The muck that still layers homes and offices in the village of Schoharie is not just innocent old mud like you might scrape off your shoes after working in the garden.
When the Schoharie Creek overtopped its banks on Aug. 28 and spread out over the surrounding flatlands it didn’t just pick up topsoil. It picked up oil and gasoline from ruptured tanks and overturned cars, sewage from backed up systems, fertilizer and other chemicals from farms and farm-supply businesses, and whatever else was present.
Out on the streets of the village of Schoharie, which was itself a river at the height of the flood, the muck has mostly turned to dust, which now clouds the air as heavy equipment scoops up the remaining heaps of debris, but inside the homes and offices, it is still muck, and much of it has seeped into walls and floors, making houses uninhabitable and offices unworkable.
More than 13 inches of rain fell in the Catskills in one great deluge from the skirts of Hurricane Irene, and much of that water rushed down the watershed of the Schoharie Creek, heading for the Mohawk River. The Gilboa Dam, built in the 1920s to augment the water supply of New York City and recently reinforced, held, but the water had to go somewhere, and it went down Main Street in Schoharie, among other places, even though Main Street is about half a mile from the creek. That’s how much water there was.
The high-water mark on the door of the county courthouse, the only building in the village that I was really familiar with, is at about 4 and a half feet. Since the door is a foot or two above the elevation of the sidewalk, the water flowing down Main Street must have been a good 6 feet deep.
I visited the other day for the first time since the waters receded, and I must say I was appalled at what a little flood can do. True, buildings are almost all intact, to look at them from the outside, but on the inside they are a soggy disaster.
I got a tour from the county treasurer, Bill Cherry, who took me through the county office building, where we visited what used to be the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as what used to be his own offices. The DMV office is now just a shell, all furniture, all computers, all wallboard, all ceiling panels having been hauled out. A smelly shell, I should mention, the stench of the muck having permeated everything, so that workers must wear masks as they continue the cleanup.
Cherry’s own office remains carpeted in gunk, the only furniture on the day we visited being a
wheelbarrow loaded with what is now trash. Among the rubble he was pleased to find the Rolodex that he thought was forever gone, so the visit was not a waste of time for him, which pleased me, since I hate to inconvenience people for nothing.
The second and third floors were of course not flooded, but they remain out of use, since all the utilities of the building were in the basement, and the basement is still a watery wasteland. I got just partway down the stairs for a peek into the gloom of it.
There is of course no electricity, illumination coming only from a few portable lights, which makes for a spooky, almost Halloween-like atmosphere.
Just off Main Street I talked to a young woman who was wrestling with a portable pump. Her modest house was a wreck, and she was doing what she could with the help of her father, mopping one room at a time and wondering how much of the structure could be saved. Like most village residents, she had seen no need to buy flood insurance, since the village is not technically in a flood plain, so she is on her own, hoping that help might come from FEMA.
She is facing thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of dollars in unanticipated expenses; she has mortgage payments to make; and to deal with the daily crisis she has had to take leave without pay from her job at Albany Med, so the disasters compound.
She had just rented a Winnebago, at $600 a month, so at least she could now stay in her own driveway and not have to look for a temporary apartment in Albany. Her house, like almost all houses in the village, is uninhabitable, with no electricity, no running water, no nothing, except muck.
Bill Cherry’s own house, a big mid-19th century place on Main Street, with a broad porch, high ceilings and hand-hewn beams, that his wife had decorated with antiques, is in the same condition. The foul water ruined not only all the ground-floor furnishings and all the wallboard but also soaked into the old floorboards and the studs, so now he doesn’t know if it will even be possible to restore it.
At least he had flood insurance, so he will get something. In the meantime, he and his wife and his wife’s father have rented an apartment in Cobleskill, where the treasurer’s office has found temporary quarters.
You don’t appreciate the damage to people’s lives and their finances till you make a visit like this. Before, this flood was just another natural-disaster story for me, and I never find natural disasters as interesting as man-made disasters.
Who knows what the cost will be?
For county buildings alone, Cherry told me, cleanup or “remediation” will cost up to $1.4 million, but that doesn’t address the reconstruction that will be necessary. The county does have $6.5 million worth of insurance, but at this point no one knows if that will be enough.
The cost to private homeowners can only be guessed at.
In the fantasy world of conservative Republicans — let me get in a dig here — all of this would be taken care of with private charity, a federal agency like FEMA having no constitutional business inserting itself. Or the free market would take care of it.
I had a passing notion to mention this alternative to the young woman who took unpaid leave to save her house and who was hoping for FEMA assistance, but I bit my tongue and said nothing. I figured she had enough to worry about.
But it’s salutary once in a while to consider the practical applications of one’s ideology and see how they work out.