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Schools aim for normalcy after Irene's devastation

Saturday, August 25, 2012
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The Middleburgh High School gym sustained severe damage as a result of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
The Middleburgh High School gym sustained severe damage as a result of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.

— “It seems like a long time ago in some ways, but just like yesterday in others,” said Middleburgh Central School art teacher Teresa Norfolk. She said that the 2011-12 school year had been a very emotional one, particularly for the students.

“A lot of kids were out of their homes, and even though they had a safe space at the school, they were still traumatized from losing things, from losing pets … there was a noticeable loss of focus, and everyone was jumpy around fire alarms or when it rained,” she said.

But despite the trauma of Tropical Storm Irene, several Capital Region schools became places of hope and centers of recovery in their communities.

Gilboa-Conesville Superintendent of Schools Ruth Reeve said the school building had only minor damage compared to the destruction in the surrounding area. Two of the nine surrounding towns, Prattsville in Greene County and Blenheim in Schoharie County, were severely damaged.

Michele Mooney, a computer teacher’s assistant at Middleburgh Central School, recalled taking the Middleburgh Ski Club on a trip to Windham Mountain and passing through Prattsville last December. As they passed a mountain of debris — the shattered remains of family homes and businesses — all talk on the bus ceased and everyone’s eyes were “glued to the windows.”

“Prattsville and Blenheim were destroyed, along with roads and bridges connecting them to us. We were closed for the first four days of the school year, partly because we didn’t have power but also because people needed time with their families to recover and to help clean up,” Reeve said.

In the following days, the Gilboa-Conesville school became a donation center and shelter. The school received many donations of coats, supplies and food from local sources, the American Red Cross, local churches, General Electric, and Rotary and other civic clubs.

Peter Augostinello, husband of a teacher, set up a nonprofit corporation called The Rebuild Gilboa Fund. With the funds it raised, all 389 students of Gilboa-Conesville Central School, some of their parents, and some of the school’s faculty were taken to Crossgates to buy new shoes and clothing to replace what they’d lost in the flood, according to the Rebuild Gilboa Fund’s website.

Middleburgh damage

Middleburgh Central School Superintendent Michele Weaver said the damage done to MCS was tremendous, estimated at $4 million.

Frustratingly for all parties involved, only $37,000 in relief has been received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said that they aren’t at the level where another FEMA check is “in the mail,” and that there are factors involved with securing a maximized aid package.

The school’s athletic fields and their new wing, including the distance learning, technology, kitchen, cafeteria and gymnasium facilities, were ruined. All of the school’s athletic and technology equipment — including computers and shop class machines — were located in the basement. When the flooding occurred, all of that equipment was lost.

Since Middleburgh is not on a hill like Schoharie Central School or Gilboa-Conesville, water ran wild through the building’s lower levels and ruined its mechanical structures, its hot water system, and its phone and electricity lines.

High School student Troy Hinkley was in the middle of a basketball game on the Middleburgh courts with several friends when he talked about the flooding. He said the loss of facilities impacted everyday life.

“The cafeteria had this funny smell for a long time, and in order to reach the gym we had to go outside of the building and walk all the way around it to the back entrance. All we did for a while was go on a walk or go bowling, which sucked,” he said.

Weaver said donations from Carver Construction in Altamont and from BlueShield and local business Nick’s Auto Repair, as well as a “tremendous outpouring of volunteers,” have helped to get the school back on its feet.

When the high school kitchen equipment was destroyed, staff members cooked meals in the elementary kitchen and walked them to the high school to keep a sense of normalcy.

Mooney said, “There are 700 to 800 kids and staff here, and you wouldn’t have known there was a problem with the kitchens the way they cooked and kept things moving.”

The athletic fields are now at the stage where professionals must step in, and the distance learning and technology facilities should be ready for action come mid-September.

School as shelter

Schoharie Central School Superintendent Brian Sherman said his district was asked by the county Emergency Services to serve as a shelter for the community.

Soon after, the fire department began using the school’s bus garage. Food services were established to feed more than 200 emergency services personnel three times a day. Classrooms and gyms, Sherman said, were used as “housing areas” for fire departments from around the state. The parking lot became a “staging area for fire departments, the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation, National Grid and the National Guard, among others.”

Sherman said, “It was an incredible and heartwarming sight to see all those trucks and their respective personnel here to help our community. Great people!”

Donations continued to pour into Gilboa-Conesville from outside sources, said Reeve.

A Manhattan school, the Lycee Francais de New York, donated 18 reconditioned computers and some printers to ensure that Gilboa-Conesville would have a computer lab.

“It’s been amazing, just outstanding. We’ve been overwhelmed with generosity,” Reeve said. Besides donations, Reeve said that many students and faculty members were active volunteers in cleaning up the surrounding community.

Weaver says that MCS also received outside and local assistance, including enough school supplies to keep the community school-ready for two years.

Sherman explained that similar donations were made to Schoharie. “In a very brief period of time, we were referred to as the Schoharie Walmart, serving the Schoharie and Middleburgh communities. Everything was free to the community.”

The school’s rented generator was loaned to the village so that the water treatment plant could be restarted, and staff from the school were very active in helping to clean out homes within the village.

Schoharie Teachers Association President Martin Messner explained that at first, staff from the school were going into the village as scattered groups.

