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Schoharie County: Busload of storm-tossed seniors find shelter wanting

Sunday, August 26, 2012
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A volunteer firefighter maneuvers his pickup truck through water along South Grand Street in Cobleskill on Sept. 7, 2011.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
A volunteer firefighter maneuvers his pickup truck through water along South Grand Street in Cobleskill on Sept. 7, 2011.

— Loren Miller had a ride he'll never forget after driving down to the village of Middleburgh on Aug. 28, in the middle of a tropical storm, to see if there was anything he could do.

He wound up at the town garage, where he recalls somebody pointing to him and saying they knew he was a truck driver.

There were three school buses filled with evacuees told to get out of their homes because of impending flooding.

They were senior citizens and were packed into the buses, many with pets in carriers, Miller said.

What happened later is one example of why emergency shelters and evacuation routes will be the focus of intense study by a team being put together by Schoharie County's new emergency management director Kevin Neary.

Miller was asked to drive one of the buses up to the Huntersland firehouse where he was told there would be emergency personnel turning the site into a shelter.

He's not sure precisely how many people were in the full-size yellow school bus.

PETS IN CARRIERS

"It was full," he said, adding the passengers were senior citizens, many with their pets in carriers, some in wheelchairs.

He'd already driven down Cotton Hill Road, one of Schoharie County's flood evacuation routes, and it was "pretty much washed out."

It was pitch black out, the wind was howling and incessant rain blanketed the air that night.

Miller drove over Posson Hill Road — a lesser-used, country road running alongside State Forest land — then up to Brooky Hollow Road, similarly to Posson Hill, then back onto Cotton Hill, finally arriving at the firehouse.

"Once we got up there, there was nothing for these people," the Navy veteran said recently, recounting his experience.

He said he was expecting some organized effort to house or shelter the residents, but learned emergency aid workers weren't able to make it into Middleburgh that night.

Though power was out at his home up the mountain, he said he offered people shelter there but they didn't know him and decided to stay put.

For all he knows, those three busloads of people could have spent the night on the school buses next to the firehouse.

The Huntersland firehouse has been used in the past, and it's considered by some to be the place to go in an emergency.

So Miller believes this site, and perhaps others, should be properly supplied in the event of another disaster.

"If the Huntersland firehouse is a go-to place, why not have something up there?" said Miller, 53.

"Why not have some sort of a storage unit, that's what I would think."

Miller suggests the firehouse get a unit stocked with some water, non-perishable food items, and perhaps some cots and blankets.

"They ought to be prepared for it," Miller said.

WHERE TO GO

Deciding how best to establish emergency evacuation shelters is one of several angles being explored as Schoharie County looks back at the aftermath of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, said Neary, appointed this summer by the county's Board of Supervisors.

"We're taking a look at the evacuation routes in Schoharie County," said Neary, a career emergency manager who retired in 2004 as chief of operations at the New York State Emergency Management Office before working on emergency planning and training in the private sector.

A team of county officials including Neary, staff from the Real Property, Sheriff's Department and Office of Fire Coordinator is reviewing response to the disaster.

Neary said he hadn't been informed about what took place on Cotton Hill, but he said the fact that several shelters where people were sent had to be evacuated shows the need for an overall look at the sheltering system.

And supplies would be a good thing to have where people are sent, he said.

"I think that's something we all need to take a look at, the county and local communities, towns and villages and also emergency services. We're going to identify a place for people to go to and they need to have some type of basic services there," Neary said.

He said ongoing planning work entails reviewing agreements in place with schools and the Red Cross and making sure agreements are in place with entities with buildings that could serve as important shelters during an emergency.

"One of the strategies is to make sure we have agreements in place ... so that when we do ask people to evacuate, they're going to evacuate to a shelter," Neary said.

The Schoharie Creek splits the county in half, Neary said, and that means it's possible people may have to go outside the county to find shelter.

Routes to these shelters will be evaluated to ensure they can handle traffic.

On Aug. 28 and for days afterwards, many roadways marked "Flood Evacuation Route" were impassible because they were washed out by rainwater draining down the mountainous terrain the roads led to.

"We need to go out and do a survey and see that these roads are passable and these roads will serve in an evacuation," Neary said.

Neary said under his direction, he plans to bring emergency planning and preparation down to as local a level as possible.

"I'm of the philosophy that we need to build the capability within each community, town and village," said Neary, who has been mayor of his hometown in the village of Richmondville for the past 15 years.

Planning itself, Neary said, should also take into account the variety of possible disasters, not just flooding that's has so much of an impact on Schoharie County.

The county's Emergency Management Office is situated in a temporary spot, at the office of the Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie solid waste management authority on state Route 7 in Howes Cave.

Neary said discussions are ongoing about where best to place the office. And the dispatch center is currently located back in the Public Safety Facility off Depot Lane in Schoharie - one of the epicenters of Tropical Storm Irene's flood impact which, along with nearly 50 prisoners, was evacuated August 28.

Emergency officials after Irene established a massive operations center at the Schoharie County Sunshine Fairgrounds in Cobleskill - situated alongside the Cobleskill Creek.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Lee roughly one week later forced the evacuation of more than 100 emergency workers at the fairgrounds - they scattered and wound up at the Best Western in Cobleskill.

"That's obviously not preferable," Neary said.

"We need an operations center that's not in a flood plan, that would be a start. Second is we need an alternate facility. Those are things we need to look at, we need to identify suitable facilities."

Schoharie County officials were issuing alerts and notices and information about where to get help in the days after the disaster, but it's unclear how many media agencies even got them.

The Daily Gazette, after repeated requests to be placed on the contact list, learned it was already on the lengthy list of media email contacts.

But the lengthy list of email addresses in the "send to" box were separated by a space, not a comma or semi-colon which is required in order to send emails to multiple sources.

So only the first in the list of contacts was actually receiving the e-mails until the county fixed the issue days later.

Neary said it's important to get information out to the public as soon as possible in a disaster, so he's exploring a variety of means including social media for use during emergencies.

Services such as the state's free NY Alert system can send text messages with important information and social media is another means of providing critical guidance to citizens.

But Neary said Schoharie County faces an additional challenge because of its topography.

"Not all of Schoharie County is served by cellphones," he said.

It's an issue the county's government is trying to fix. Officials are trying to find companies willing to make use of available cell phone towers, but there's been no success in that goal so far.

 
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