Central Bridge: Slowly, but steadily, life returning to normal
CENTRAL BRIDGE Sunlight glistened off the Schoharie Creek as Joe Bender spoke proudly of the work it took to get grass growing again on his back lawn which leads to the creek.
Green grass is just one achievement he and his wife Fran recognized as they looked back nearly a year after that same creek claimed most of what they'd worked decades to build.
"We've been very busy," said Fran, who is gradually getting her flower beds back.
Tropical Storm Irene's flooding also left Joe unemployed — he ran Joe's Auto which served as the only car repair garage situated on Main Street in the village of Schoharie.
Dozens of buildings, including Joe's Auto, were inundated by floodwater in August 2011.
Work to repair the garage progresses — the building's owners are getting it fixed, Joe Bender said, but it wasn't clear how long it would take. The building was a skeleton of a structure, gutted but with new wiring and some new insulation as of late July.
Joe Bender, 62, hopes the garage will be back in operation once he's finished putting his home back together. The couple plans to add siding to the lower level of their mobile home that now stands 8 feet taller than the one that the creek destroyed.
The family's Junction Road neighborhood offers a view of floods’ remaining impact. The Benders are two of roughly nine people who remain in the neighborhood that once housed 40.
But the Benders' rebuilding and their plans to stay put in the hazardous flood plain speaks to the value people place on living in the country alongside nature.
The flood filled the family's mobile home with mud and silt and claimed most of their belongings.
Joe said he moved his lawn equipment, snowmobiles and other gear across the street to his neighbor’s house, and that's where all that equipment was inundated by floodwater.
He was able to get many of his machines working again, and he and Fran were able to move back home in January with the help of dozens of friends and family members.
They got the replacement home — after replacing its floor and making numerous other repairs — up to federal standards for flood plain construction.
Within a week after the flood of August 2011, Bender said he'd purchased a replacement home and sought to have it installed when he learned about the requirements for rebuilding a home in the flood plain. They were needed in order to get assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
With plans drawn up by an engineer, Bender and his friends and family did most of the work and put together an elevated home bigger and higher than the family's last home.
"It's cabled to make sure it doesn't go anywhere," Bender said, pointing out features in the lower level where things likely won't be stored.
The home now sits on 22 piers made of 16-inch-square, internally-webbed concrete blocks. Those blocks were filled with concrete and the piers are sitting on a steel-reinforced concrete slab built atop the old concrete slab.
Bender said he had to drill holes in the original concrete slab and add iron rebar before the second slab was poured on top of it.
The piers themselves are all mounted to large steel rings cured inside the floor's concrete and anchored with thick iron cabling connecting the piers to the flooring.
The construction also includes vents a few inches off of ground level on both sides of the house. These are installed to help relieve and equalize the pressure floodwater can exert on structures, Bender said.
The home has another important feature but it's not related to flooding.
It's a ramp that extends from the ground up to the second-story living area for Hanna, the family's 10-year-old Golden Retriever that has trouble walking up stairs.
Joe Bender said it took about four months to learn FEMA could help because there was some mix-up in paperwork and confusion over whether the family sought FEMA assistance in the past. (There was a flood in 1996 too).
They hadn't sought help then, Joe Bender said. The last time it flooded the family had flood insurance.
Water in the flood of August 2011 reached 11.5 feet high from where Joe Bender now stands in his driveway. The former home stayed mostly in place — it was also cabled — but it wasn't fixable.
"We wound up crushing that up with a log picker and putting it in a Dumpster," he said.
The Benders said they know they are ahead of many people in terms of rebuilding, and they said it's thanks to family and friends.
Joe said he wants to sit down and make a list one day of all the people who helped so he can have a thank-you gathering.
"It's going to be a long list," he said.
The Army veteran said he'd thought about getting out of the flood plain, but the idyllic homestead, beneath black walnut trees with a path leading to the creek, was too much to give up.
"This is a little piece of heaven right here," he said of the Junction Road property where he and his wife lived for 20 years and raised two children.
The property features views of Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron and deer are a common sight on the lawn Joe now has covered with green grass — despite the recent drought.
"I really didn't want to give it up," he said.
Even with help from FEMA, Bender said he cashed in insurance policies and spent his savings putting things back together. Now, he has a tax bill bearing down on him that is due in October.
Before the flood, Fran Bender remembers there were 38 people living around the neighborhood on her part of Junction Road, a rural path off of State Route 7 in Central Bridge near where one of Schoharie County's first Palatine German settlements was located in the 1700s.
After the flood, Fran Bender now counts fewer than 10 neighbors.
The drive to her home features a view of two foundations that used to be homes, two flooded homes still standing but abandoned and another flooded home that's under repair.
On the other side of a small stand of trees sits more than a dozen plots that housed a mobile home community.
The entire community was wiped out, the homes are all gone and it doesn't appear there are plans to rebuild it.
"There's nine of us, that's it," Fran Bender said. "It's sad. I miss all my neighbors."
People are scattered about.
Fran said she knows of some neighbors who went to Schenectady, others went to Gallupville or to Berne.
Fran Bender found some happiness in the springtime when she noticed several plants were growing, including the Black-eyed Susans and fresh mint that flourished behind the house for years.
"I didn't think anything would come back," she said.