“After a few days of that, everyone organized into crews of 20 to 40 people. We reached out to Duanesburg, Cobleskill and Berne-Knox to bring in more people to the area. And then we reached out around the region.”

Village cleanup

Messner said that the village took weeks to clean. Once the mud was out of the way and the houses were drying, the continued restoration of houses fell to more skilled workers. But Messner and other Capital Region teachers wanted to keep helping.

“That’s when we started the insulation project, so that people could work over the winter or continue to live upstairs in their homes,” he said.

On their first run-through, the teachers union collected $25,000 in donations. They went to Home Depot to buy insulation.

Messner said they were able to purchase $40,000 to $50,000 worth of insulation, which allowed them to insulate 110 homes, businesses and churches in Schoharie, Middleburgh and Blenheim. They did all the work with 300 people over the span of a single weekend. On a second weekend, they were able to insulate another 50 buildings.

As for the students, having a regular school schedule to return to gave them a way to cope with the damage wrought by Irene. Counselors were on hand to help them deal with their grief and anger.

Entering Gilboa-Conesville senior Mikaela Cipolla said that going to school gave her a dose of much-needed normalcy and stability.

“School kept things regular, normal feeling. And if you needed someone to talk to, there was always someone available. Everyone was willing to talk, especially the guidance counselors,” she said. Cipolla said that she’s feeling optimistic about her community’s future.

Upcoming sixth-grader Saith Kliza said that she appreciated the chance to reconnect through school with her friends.

Kliza and Cipolla were involved in an art project organized by Gilboa-Conesville art teacher Susan Kliza.

“When Hurricane Irene hit our district it impacted each and every student, teacher, and staff member in our school in some way. I remember as faculty and staff all gathered for the first time, I felt frustrated in knowing that we would need to open the school soon but how would we deal with all that the students and their families had gone through,” Susan Kliza wrote in an email.

Telling the story

Then she heard from some grief counselors that art could be a beneficial method of expression during times of loss.

“I told [my students] that we could either put all the devastation behind us and just look ahead … or we could take some time to look at all that we had been through and use the first two weeks of school to express something about it.”

Mrs. Kliza said that she gave her students, except for the fifth-graders who used watercolor, complete freedom to express themselves. She said that all of her students seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do for their projects: some crafted realistic scenes, others used abstract images, and still others used words or other forms of expression.

She gathered up all 84 of the projects and from there, guest writer Bertha Rogers was introduced to the students.

“She helped the students write poems that went along with their artwork. We applied for and received a grant from the O’Connor Foundation in Hobart to publish a book that contained the color images of the students’ artwork along with their poetry and writing,” she said.

The book, called “The Eyes of the Storm: Hurricane Irene in Images & Words,” is being sold and all of the profits go toward funding local rebuilding projects. The artwork has been on exhibit throughout New York: in the MURAL Gallery in Stamford, at Catskill Elementary School, at the Schoharie Watershed Summit, and at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts Gallery in Hunter.

“I thought it would be a creative outlet to process what had happened,” Kliza said. “I didn’t even think it would be a historical record, told through the kids’ perspectives.”

In Middleburgh, sixth-grade science teacher Linda Applebaum brought the impact of Irene into her classroom. Students in her class studied why the flooding had happened and how the hurricane (later tropical storm) was formed, and then also talked about the emotional impact made by the natural disaster. She said that everyone in MCS was doing their part to support their peers.

“Everybody came together, and I think we’re closer now because of it … We think of the kids as our own kids so we’re always thinking, ‘what do they need, what do I have at home to bring in?’ ”

Reeve echoed Applebaum: “Everybody pulls together. These are your family members, friends, and neighbors who were affected after all …”

Being ready

The work isn’t over yet, though, Reeve emphasized.

The Gilboa-Conesville area needs better cellphone service, she said. When the power went out in the area, many people were left without a way to communicate with one another. She’d also like to get a generator for the school, but they don’t have enough money yet to afford one.

On Sept. 28, Reeve will attend a countywide flood preparation discussion in Cobleskill with school officials from around Schoharie county.

Sherman said SCS has purchased three generators, which will keep its buildings powered in the event of a grid failure.

In Middleburgh, the school has perfected its evacuation drills and readiness training. Applebaum said that the entire school has been able to evacuate within 11 minutes, and that their routes are solid, safe and quick.

“This is a wonderful place to live and to raise your kids, but it’s hard when you hit a wall like this … Everybody is doing the best that they can — the women at the DMV, for example, I always see smiles on their faces. Everyone is working hard and doing their best to keep rolling, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Reeve said.

Messner in Schoharie agreed.

“From a teacher’s perspective, we really hope that this area will come back … we’re sure it will.”

Schoharie High School Principal Stacey DeLaney noted in an email that there was a noticeable improvement, at least in people’s spirits, over the course of the school year.

“The last day of school was celebrated by the seniors [and I] and other staff members Slip ’n Sliding out on the front lawn — a very special event for us! We started the year with water and heavy hearts and ended the year with water and happy hearts.”

In Middleburgh, the fight continues.

“We’re fighting to make ourselves whole, and we’re not there yet. On a good day, I’d say we’re at 75 percent, thanks largely to volunteers. We’re incredibly grateful to the community.”

 
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