Chaos and loss in the Schoharie Valley

Town supervisor Dennis Richards Friday at the command post in the Middleburgh village office: Photo by Marty Rosen.

Hurricane Irene plunged rural Schoharie County into a nightmare.

During the storm last Sunday, emergency sirens blasted. Emergency responders evacuated their command posts. Rumors that the Gilboa Dam had failed terrified residents. The broad floor of the Schoharie Valley became a sea.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo toured the valley in a helicopter, touring the apocalyptic damage.

On Tuesday, State Assemblyman Peter Lopez, who is from the town of Schoharie, broke down while being interviewed. His family lost everything, he said.

Five days after the hurricane hit, Schoharie County is still in chaos. Roads are closed. Information and food is hard to come by. Many village and county officials are unreachable.

Ruined farms

When Watershed Post correspondent Marty Rosen visited Bohringer's Fruit Farm in Middleburgh on Friday, she found a scene of devastation.

Susan Bohringer surveys her devastated apple orchard Friday with her 11-year-old daughter Emily. Susan and her husband Joe worry that the submerged fruit at the popular U-pick farm stand is no longer safe to eat: Photo by Marty Rosen

Susan Bohringer scolded trespassers who emerged from the ruined groves yesterday with a capful of autumn raspberries and ripe apples.

"Don't eat those! Those are contaminated. Who knows what was in that water," she said.

She grimaced: "It's too much."

On a tour of their farm, as Joe Bohringer used a bulldozer to haul ruined clothes and furniture from their white farmhouse, she pointed to a neighbor's pumpkins tangled high in the trees. Their doghouse, which took 10 men to move last year, was 1/4-mile downstream, tossed on its roof.

Every farm here has had its 2011 crop wiped out, yet the farmers are helping each other. A neighbor dropped off a kahlua bundt cake, carefully wrapped in foil.

Food is scarce here.

"Have you seen the Grand Union?" she asked.  The area's only supermarket was underwater and remains closed.

"Thank God Stuart's is getting deliveries. There's no food. No food anywhere."

The Bohringers aren't alone. According to the Times Journal, the valley's only newspaper, flooding killed an entire herd of cows at the VanAller farm on Clauverwie Road in Middleburgh.

According to the New York Farm Bureau, the most severe crop damage and loss of livestock and farm buildings in Hurricane Irene has occurred in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.

Fractured systems

In Middleburgh on Friday, town supervisor Dennis Richards expressed frustration with the emergency response to the crisis.

"People are asking questions about federal response and state response and there's no way for us to answer that. We just got our phones back, we just got hot water back," he said. "We've been self-reliant. Everything we ask of the suits? We get nothing... if they don't have insurance, they lost their inventories, what's going to be the first step?"

Middleburgh village trustee Matthew Avitabile at the town command center: Photo by Marty Rosen

Middleburgh village trustee Matthew Avitabile, who is coordinating the village's volunteers in the disaster, has been working 14-hour days at the Middleburgh Municipal Building since Monday. He slept there on Monday night.

No one can reach officials in the village of Schoharie, the county seat, he said.

"I don't know if they're in a backup location or what," Avitabile said. "Schoharie, as far as I know, they were not functioning."

Avitabile's father, David Avitabile, is the Schoharie Valley correspondent for the Times-Journal. In this week's edition, he describes fleeing the rising waters on Sunday:

[W]e heard the dam siren. We looked at each other and knowing what we had to do, grabbed what we could. and ran outside and got in my van. Knowing that Wells Avenue and Main were already flooded by the small creek by the high school, we drove up Cliff Street and down Straub Lane. The creek by Main Street was already overflowing and there were large limbs and wood on the span. Mike jumped out and, running through the water, tossed the the wood out of the way. We turned left up Main and went up Cotton Hill. People were gathering at the town garage but we wanted to get up as far as we could. We got about a mile past the old dump before we encountered a large tree across the road. Power lines were drooping across the road.

We turned around and went to the town garage. People pouring in but the kids wanted to get higher and we went up to the old dump … Looking down Cotton Hill, we saw the Valley for the first time. What looked like sky turned out to be water. The Valley was flooded except for a few small islands.

"Home is where love is"

There are bright spots in the rubble.

Debris from flood damage being collected near the Middleburgh High School: Photo by Marty Rosen

Middleburgh has already made significant progress with clearing its streets of flood head-height stacks of flood debris. This weekend, the town is asking volunteers to help clear its school of flood debris and save the library's books from the threat of mold.

A website listing Schoharie disaster resources has sprung up. It's motto: "Home is where love is: Rebuild Schoharie County 2011."

Martin Rivas, a singer-songwriter based in New York City, has put together "After the Flood," a benefit CD with songs donated by 45 musicians. All the proceeds fund the Schoharie County Community Action Program. Since Thursday night, Rivas has raised $2400.

"Within 45 minutes of sending out an appeal to a bunch of my singer-songwriter friends, I had 45 people lined up for the CD," Rivas said as he he packed for the drive to Middleburgh, where his family owns land.

"Since then, I've had another 60 or 70 musicians get to me," he said. "There's talk of a second CD, of putting on a benefit concert."

Still, recovery won't be easy here.

"There's a significant difference between Schoharie County and Ulster, Delaware, and Greene counties," says Marty Rosen. "Here, here are very few people who come from someplace else and who have second homes here. The recurrent refrain you hear is, 'We have no income. How do you rebuild when you're starting from zero?"