ROTTERDAM JUNCTION With flushed cheeks and a look of despair, Pat Bellrose began pouring her heart out to a gaggle of television reporters who followed her out of the Rotterdam Junction Fire Department.
Bellrose and her husband, Ken, came to the station seeking to vent some of the frustration that has grown since they were chased from their Scrafford Lane home by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene. But after a brief exchange with a panel of federal and state officials assembled by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko on Wednesday, the distraught woman abruptly marched out of the building.
Once outside, she leaned against a parked vehicle and tried to explain her plight: She’s having to rent a place to stay in Schenectady, yet is still getting taxed on her badly flood-damaged home. She’s tried to apply for federal aid, only it never seems to materialize.
“Apply for this, apply for that, and yet you don’t get anywhere,” Bellrose said through tears. “It just seems like you can’t go nowhere.”
Bellrose paused, closed her eyes and fell unconscious. Nearby firefighters rushed to her aid and she slowly recovered. Later, her husband explained that stress triggered a pre-existing medical condition and assured onlookers she’d be all right. Or at least as all right as the elderly couple will be while trying to recover from the flood devastation with limited means.
Tonko and members of his panel tried to provide a response for the concerns expressed by the standing-room-only crowd, but their answers couldn’t seem to diminish the frustration.
Scrafford Lane resident Dan Hladik wanted to know what kind of assistance the town or federal government will provide to help them demolish homes, some of which remained submerged in the fetid floodwater for nearly six days. He asked whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to purchase some of the homes that are beyond repair.
“There’s a dozen of us who have no idea if we’re coming or going,” he said.
FEMA representative Dave Stuflick said his agency can’t purchase destroyed properties, but can provide communities with funding to wage such an effort. In the case of Rotterdam Junction, he said the town would need to start by putting up a 25 percent match to buy the homes at pre-disaster prices and then demolish them for open space.
“But it’s not a quick program,” he warned. “It’s a very long and laborious process with many hurdles.”
Others questioned why the low-lying areas of the hamlet weren’t evacuated with other neighborhoods hours before the floodwaters began to cascade down Route 5S. Lock Street resident Brian Vanston said his low-lying neighborhood was never evacuated, despite other areas being cleared more than five hours before the flooding on Aug. 29.
“The house across the street from us was evacuated and they were 3 feet higher than us,” he said.
Residents also grilled Howard Goebel, the state Canal Corp. chief hydrologist, over what was done in advance of the flooding. When Goebel suggested the agency did everything within its power, he was met by a chorus of groans.
“I don’t have a home to go to because you didn’t raise the [lock dam] gates,” shouted Dave Orologio, an Isabella Street resident whose home was all but destroyed by the floodwater.
Several residents questioned why the Canal Corp. didn’t order CSX or its contractor working on a nearby railroad bridge over the Mohawk River to move a pair of barges that were in the water during Irene. Goebel said his agency has no authority to control boats on the river.
“They’re responsible for their barges,” he said. “We don’t control anybody’s vessels.”
Isabella Street resident Randy Karl blamed the Canal Corp. for not having the foresight to lower the level of the Mohawk River when they had about a week to prepare. He asked Tonko to call for a full federal investigation into whether enough was done to prevent the flood.
“There’s no way you could have raised those pans because you weren’t prepared,” he said to cheers.
But Karl, a commissioner for the Rotterdam Junction Fire District, didn’t limit his ire to the Canal Corp.; he also questioned why the state Department of Transportation hasn’t corrected a low-lying area of Route 5S between Old Crawford Road and Karl Street.
The stretch of road dips low enough that it frequently floods during heavy rain. On the morning after Irene, the flooded road was literally the only escape route out of Rotterdam Junction because the Route 103 bridge over the Mohawk was closed and the passage west was blocked by a wall of water rushing into the hamlet.
“Give the people of Rotterdam Junction an escape in case this happens again,” he said.
Karl also demanded that the state and county develop an action plan for dealing with the beaver dams that frequently form along the bed of the old Erie Canal. He said the stalemate over who is responsible for the canal basin meant it was filled with water and ill-prepared for the flood surge.
“We’ve got to end the fight,” he said.