SCHENECTADY COUNTY The floodwaters surprised Jon Nertney. He tried to move his belongings upstairs, but he wasn’t fast enough.
He hired a crew to clear out the downstairs and watched trucks drive away with furniture and toys deemed unsalvageable. Then he froze, overwhelmed by the task ahead of him.
“I was in shock,” said Nertney, who lives in Rotterdam Junction with his 11-year-old son. “I didn’t know what to do. There were times when I just wanted to pull the covers over my head. I went through a period where I wished I’d lost everything and I could tear it down.”
Then the volunteers arrived. They helped fix up the downstairs, putting in insulation and sheetrocking and repairing damaged wiring, and now Nertney’s downstairs is almost habitable. “The volunteers came out of nowhere and just saved the day,” he said. “They asked, ‘Can we help you? Can we help you?’ ”
Nertney has been disabled since a bout with throat cancer and said he is unable to do the manual labor performed by the volunteers, though he has helped by transporting supplies in his truck.
The volunteers who came to Nertney’s aid were from different community-based organizations, but they were mobilized by a new coalition that formed shortly after flooding devastated parts of the Capital Region in late August. Called the Flood Recovery Coalition for Schenectady County, the group is focused on rebuilding flood-damaged homes in Schenectady County and has established a command center in the rectory of St. Margaret of Cortona in Rotterdam Junction.
The coalition is composed of a number of groups with a strong presence in the county: Catholic Charities, the City Mission of Schenectady, Schenectady Habitat for Humanity, the Schenectady Community Action Program, St. Clare’s Church, the American Red Cross, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Schenectady Foundation. One of the group’s main goals is to marshal volunteers to fill in gaps — to assist with work that threatens to overwhelm homeowners and for which there are few other resources to tap into.
“We don’t have the resources to restore everyone completely,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of the Schenectady Foundation, a philanthropic trust that provides grants to community-based organizations. “We want to supplement what the homeowner can do so that their home is livable again.”
Michael Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission of Schenectady, agreed. “When the floods came, it became apparent that there was no system [for rebuilding],” he said. “FEMA has a role to play, but it’s not the role of heading up a command system where people can see that the lights are on and that people are fighting for you.”
The coalition estimates that there are more than 50 homes in the county that need to be rebuilt or rehabbed.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Saccocio said.
‘You get what you give’
Last Wednesday there were about 30 volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, YouthBuild Schenectady and AmeriCorps working in a half-dozen homes in Rotterdam Junction, the hardest-hit community in Schenectady County.
One volunteer, 56-year-old Mike Blair of Brunswick, had been working on a home on Main Street since Friday and was in the process of rewiring the downstairs. He said he planned to continue working on the house until it was done. “I’ve taken over on this house,” Blair said.
Flood recovery is nothing new for Blair, an electrician who has traveled to the South 15 times through St. Ambrose Church in Latham to help with post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.
“My philosophy in life is that you get what you give,” Blair said. “I received a lot of help years ago, and I know what it feels like to have a stranger come into your house. This is my way of giving back.”
Down the street, a team of volunteers work outside rebuilding a porch. Some of the volunteers are from YouthBuild, a program that helps low-income teens and young adults between the ages of 6 and 24 get their GEDs and learn construction.
“This is right up our alley,” said Kevin McKiernan, construction manager for YouthBuild Schenectady, which is based at the Northeast Parent & Child Society. “When the flooding happened, we started cleaning up basements in the Stockade. Now we come out four days a week and usually have between six and 13 participants.”
The Flood Recovery Coalition has an informal, non-hierarchical structure, and there are no plans to become a nonprofit organization. The group does have a coordinator, Nathan Mandsager, who works out of St. Margaret of Cortona and is a familiar face to many of the flood victims receiving assistance from the coalition.
A coffee table in the rectory contains informational flyers, such as a Federal Emergency Management Agency booklet titled “Mold and Mildew: Cleaning Up Your Flood-Damaged Home,” and a job board lists the different projects that need to get done. Maps of Rotterdam Junction, Pattersonville, Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, Scotia, Glenville and Duanesburg depict the areas in need.
A printed handout lists the various volunteer opportunities available, which range from general labor to making welcome-home baskets for families returning to their houses and bringing lunches to residents and volunteers on Saturdays. The handout also highlights the need for skilled labor — specifically, electricians, plumbers and painters.
“Although the floods have come and gone months ago, the long-term recovery for many families in our county will carry on for many more months,” the handout explains. “In light of that, we want to mobilize regular streams of volunteers in a variety of ways.”
Since the flooding at the end of August, the volunteer work “has taken on more form and structure,” Carreau said. “It went from people just showing up to people being assigned to work at specific houses.” Now volunteer project leaders are often given a house to focus on, which means they often work alongside the homeowners and get to know them.
