area’s pressurized propane pipeline at risk.
Work to restore the creeks included rerouting portions of them altogether.
By August of 2013, volunteers had completed a full survey of 981 of Schoharie County’s damaged homes, returning 616 to a livable state. Approximately 63 percent of impacted families returned to their respective properties; that restoration work alone reflected more than 35,000 hours — an estimated $7 million — in volunteer labor.
Numerous properties throughout Schoharie County were leveled, and FEMA bought 40 as part of its buyout program. By late 2013, then-Schoharie Recovery Director Josh DeBartolo estimated that 150 Schoharie County homes were altogether lost.
In the two years following Irene and Lee, $2 million in cash donations had been received and distributed throughout Schoharie County, with companies also donating the equivalent of $1 million in work and materials.
The Schoharie County Office Building — in the heart of downtown — underwent post-Irene repair and construction, which involved the installation of an underground floodgate system aimed at protecting the facility in the event of a future high-water event.
The Gilboa Dam stood firm during Irene when floodwaters threatened its resiliency. Now, following a $138 million reinforcement project that was started prior to the flood and completed in 2014, the dam will be able to withstand a flood of almost double Irene’s intensity.
Despite the continued post-flood growth across Schoharie County, lingering fears remain.
Paden said that although the Schoharie Free Library has been fully restored, there have been few measures taken to mitigate future flood damage at the facility. As such, the library board hopes large-scale creek repairs will be enough to prevent flooding in the event of a future catastrophic storm.
Hotaling said that it took her son years to be able to sleep through heavy rain. The dam sirens, which are tested every Wednesday, still rattle the entire family. “I hate the sound,” Trisha said. “It’s brutal. It’s just too much.”
Price said that while she was too busy during her multifaceted post-flood recovery to focus on her own grief and trauma, PTSD recently revealed itself.
Following Irene, Price said, much of her sorrow was focused on the fact that her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren — whose home was destroyed — moved to North Carolina. “That made me cry every day,” she said, explaining that she had to start viewing the move in a positive way to cope with the loss.
Instead of mourning the fact that her relatives left the area, “I had to start telling myself, ‘I have a place to vacation now,’” she said.