The Daily Star — The flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee a year ago ago caused hundreds of millions of dollars in destruction to upstate New York communities — and the effort to rebuild is far from complete.
Though it had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New York, Hurricane Irene plowed northward into the state with brutal force — and two of several communities that got the brunt of it were the village of Schoharie and the Greene County town of Prattsville.
In both cases — and in dozens of other communities throughout the region — the agent of destruction was not wind as much as it was the torrent of water that surged out of rivers, streams and creeks.
Swollen by rain and runoff, the Schoharie Creek rose more than 15 feet in just 12 hours. And places such as Prattsville and Schoharie paid a heavy price. Many residents have still not returned to their homes in those communities. Some have moved away.
Statewide, 44,438 New Yorkers registered as victims of Hurricane Irene and another 16,064 registered for Tropical Storm Lee, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The agency approved payments totaling $157.7 million to those affected by the disasters. Locally, Schoharie County produced the most applications for aid, with 1,881 households filing. Greene County was the next highest, with 1,777.
The disaster relief to households does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid FEMA is providing to the county and state to replace or refurbish bridges, buildings and roads damaged in the storms.
State government ponied up another $574 million in disaster aid to help communities rebuild.
Local officials say they appreciate the help but argue in some cases FEMA has provided only limited assistance or, in the case of the washed-away Old Blenheim Bridge, none at all.
At 210 feet long, the structure that had spanned Schoharie Creek for 156 years had been billed as the longest wooden covered bridge in the world.
While storm damage to conventional bridges is covered by FEMA, the agency has informed county officials that it does not fund the replacement of bridges that are historic artifacts, said Schoharie County Treasurer WIlliam Cherry.
The estimate to replace the Blenheim Bridge is approximately $2.5 million, he said. The county plans to appeal the denial.
Meanwhile, shovels are expected to go into the ground this week for a major renovation of the Schoharie County office building, left largely in ruins when water gushed into it one year ago.
Cherry said it will cost an estimated $5.2 million to rehabilitate the structure, and another $2.5 million will be spent for flood mitigation measures. FEMA will cover 75 percent of the renovation costs, while the state government will pay for the remaining 25 percent.
The county government, meanwhile, will be picking up the $400,000 tab for new heating and air conditioner systems for the building’s second floor because those projects are not covered by the federal or state disaster assistance programs, Cherry said.
The county will also be relying on federal and state funds to rebuild the Schoharie County Jail, which sustained heavy damage from Irene-related flooding. Building the jail is expected to cost about $9 million, Cherry said. The construction is expected to begin in February.
In all, the damage to Schoharie County’s infrastructure — buildings, roads and bridges — added up to about $50 million, Cherry said, adding that the damage to roads and bridges accounts for about $25 million of that, and those projects will largely be paid for by FEMA and the state.
The $50 million hit to Schoharie County does not include the millions of dollars in property losses experienced by homeowners and tenants living in the county.
Cherry, who had been living with his family on Main Street in the village of Schoharie at the time of the flooding, said he never expected to get hit by flooding because his home was not in the flood plain.
“The stuff we had in the house is all gone,” he said. “We had a lot of family heirlooms right there in the dining room. All of the family history is gone.” He said the home was covered by flood insurance, but that only paid 60 cents for each dollar of loss.
Cherry said he gutted the house and is now trying to sell it. Meanwhile, he and his wife have bought a smaller home in Cobleskill. “We had to go to a furniture store to replace everything,” he said. “It’s like you’re just starting out.”
In Greene County, Kevin Piccoli, chairman of the Rebuild Prattsville steering group, said total damages to the community amounted to “tens of millions of dollars.”
Water that was over people’s heads rushed along the town’s main artery as the rivers and streams overflowed. “So much history was just washed into the reservoir,” he said.
“People have been doing everything they can with what little they have, and now we just need a little more help to get us on our feet,” Piccoli said. “Very little money has gone to the homeowners from these disaster-related grants.”
The Prattsville Relief Fund, he said, has raised $310,000 from donors over the past year. The money has been parceled to 90 families whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Many had no flood insurance, and, said Piccoli, the fund is now “largely depleted.” He said donations can still be made through the organization’s web site: www.prattsville.org
“We’re trying to do so much here, but it really is a challenge,” he said. “We’re trying hard to come back bigger and better than ever.”
In Cooperstown, Otsego County Highway Superintendent Ron Tiderencil said repairs to most county roads damaged in the storms have been completed although some work remains to be done.
One of the biggest projects, he said, was the rebuilding of a washed-out stretch of County Route 36 in Worcester. That project cost about $800,000 and was covered by FEMA.
Road crews have also completed work on County Route 31, damaged by a major bank slide. It had to be shut down throughout the winter but reopened just before Memorial Day weekend. That work cost about $225,000 and was funded by FEMA.
Meanwhile, a bridge on County Route 50 in Roseboom remains under construction. That project is running about $574,000.
“We definitely didn’t get hit as hard here as the places in Schoharie County,” said Tiderencil. “We were just lucky.”
The private business in the region that sustained the most damage in the storms was the Amphenol manufacturing facility in Sidney. The company has put total losses from Tropical Storm Lee at $35 million.
In June, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, urged the federal Economic Development Administration to award $3.8 million in federal disaster funding to the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency to assist with the construction of a new flood-proof site for Amphenol, the largest private employer in Delaware County.
In a move intended to keep Amphenol in the region, state officials last year announced that they approved a 10-year package of incentives for Amphenol that totals $28 million.