Building an Ark on the Hilltop

It’s Wednesday, September 7th, and it’s raining torrentially again. I’m feeling antsy, wondering what’s going on in the valley. A week and a half ago, Hurricane Irene swept through here, devastating Schoharie County and many other places in upstate New York. More rain is the last thing we need right now.

This is the view from Vroman's Nose in Middleburgh on Monday, August 29. The Schoharie Creek normally winds around those submerged trees at the bottom of the hill in the back of the photo.
Photo from the Albany Times Union

Irene was forecast to be a pretty big storm. Fin, my friend Clara - up from Brooklyn for a visit - and I spent Saturday morning preparing. We cleaned up the yard, filled a couple of water buckets, brought all the houseplants and hanging baskets inside, got some movies at the library, and hauled out the generator, just in case.

We awoke to rain on Sunday. Shortly after that, the power went out. It did not come back on until Friday night, almost a week later. We spent the day reading, napping, knitting, snacking, and comparing notes with friends downstate. Outside, the wind blew the rain horizontal. The tiny stream that runs next to our house overwhelmed the culvert and there were several inches of water on the road. The rain slowed down in the evening, and we milked the goats and made grilled veggies and couscous in the twilight. Before we went to bed we watched a strong wind blow the remaining clouds away, revealing a sky full of stars, brighter for the lack of electric light anywhere in the vicinity.

Monday morning was miraculously sunny. The stream was no longer over the road, and all our trees looked like they had made it ok. We fired up the generator to do the milking and breakfast dishes, and decided to venture into town to get some gas. As we made our way down the hill into Middleburgh, conditions got progressively worse. Many big trees had fallen and were resting on power lines or lying in the road, and the roadside ditch had become a rushing river. At the bottom of the hill, we saw flashing lights – the sheriff, the state police, the Department of Environmental Conservation were all there. Main Street appeared to be closed, still flooded. We turned around and headed back up the hill, debating what could possibly be going on down there as we went. I looked for information on the internet on Fin’s smartphone, but there was nothing about our little valley. Fin tried later to go down to Schoharie, but was unable to get into town. The flooding was so bad there, he reported, that giant fuel tanks at a local gas company were tipped over and there was still a foot of water in the fields. Earlier in the day, the evacuation alarm had sounded, indicating a dam break in Gilboa, which would obliterate the entire valley. It turned out to be a false alarm. As the day wore on, we discovered that many roads and bridges were washed out. We were pretty much cut off from the world on our hilltop, but we were well-supplied, so we hunkered down. That evening was a beautiful one. We grilled some more veggies from the garden and watched another movie.

Welcome to Middleburgh (post-Irene)
Photo from www.watershedpost.com

On Tuesday morning, Fin went down to Middleburgh for gas while I milked. He came back with grim reports of the state of the village. The floodwaters had inundated it entirely, flooding homes and breaking the plate-glass windows of the businesses on Main Street. He had seen big burly middle-aged farmers crying in their neighbors’ arms. On Wednesday, I had to go into Cobleskill for goat feed. On Main Street in Middleburgh, a thick layer of wet mud covered the streets and sidewalks. Distraught home and business owners had begun to set their ruined furniture on the curbs. There was debris caught in the bridge that spans the creek, which looked like churning café au lait. The flower baskets hanging a foot above my head were coated in mud. On my way home, I saw a table set up outside the high school. The woman behind the table asked if I was there to volunteer, gave me a pair of rubber gloves and a surgical mask, and directed me to the back of the school. I joined a group of volunteers in the technology room. Very little was salvageable in the muddy mess. Textbooks, photo albums, even computers had been swirled around the room and deposited willy nilly. The garbage pile outside grew until it was higher than the window out of which we were tossing the ruined items. The technology teacher directed us, looking like he might cry. I wanted to also. Volunteers debated what toxic substances might be in the mud.

On Thursday I headed into Schoharie to help out at Guernsey’s Nursery. As in Middleburgh, the village had been devastated. The air buzzed with the sounds of generators and sump pumps. Gardens and shrubbery were covered in thick mud. Piles of rugs and furniture, much of it antique, lined the sidewalks. At the corner, a huge swing set was jammed up against the stop sign. At the nursery, I worked with a handful of other volunteers, untangling plants from irrigation hoses and debris, setting them upright, and carting them away to be washed. We ate a picnic of donated Brooks barbecue at a mud-coated table on the lawn of the county building. It looked like everyone in town had come out to help that day.

Displaced swing set in Schoharie
Photo at http://www.fema.gov/photolibrary/photo_details.do?id=50703

On Friday morning in Middleburgh, the clean-up had begun at the public library. Materials on the bottom two shelves had been destroyed. We ripped out carpets and sorted through artifacts from the history and genealogy room, mostly ruined. The frantic librarians tried to keep an inventory of the wrecked materials. I returned home covered with mud again.

The next morning, Fin came in with me. The village was bustling with activity. The governor was in town. From the library steps, I saw him talking to some locals. As the governor’s handlers tried to usher him down the street, the little old lady who owned the restaurant across the street grabbed his arm and began to drag him over to her place. He looked helpless.

Volunteers loaded all the remaining books into boxes and put them on a truck. In the afternoon, Fin and I drove to the barn that had been donated as a storage space. With a handful of other friends of the library, we spent the afternoon unloading all the books in the barn to dry out. Back in town, business owners started putting “We will re-open” signs in their windows.

But now it’s raining again. Roads are closing and people in low-lying areas are advised to evacuate. Here on the hilltop, I am desperately hoping that my new home town will make it through.
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1 comment:

  1. What a moving yet succinct description of the devastation that Irene has wrought to your town! Don't know how you were able to organize all that you have seen into this narrative! And now Cobleskill, the safe haven, is flooding. Glad you are up on Cotton Hill.