CARS HOMES JOBS

Fort Plain flood victims struggle to put lives back together

Saturday, July 20, 2013
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Scott Wolfkiel, 35, attempts to salvage some of his belongings from his home on Reid Street in Fort Plain.
Scott Wolfkiel, 35, attempts to salvage some of his belongings from his home on Reid Street in Fort Plain.

— Jay Fisher pointed to a pile of rocks and mud 20 feet behind the Abbott Street home he grew up in and talked about what things looked like three weeks ago, before flooding upended his neighborhood.

“That used to be a garden,” said Fisher, 32, one of dozens of flood victims enduring the hot and humid weather while cleaning up from the third flood to hit the village since 2006.

Fisher and his 12-year-old daughter were helping his father pull windows out of the mobile home along the Otsquago Creek on Friday.

The family has bought a fixer-upper on Route 163, further uphill from the creek, but it needs between $2,000 and $3,000 in new windows. They figure they can cut that cost by salvaging whatever they can from the mobile home in which Fisher grew up.

“Any dollars that add up, we’re saving,” he said, noting that the neighborhood he grew up in is gone.

The road is now just a dirt and stone path. Before the flood, the creek was lined with trees and landscaping — now, it flows through what looks like a rocky desert.

“It’s just 100 percent different. One hundred percent,” Fisher said.

For those who endured flooding in 2006 — the Mohawk River was the main culprit in the heart of the village then, although the Otsquago Creek did some damage, too — fear lingers.

“Every time it rains, you get that nervousness,” Fisher said.

Red Cross trucks and other emergency personnel canvassing the streets in the days after the June 28 flood offered some hope, he said. But then word got out that the federal government didn’t intend to help individuals and families like the Fishers, who’ve lived on Abbott Street for the past 50 years.

Fisher’s SUV sat next to the road, a mangled mess overturned by floodwaters and flipped back over by road workers. Losing possessions is depressing, he said, but things can be replaced. The pain of losing his neighbor, Ethel Healey, who was inside her mobile home across the street when it was carried away by floodwaters, doesn’t go away, he said.

“It’s a lot of ups and downs,” Fisher said.

Fisher was among several people working hard in 90-degree heat on Friday. He said he and his family see the potential of their new home.

“It’s going to be nice. It’ll come together; it just takes time,” he said.

The Fishers were among roughly 112 customers in the village still without electricity three weeks after the flood. Around 135 were without gas service as well.

National Grid said 260 customers lost power and 270 lost gas service just after the flood. Company spokesman Patrick Stella said the remaining homes are either headed for demolition or require extensive work before crews can turn the power and gas back on.

Left powerless

Sweat poured off of Dale Bridgewater’s brow as he pulled destroyed belongings from the home he and his family of five lived in on Reid Street.

He was thinking of buying the house from his landlord, who wants to sell, but the prospect of getting electricity back on in the near term was dim.

He said an electrician told him he has to gut all of the electrical components and replace all of the fixtures hit by water before it can be turned back on. Water reached two feet up on the first floor, he said.

“It’s a mess,” said Bridgewater, who said his family, along with their nine cats and two dogs, is staying with friends. It’s hard to find a rental property for a family that size, he said.

He said he’d gone down to the volunteer headquarters to see if they could get some food stamps to replace about $400 in food lost in a freezer carried away by the creek but was told he’d have to sign up for social services benefits. Bridgewater said they don’t want to do that because there are others who need it more.

A career carpenter, he has designs on fixing the place himself, but he thinks at least six houses on his street will be torn down, and he worries that homeowners will wind up paying higher taxes when homes come off the tax rolls.

“We’re already struggling,” Bridgewater said.

He said it seems ludicrous for the federal government to help the village, county and state pay to replace roads and bridges while leaving individual property owners on their own.

“If there’s nobody here to support [the village], then what’s the point?” he said.

Bridgewater lost a garage to the Otsquago Creek in the 2006 flood. This time, it was his wife who woke him in the early morning hours of June 28, calling out for him to move the cooker and picnic table further away from the creek.

He went downstairs and told his mother-in-law to go upstairs, then moved the cooker and table. He and his brother, who lives across the street, then hurriedly drove three cars up the hill to a church.

By the time he walked back to his house, the cooker and picnic table were gone. He waded through four feet of water, got into the house and watched the devastation from the second floor.

He said his children are anxious to return home, but he’s unsure what the future will bring. “I don’t want to leave. If push comes to shove, we’ll have to,” he said.

Helping hands

While residents and volunteers worked on homes, public works crews from the state and its contractors were busy trying to fix two severe problems on the Otsquago Creek. Clinton Avenue, which sits on a hill overlooking the creek, remained closed Friday because of a failing slope that threatens to slide into the creek. It would block the entire creek’s course if it fell, flooding the village.

Further downstream, the old railway bridge now used for the CanalWay Trail was no longer hanging over the creek — it was pulled from its abutments and by Friday morning sat just two feet above the creek’s waters.

Scottsville-based CP Ward, the state Department of Transportation’s emergency bridge contractor, managed to stabilize the bridge and planned to remove the deck and then get the entire structure out of the creek, according to DOT spokesman Jimmy Piccola.

Mayor Guy Barton said fixing the Clinton Avenue slope is a major project.

“We’re working on it presently. The bottom is giving out on it,” he said.

Ten volunteers from Bethesda House in Schenectady headed to Fort Plain early Friday morning for another day of hard work.

They went directly to the visitors’ gazebo in the center of the village, where volunteers are taking down names of those who need help and dispatching volunteers to needed areas.

One by one, they hauled furniture, paintings, photos and other items from the home of an elderly flood victim who signed up for assistance.

“It could’ve been us,” said volunteer Freda McDonald, of Schenectady. “Just thank God it wasn’t us and pray for those who it was.”

Volunteers Crystal Thomas and Jacob Rowe said carrying belongings from a house made them think of what it would be like to lose their own possessions.

Mugs depicting the occupant’s travels, encyclopedias from 1969, a “honeymoon survival kit” and a mud-caked replica of a “Star Wars” Millenium Falcon made Rowe think of the past and his own son and daughter, he said.

“I think it’s depressing, but I think it’s a way of life they need to understand,” he said. “You could have it all and in a minute you can lose it. Be grateful for what you have.”

 
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