SCHOHARIE COUNTY As the owner of Schoharie Valley Farms, Richard Ball knows what it’s like to recover from a damaging flood.
“I’m a farmer, and vegetable farmers have a tough time with floods,” said Ball, who owns the Carrot Barn, a store on Route 30 that sells fresh produce, local beef, dairy products and fresh-baked goods. “We’re used to taking a few beatings now and again.”
But the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene was different.
“It affected the community as a whole — our friends, neighbors, customers, employees, the kids who work for us,” said Ball, who estimates that all but 20 of his 200 acres were submerged by flood waters. “When you go through an event like this, it’s a community-wide pain, and there’s a community-wide need to fix it.”
Ball serves on the board of Schoharie Recovery Inc., a new, nonprofit organization formed shortly after the flood. He said his decision to join the group was a simple one.
“The community has always been there for us, and we wanted to be there for it,” he said.
A coalition of residents and business owners, Schoharie Recovery is coordinating long-term recovery efforts in the Schoharie Central School District, which includes the villages of Schoharie, Central Bridge, Esperance and Gallupville. The group does not include any elected officials, but works closely with local politicians and government agencies, directing volunteers to people and places in need of assistance and raising money for rebuilding. The long-term goal is preventing net population loss and net business loss and finding ways to revitalize the community through rebuilding.
“The new Schoharie will be a better and stronger Schoharie than the one before the flood,” said John Poorman, who lives in Schoharie and chairs Schoharie Recovery. “We’re hopeful that we will serve as a catalyst for community redevelopment. ... We want to provide a sense of hope, so folks in the community know that there’s somebody in their corner.”
Schoharie Recovery isn’t the only grass-roots organization to come together with the goal of rebuilding communities devastated by flooding. Other groups have formed, hoping to spearhead what is expected to be a multi-year, community-wide rebuilding process. Like Schoharie Recovery, these other groups are looking to revitalize their communities, to make them more attractive and economically viable.
Another new citizen-led group is the Rural Area Recovery Effort, which is focused on rebuilding the southern part of Schoharie County, an area that encompasses the Gilboa-Conesville Central School District. The group is headed by Keith Graham, a Blenheim resident whose home and business, Blenheim Pharmacal, a contract pharmaceutical packaging and repackaging company, were not damaged in the storm.
“I felt I needed to step up,” Graham said.
With so much attention focused on other parts of the county damaged by the storm, the county’s southern residents and businesses felt a little bit forgotten, Graham said.
“At some point, an organization had to rise up,” he said. “Blenheim sits at the mouth of the power authority. We’re always the first ones to get hit with flooding.”
RARE’s goals include obtaining the resources to rebuild — “resources have been lacking,” Graham said — coordinating volunteers and developing a long-term plan for revitalizing the area. One concern that has emerged since the flood is the lack of cellphone service in much of the area, while the spotiness of high-speed Internet service is another issue, Graham said.
“During the disaster, it was difficult to communicate,” he said.
In addition to rebuilding damaged areas, RARE will try to address these larger quality-of-life concerns.
Another new group that formed about three weeks ago, called SALT, for Schoharie area long-term recovery group, hopes to serve as an umbrella organization for the various churches and organizations, such as the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce and Schoharie County Community Action Program, working on flood relief and rebuilding. SALT’s main goal is to help coordinate activities and communication and prevent unnecessary duplication.
“It’s extremely important that everybody be on the same page and working together,” said the Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen, pastor at Schoharie Reformed Church, where the volunteer efforts for the Schoharie school district are based. “Otherwise, some things will fall through the cracks.”
Every church denomination has a disaster assistance program, and SALT plans to tap into those resources. Meyer-Veen, who is active in SALT, Schoharie Recovery and RARE, said that faith-based groups are crucial to the rebuilding effort because their involvement will continue long after agencies such as FEMA have left the area.
The national organization Lutheran Disaster Response sent a representative to Schoharie County after the flood, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Richmondville will take on a leadership role in SALT, with lay member Vern Hall serving as one of the group’s leaders.
With SALT, “we’re going to put together an over-arching group so that the other groups in the area can come together,” said Elaine Berg, a Lutheran pastor currently serving as dean of the Foothills Conference of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
SALT plans to train volunteers to provide case management for people who are struggling to deal with flood damage and has also trained people to help counsel victims. On Oct. 31, the organization will host a workshop on long-term recovery that will run from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.
One of Schoharie Recovery’s main goals is to offset the cost of rebuilding the hard-hit community. Insurance and FEMA money will provide residents and business owners with some assistance, but in most cases that will fall short of the total cost.
Schoharie Recovery wants to help cover those uninsured losses. The group estimates that in the village of Schoharie alone, 80 percent of the homes and 100 percent of businesses experienced flood damage, and the average homeowner needs $150,000 to rebuild. They also estimate that between 50 and 75 homes damaged in the flood had flood insurance, but 200 homes did not, and that uninsured damage amounts to approximately $30 million.
“How many people holding a mortgage are going to be able to handle $150,000?” said Poorman, of Schoharie Recovery.
Poorman lives in a 240-year-old stone house that had never flooded before Hurricane Irene, but suffered significant damage in the storm. Now he and his wife are living in a motor home next to that house.
Some county residents have already moved away, overwhelmed by the damage to their homes. Many of these people are older and lack the physical and financial capacity to deal with rebuilding on their own.
“Nine out of 10 times, they’d love to go back to their living space,” Poorman said. “Schoharie Recovery wants to work with developers and the village and the zoning board to try to make that possible. We want to encourage new homesteaders to come in.”
The group understands that some residents won’t come back. What it hopes to do is prevent the overall population loss that has occurred after other natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.
“We don’t want to wait until next spring and find out that we’ve lost half the community,” Ball said. “We want to try to get as many people back in their homes as soon as people.”
Poorman said one of the things Schoharie Recovery learned from Hurricane Katrina is the importance of moving quickly to rebuild.
“The longer the process, the longer people are waiting for someone else to help them, to give them directions, the more the changes to the community are permanent,” he said.
Carolyn Wellington, who owns Wellington’s Herbs and Spices on Rickard Hill Road in Schoharie, is a member of the Schoharie Recovery board. She said a strong sense of survivor’s guilt — with the exception of a handful of missing shingles, Wellington’s Herbs and Spices was not damaged by the storm — made her want to do everything she could to help the community.
“This is something that’s needed, and whatever I can do to help, I will do it,” she said.
Ball said Schoharie Recovery is not a hierarchical organization, and anybody who wants can attend the group’s meetings.
“We want to involve as many people as possible,” he said.
The decision not to include elected officials on the board was a conscious one.
“We wanted to keep it pure and clean and above reproach,” he said.
Ball lost the majority of his crops in the flood, but the Carrot Barn is open for business. He said he’s optimistic about the future.
“We believe that things will never be the same, but that the future can also be very good,” Ball said. “Our future can be brighter than our past.”