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Fighting Back the Waters

by Travis Durfee on September 8, 2011

Photo by Travis Durfee


The call went out over the scanners around 2 PM Monday afternoon.

The dam broke.

The Gilboa Dam is the Schoharie Valley’s bogeyman. The dam controls the flow into the Schoharie Creek of the Schoharie Reservoir, one of 19 upstate reservoirs that serve clean water to New York City. The Schoharie Reservoir stores water from a drainage area of 315 square miles behind an earthen and masonry structure built in the 1920s. Local residents, namely The Dam Concerned Citizens, have spent years lobbying New York City and state officials to upgrade the dam, which is currently undergoing multimillion dollar renovations. A burst dam, flooding the valley, is never far from the minds Schoharie County residents.

The dam broke?

The torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene that fell on Sunday, Aug. 28, flooded the valley’s streams, brooks and tributaries—all of which cut paths of destruction through forests, homes and roads as their basins proved too shallow. The National Weather Service reported 10.41 inches of rain on Cotton Hill in Middleburgh on Aug. 28. The rain set new record water levels at the reservoir. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, surface elevation at the dam peaked at 1,136.7 feet Sunday, sending five feet of water over the dam’s quarter-mile spillway. USGS classifies major flooding at 1,133.5 feet. That Sunday’s nightmare flooding made it seem very real that the bogeyman might appear on Monday afternoon.

And then the call went out.

The dam broke!

Photo by Travis Durfee

People lost it. Cars, trucks, and emergency vehicles abandoned traffic lanes and speed limits as they sped toward the bridge out of town. A flash mob of hysterical pedestrians streamed down Main Street. Quads and dirt bikes snaked in between. Children separated from their parents stood sobbing on the bridge.

But the dam was fine. False alarm. Feckless first-responders tried to calm the mob of terrified people as they headed for higher ground. They shook their heads. The waved their arms. They wagged their fingers. Tell it to an edgy mob.

In the hills, conversations resumed ancient patterns. People passed along misinformation as knowledge with varying degrees of certainty and bluster.

The valley floods in eight minutes when the dam breaks.

I heard 18 minutes.

No, an hour.

Rumor’s fuzzy truths persisted.

This was a hurricane, not a flood, so homeowner’s insurance will cover losses.

Flood insurance won’t cover hurricane damage.

Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit New York.

You can’t drink the water.

Dispelling the myths and sifting truth from fiction was a job in itself. Village officials dispatched volunteers and spent precious man-hours each day delivering bulletins to homes dispelling the swirling disinformation.

Fear and anxiety receded as people descended from high ground. Dust clouds of dried creek mud billowed as non-emergency vehicles were finally allowed back into the village. The village was a mess.

Cleanup efforts began in earnest.

Photo by Travis Durfee

The waters smeared downtown Middleburgh with a dense frosting of creek mud, ankle-deep and saturated in places, desiccated and cracked in the thick at the edges. Dozens of homes were flooded. Finished basements became bilge wells harboring creek must and soaked storage. Local businesses were shuttered. Entire trees—roots and limbs—littered the town’s roads. Sirens wailed. A Mayflower moving trailer was wedged between two trees. Errant dumpsters floated across town. A Subaru with a smashed windshield ended its journey against a fire hydrant. Roads were missing spans in feet by the hundred. National Guard vehicles streamed past Army Corps engineers who discussed triage with state highway workers. Emergency vehicles for first responders and fire departments streamed past from around the state. Similar scenes repeated throughout Schoharie County.

As evening approached, progress was visible. Dumpsters were set upright and quickly filled. Main Street business owners lugged inventory to the sidewalks. Pizza-making stations faced the pressure washer. A rack of hand-dipped candles speckled in mud hung over piles of waterlogged children’s clothing. Shovels and bleach were in short supply in a county long on mud and growing mold. Many residents joined the flock of gawkers and wandered the streets taking it all in.

From the mess, bright spots have emerged. Volunteers descended into the village in a second flood. Corporations delivered bottled water and cleaning supplies. First responders from across the state have arrived in droves. People with no connection to the area arrived with grills, hot dogs and hamburgers for cleanup workers.

“I live in Fort Plain, and we have been flooded before, so I know what these people are going through,” said Debbie Hickey, who fed volunteers in the parking lot of the Middleburgh High School.

Middleburgh is one small village in one of seven New York counties declared as federal disaster zones by President Barack Obama. Eight states have received the president’s declaration so far.

Photo by Travis Durfee

The tragedy presents an opportunity to address the nation’s stagnant unemployment crisis. Shaila Dewan pointed out in her Sept. 2 New York Times story, “Job Growth Halts, Putting Washington Under Pressure,” which cited new figures showing that the nation added no new jobs last month. Hurricane Irene created a bevy of new jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment nationally hovers around 9.1 percent. The rate is 8 percent across New York state, and even higher in some affected counties. And now infrastructure needs rebuilding, homes need renovation, and businesses need to reopen.

The opportunity to develop a civilian jobs program to address unemployment and the hurricane clean-up did not go unnoticed.

“Maybe we have to come out with a WPA program, start putting people to work hiring the unemployed to rebuild America,” teamsters chief James P. Hoffa recently told NBC’s David Gregory.

Ella May Van Aller operates Van Aller Farms with her husband, Larry. She spent that Sunday evening trapped in the second floor of her house as the waters raged from the Little Schoharie Creek, which flows through her property. Van Aller was rescued Sunday night, while her cattle remained tied up in the barn. Some 200 head of cattle survived the night in 4 feet of water. Her barn cats fared less well.

Of the forty-odd cats Van Aller keeps around the barn (people keep dropping them off, she says, so she spays or neuters each one) only six made it to the travel kennels headed for shelter at the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society.

Van Aller was keeping one cat though, an American shorthair she pulled from the mud Sunday evening. She named it Irene.

Photo by Travis Durfee

The crisis is far from over for the already battered region. At press time, with rain still falling and the flood waters rising again, evacuations were already in progress in the Schoharie Valley towns of Blenheim and Broome and the villages of Middleburgh and Schoharie.

Residents and local business owners stressed the long haul ahead for the cleanup. Chris Hubbard owns Hubie’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Middleburgh. In between directing cleanup efforts at his shop, Hubbard took a moment to urge people to continue visits to the valley.

“Come by, take a look around and lend a hand,” Hubbard said. “This isn’t going away in a week.”

Travis Durfee, a former Metroland staff writer, teaches high school English and journalism in Watkins Glen, N.Y. He was raised in Middleburgh.