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Volunteer spirit endures; Strangers are helping Schoharie recover from devastating floods

Still caked on the work boots in the car trunk are pieces of the Schoharie Valley churned up by Tropical Storm Irene.

Mud from a raging creek that stormed into people's houses. Mold from pieces of wall ripped down by crowbar during demolition. Grass from a back yard where a home's landscaping stood at water-pushed sideways tilt. And a haze of dust that manages to touch everything here, even four months after Irene came through.

On the boot's surface, a smell lingers -- a recipe of dirt with an assortment of contaminants, rotten water spilled from kitchen cabinets and pickle juice that leaked from some of the hundreds of pickle jars removed from a mud-filled basement.

The shoes have become a daily reminder of a dozen visits to this battered village since the August flood -- some as a reporter, some as a consumer and most as a cleanup volunteer.

Over these months, a singular lesson has emerged: a volunteer work force -- whether Schoharie or New Orleans after Katrina -- is the backbone of a community's recovery hopes following such major disasters.

Long after most politicians and their photo ops left, the National Guard troops were reassigned and the ranks of federal disaster officials diminished, residents here say their community still would be stuck in time to the days not long after the August floods were it not for the thousands of volunteers. They came from around the state and country, descending here via church vans, school buses, pickup trucks, minivans, fleets of motorcycles and even a log-splitter vehicle.

It is a tale of strangers providing aid to an already economically troubled upstate community about 30 miles west of Albany. They are rebuilding not just flooring and walls, but giving families, generations in some cases, a path to possibly stay in their hometown and rebuild.

"Before this, I thought young people didn't care," one church leader said after a dozen mostly high school students tore out damaged walls in a community center one Saturday in October.

At its peak, 500 volunteers were showing up on weekend days to muck out muddy basements, clean out furnishings or remove moldy walls. Some walked farmers' fields to clear debris -- swing sets, tires, trees, tractor-trailers and even hot tubs that rode a mile or more down the rapids -- so vital seed sowing can be done next spring.

There have been students, families, church groups, motorcycle clubs, unions and just individuals from across New York and as far away as California and Alaska. There was the young volunteer who turned in a child's jewelry box and insisted officials find its owner.

And the woman who dragged a rocking chair from a streambed to a volunteer center, so certain was she that someone could use its comfort.

And the electrician who drove every weekend from Vermont to rewire the house of a man whose wife died of cancer before the flood.

And the church groups and firefighters from the Buffalo area who came to clean yards and do "muck-outs."

There were volunteers who set aside piles of beautiful old wood trim boards in hopes of reusing them. And the volunteer who listened for hours to the stories of a woman who had decided to give up and move from her damaged house and damaged community.

"The volunteer got her talking about her life here and that woman eventually changed her mind and stayed because of her," said Sarah Goodrich, who has coordinated the volunteer details, first from a table, then inside a tent and now from within a donated trailer on a parking lot behind the Schoharie Reformed Church.

The physical work of volunteering is pretty basic: muck out, clean out, demolish and rebuild. For Schoharie, the third step has begun, but for most families and businesses it will take time to complete, and may never be finished.

In the case of Schoharie, perhaps the hardest hit in New York by Irene because of its small but condensed residential area, much of the cleaning -- getting mud and debris off anything below a height of between 8 and 12 feet -- was largely accomplished in the first couple of weeks after the Schoharie Creek burst it banks and spread more than a half-mile wide to engulf this community.

After a home's damaged possessions are tossed onto front yards to await pickup, demolition begins. It is a largely sloppy, chaotic, loud and dangerous process for workers and owners. Volunteers hide behind surgical masks in air choking with dust and flying debris amidst the walloping sound of crowbars and sledgehammers -- tools of choice to rip apart someone's home that crash through layers of plaster and wood lath before ending in a mush of soggy insulation.

"Demo" work involved clearing a home's first floor of everything but studs, subfloor and outer walls. The goal, before winter raged, was urgent: get damaged stuff out, so studs could dry and new wiring and walls could go up. For some, it worked. For many, delayed by their own financial woes or insurance problems, final work, if it happens, must wait until spring.

>An eerie snapshot

Over the weeks, volunteering here took on a largely predictable course of pounding and ripping and carrying. But things were different on a Sunday morning in November. Worried about its structural integrity, inspectors had sealed a Bridge Street home the day after Irene. But that Sunday morning, with entry allowed, an eerie snapshot was exposed of a family's life before the floodwaters arrived. For two months, nothing had been touched. There had been no power. Windows sealed. Mold -- millions of round black spots that merged together to rise 7 feet high on the walls -- filled the first floor. Food was still in the refrigerator, which a volunteer roped off to keep the doors closed during removal. The table still had plates on it. Shirts hung in closets. An electronic drum set was pushed against a wall. Couches were coated with mud. Books, keepsakes, appliances, shoes and children's games were tossed about.

A ghostly image of water stains and dried mud provided a road map for the floodwaters' path through the rooms.

Everything had been touched by mold or mud or water, so a simple decision was made: it all had to go into a waiting creaky trailer pulled by an old tractor. Bracelets, CDs, rugs, chairs, bookcases, lamps, a radio, dishes, a pantry-load of food, appliances, clothes, sneakers, family photos, school art projects.

Gone was a need for homeowners to keep physical reminders of old birthday gifts or a child's first bike. Now, it was simply junk standing in the way of moving on.