“It was hard for the homeowners to have 100 different people going into their home in a matter of weeks,” Mandsager said. “One of the first things I did when I came on as coordinator was get a job board up. Now we can have a plan for when the volunteers come in. We can be more consistent.”
He said the coalition tries to direct resources and volunteers to homes owned by people who plan to stay in the community. “We don’t want to pour resources into a house, and then have the resident walk away or flip it,” he said.
The flooding occurred at the end of August, and the coalition estimates that it will take another six months of intensive rebuilding to get the flood-stricken areas back to normal. But the group plans to maintain the relationships it has built with homeowners.
“This is an ongoing narrative,” Mandsager said, adding that the coalition hopes to collect and document stories of rescue, recovery and rebuilding.
Saccocio said the Flood Recovery Coalition of Schenectady County is modeled after Schoharie Recovery, a citizen-led, nonprofit organization formed in the aftermath of the floods to spearhead the rebuilding process within the Schoharie Central School District. “They have a physical command center, and we saw how important that is,” he said. “They have a parking lot for volunteers.”
On Fridays, residents of the City Mission volunteer in flood-damaged homes. Initially, they worked in Schoharie County, but their more recent efforts have focused on Rotterdam Junction.
“We felt that this was a natural thing to do with our residents,” Saccocio said. “We do a lot of classroom work with them, but we felt they could get something out of helping people outside of the classroom. There’s just something about helping your neighbor that makes you the better for it. We’ve never had to cajole or convince anyone to go.”
Since the flood, the mission has also been receiving donations of furniture and other household supplies because it has the space to store these items until they’re needed.
Mandsager, who previously served as a pastor at Calvary Tabernacle Church in Schenectady and has done overseas relief work in Haiti and Africa, was brought on to serve as coordinator by the City Mission.
The coalition has pushed the organizations involved in a new and unexpected direction.
“None of these organizations have any traditional role in responding to this kind of a crisis,” Carreau said. “The foundation has never been involved in anything like this before. We kind of looked around and said, ‘We need to do this.’ ”
One of the Schenectady Foundation’s first steps was to provide $150,000 in recovery aid.
Carreau said Schenectady County has a “pretty robust charitable sector,” and that it made sense to utilize the various assets of the county’s nonprofits. Catholic Charities and the Schenectady Community Action Program, for example, have handled more of the case management, while Habitat for Humanity and YouthBuild have focused on construction and the Schenectady Foundation has contributed expertise in fundraising and organization.
The coalition’s first step was to send volunteers — mainly people from nonprofit organizations and county agencies with backgrounds in social work — door-to-door in flood-stricken communities.
“We made sure that people were safe, that people were healthy,” Carreau said. “We tried to understand what their rebuilding needs were. We tried to talk to people, and where we couldn’t find people we left notes. We canvassed 160 households.”
He said the group has been conscious about not wanting to come across as a governmental entity. “This is about humanitarian assistance,” he said. “As we got deeper into it, we realized we had to work with the homeowner as a partner and create a relationship where he felt like he could trust us.”
Habitat for Humanity is an international organization with a mission of building affordable housing for people in need, but after Hurricane Katrina, the organization began doing more rebuilding work, said Jeff Clark, executive director of Schenectady Habitat for Humanity. “Emergency repair is now considered part of our mission,” he said.
Habitat’s work with the coalition marks the first time the organization’s Schenectady County chapter has assisted with a recovery project. Clark said that getting involved was a no-brainer.
“We immediately said, ‘Let’s go help.’ We were able to tap into Habitat International for information, to get some idea of which steps were appropriate and start getting more organized,” he said.
The Flood Recovery Coalition has divided the flood-damaged homes into three priority groups, with homes classified as Priority 1, considered most urgent.
“The first mission is to focus on the homes that need the basics,” Carreau said. “Is the foundation safe? Do they have heat? We’re trying to get as many homes buttoned up as we can.”
There are several homes that volunteers haven’t been able to work on yet because the homeowners are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do, sometimes because they’re still waiting for flood insurance settlements, he said.
Last week, volunteers were working in the Rotterdam Junction home of Barbara and Robert Willson. The couple initially spent three months in a motel, and now they split their time between a FEMA trailer and their home. Radiators still need to be installed, the electrical work isn’t complete and sheetrock and insulation still needs to be put in.
“The volunteers have been excellent,” said Barbara Willson, who works part-time at Price Chopper. “They’re our godsend, because if we didn’t have them, we would have nothing.”
Carreau said it’s likely the groups in the Flood Recovery Coalition for Schenectady County will work together on other projects once the rebuilding is complete. “This could lead to other things,” he said.
Clark agreed. “We’ve gotten the chance to work with people we hadn’t worked with in the past,” he said. “We’ve created a basis for things to happen in the future.”
The coalition can be reached at 557-7976.