With a shovel, I began in the front room, which was filled with the belongings of a young girl. In the corner stood a giant, inflatable octopus -- a pool float removed for fear Irene would blow it away. It provided a strange burst of color in a room made brown in the water's retreat. Into the first shovel went a girl's roller skate and sea shells from a beach vacation. Some children's books, their pages stuck together and mold smearing across the cover, were next. In an hour, the room was clear. Colorful beads, a winter coat, furniture, pictures, school backpack, broken mirrors and hundreds of other items were on their way in the trailer to a temporary dump set up in a Main Street parking lot.

By the afternoon, with a dozen college student reinforcements, the furnishings were gone. Immediately, crowbars and hammers and anything else not requiring electricity popped out and the men and women spread through the house for a burst of demolition work.

In the triage days of the first week, coordinators -- themselves volunteers -- warned volunteers of possible emotions by homeowners: anger, depression or maybe even a get-off-my-property response. But, in home after home, residents eagerly wanted to tell their stories. They offered continual thanks and prodded volunteers to break for food and drink supplied by donors at the volunteer center.

At a house on Main Street five days after the flood, a young woman at the door greeted two volunteers with skepticism. She wasn't sure they wanted strangers in. An offer to get sandwiches and drinks from a volunteer tent down the street was, upon return, met with thanks -- and waiting crowbars.

"Could you help me move the shed back to where it belongs," an old man asked my wife and me as he stood outside his daughter's destroyed house. It had been pushed a couple hundred yards away. His request, that day, went unfilled; higher priorities awaited at houses still with a chance to survive. (Today, the shed is back, but the house and its blown-out windows is for sale.)

>Reality hasn't hit yet

Two weeks after the flood, Grand Street was a hellish place. Debris -- wiring, drywall, insulation, refrigerators, television sets, rugs and anything else that could not be salvaged by owners -- rose 10 feet and snaked in an unbroken line on both sides of the street.

A walk down one street on another day, past a lot emptied except for a tall pole with a birdhouse atop, led onto Orchard Street. Two ranch houses sit side by side. The owner of one said he bought the house on his wedding anniversary 50 years ago -- and it never had "even a drop of water" in it until Irene.

This time, Irene's waters imploded the entire front side of both houses' basement foundations. Some Mennonites from the Rochester area employed an old-fashioned bucket brigade and in a few hours the mud was gone. While on a break the next day, a strange view filled the vista from the basement now with its walls gone: a blue sky and rows of tall trees.

Upstairs, a dozen volunteers were spread out. In one room, drywall was coming down. Flying dust and mold made the surgical masks largely useless, made more clear by the days it would take for scratchy throats and dry coughs to clear.

On the driveway, an old bicycle suddenly appeared. It had been dropped off -- now shiny with new paint and parts -- by a volunteer who drove through the village after the flood tossing damaged bikes into his truck with a promise, fulfilled that Saturday, to return with the bikes fixed.

About 80 percent of the village's structures were damaged. Joe Nelson, the village building and codes chief, said he has so far cleared nine homes to be reoccupied out of 270 structures damaged. "The majority probably won't be until next spring or summer," he recently said.

"We haven't seen the worst of it. Reality will start hitting this winter and next spring, when people are going to realize what's in front of them," Nelson said. "It's not a dead village. But it's a money and time thing."

>An uncertain future

Today, the village has a tentative air of comeback. That birdhouse lot? It now has a new house on it. Banks are open. A convenience store is hopping. The historic Parrott House pub and restaurant is serving.

The questions, though, are many. What happens next year when destroyed houses are reassessed for property tax purposes? How do the town and school district deal with that drop in revenues, and how do remaining homeowners cover the likely tax hikes? How do homeowners get mortgages refinanced to fund repairs if banks have cut their house values by one-third? And the biggest question mark: the water. Why did the creek levels rise so high and so fast, and could it happen again?

"Who would ever move here after this?" said the old man with the uprooted shed. Indeed, a few have bought, lured by fire sales.

The damage is still widespread. Besides all the vacant houses, the town library is closed. The firehouse had to move two miles away to a replacement building so small that firefighters have to jockey the fire trucks to squeeze them in and out. The jail is closed, forcing police to transport prisoners 45 minutes away to Albany County. And Schoharie is losing nearly $1 million it made annually by holding inmates from other localities.

The Laundromat, hardware store and a cafe are gone. The supermarket a couple of miles away has been closed since Irene. Everything from county offices, including offices housing the sheriff and district attorney, were uprooted. Even the funeral home closed at one point.

Fifteen percent of residents had flood insurance, said Assemblyman Peter Lopez, who grew up in the town. His father got $10,000 for the damaged family house; it had been assessed at $90,000.

"Since colonial times, the village has been destroyed 11 times," Lopez said of Revolutionary War battles, Indian war party raids and past floods. "But it's always come back."

This time, it will come with a heavy reliance on volunteers, a mix of unskilled adults doing basic demolition work, teens running food lines and some carpenters and electricians donating services. Volunteer coordinators, meanwhile, figured out where people should go based on need, levels of danger and skill sets of volunteers. They kept volunteers fed and hydrated, gave them tetanus shots and kept stocks of masks, gloves, Band-Aids and hand sanitizers.

Looking back, residents say they did not expect the level of volunteerism the tiny village has seen. John Poorman, chairman of Schoharie Recovery Inc., the local flood fundraising group, said volunteer sweat equity has been far in excess of government relief dollars.

"It's always important to let people know how grateful we are because, truly, we would not be where we are without the volunteer effort," said Goodrich. "It's almost overwhelming."



Tom Precious, chief of the Albany Bureau for The Buffalo News, is one of thousands of volunteers working to rebuild Schoharie, which was badly damaged by Tropical Storm Irene.