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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 1, 2011

Irene’s floods rearrange the Hilltowns

By Zach Simeone

HILLTOWNS — Tropical Storm Irene swept the Helderberg landscape with a barrage of floods that changed the face of the Hill this weekend.

The Fox Creek swelled into a colossal surge of water that tore the garage off a home in the Berne hamlet, and left the front of the 200-year-old Berne Mill in a cavernous sinkhole. Bridges were rendered useless as they were submerged by the downpour and speared by fallen trees. Power lines lay strewn about.

Fire departments from Berne and Knox were called to Gallupville to squelch a fire that no one could reach, as all paths to the home were blocked by rivers that were once roads.

Hilltowners are still regaining their electricity, as the effects of Irene have been felt statewide. The number of New Yorkers without power peaked at 945,257 on Sunday, according to the governor’s office; as of Wednesday night, 287,304 were still without power.

Local highway departments have been hard at work in the Helderbergs, and there is more where that came from.

“The creeks and streams are no longer where they’re used to be,” said Gary Salisbury, highway superintendent of Knox. “They’re all filled in and rerouted because so many rocks and debris have been displaced. That’s probably going to be a major issue when everything else is said and done. It’s just going to make flooding happen again so quickly and easily.”

With some farms wiped out, and the pavement peeled off the roads beside them, towns have been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Emergency Management Office, and aid is expected after the president’s disaster declaration on Wednesday night. (See related story.)

“We just got notification that we will be eligible for FEMA public assistance funds to recoup whatever we lost on town property, and there should be individual assistance to homeowners,” Rensselaerville Supervisor Marie Dermody told The Enterprise Wednesday. She had spoken on the phone with FEMA representatives that morning.

“People are going to have to tell the town what their losses are because that has to be part of the report,” she said.

Supervisors George Gebe of Berne, Richard Rapp of Westerlo, and Michael Hammond of Knox are expecting aid as well.

“I was contacted this morning,” Hammond said on Wednesday, “and we are told to get our figures together, keep track of our numbers we are going to be incurring, and there’s going to be a preliminary meeting in the development of the application in Voorheesville,” at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, though a date has not yet been set. The meeting will include representatives from at least the four Hilltowns, he said.

Their stories

On Monday morning, Berne residents stood out in the bright sunshine, in awe of the damage that Irene left behind in the hamlet. The Fox Creek was still roaring underneath the conversations as citizens surveyed destruction the likes of which they had never seen on the Hill.

The Hawkes-Teeters live right at the center of the hamlet, and their red garage once stood edge-to-edge with the Fox Creek. They watched on Sunday as the rain fell, and the current became stronger, until the Foxenkill overflowed its stone-edged bank and tore down their garage, piece by piece, washing it down the waterway.

But they are happy to see their house still standing, they told The Enterprise on Monday.

Said Susan Hawkes-Teeter, “We saw the stream approaching the hedge — we had hedges out back that aren’t there anymore — and, I said, ‘I think we need to move our car that’s in the carport.’”

They moved their cars and bicycles to higher ground.

“My husband is saying, ‘Well, anything hanging up in the garage will probably be fine,’” she said.

She looked away as the stream destroyed their garage on Sunday, but her son, Martin, and her husband, Philip, looked on.

The back wall went first, Martin said, and the water streamed in, punching a large hole in the front door of the garage. Once the rest of the walls were blown out, the roof rested on the rocks briefly, but was eventually swept away as well.

The family had no flood insurance.

“Right now, we’re so grateful that our house didn’t go, too,” said Susan Hawkes-Teeter. “The water was surrounding the house and, at one point, they thought the Warner’s Lake dam might break, and that would have not only taken us out, but all the buildings right through here. Even though we’re mopping and everything today, the house, we think, is structurally still sound. It will celebrate its 200th birthday in another year. So, we’re just grateful that the rain stopped when it did.”

Mary Lou McMahon, who lives across the street in the apartment above the Fox Creek Market, watched it happen as well.

“I didn’t know if it was going to keep coming this way or not,” she said Monday. “The garage went down, and it was just flying right across.”

Her son, Joe McMahon, owns the Fox Creek Market.

“You can see what happened to part of our parking lot here,” Joe McMahon said. “The retaining wall went, that’s chopped away, and the biggest fear all day was that this old condemned building here was going to cave in,” he said, gesturing to the old building on the corner of routes 443 and 156, which is set to be demolished, as it has been determined a hazard for traffic.

“If that happened,” he said, “then the water would have come here, eaten the parking lot away, and this wouldn’t be here right now.”

As the overflowing creek spilled onto Helderberg Trail, it flowed down the hill, towards the Agway in the old Berne Mill. The rushing waters ripped away at the ground holding up the front end of the store, causing it to fall into sinkhole.

“I never saw water come down the road like that,” owner Steven Lendrum said on Monday as he looked over the damage. He, like the Hawkes-Teeters, had no flood insurance.

“It didn’t bother the main structure,” Lendrum said of the flood. “It’s got mud into it, but it’s fine. If you look at the walls they laid up here 200 years ago, they knew what they were doing,” he went on, pointing to the now-exposed foundation beneath the larger, older portion of the building. “That thing’s a couple of feet thick.”

Lendrum was unsure on Monday whether or not he would rebuild.

“I took the money out of the safe yesterday, but I didn’t get the stuff we need for doing the sales tax,” he joked.

“With all this blacktop,” one onlooker said to Lendrum, “you’d think it would have sealed it right off.”

“It started to lift it,” Lendrum replied. “That’s when I left, when I started to hear the water picking at it.”

An American flag still flew from the collapsed building on Monday. Lendrum, infuriated on Wednesday, reported that someone had stolen his flag from the downed portion of the building.

A stroll through

the aftermath

Lynn Williams, a Berne resident who works as a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Delmar, shared stories on Tuesday afternoon of her experience wading through the aftermath.

“I’ve been up in West Berne for almost 40 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “I don’t have a fear of going over bridges, but that day I had some fears. Because of that water and the pressure of that water, I was scared, but I held my breath as I went over any bridge.”

After the rain let up on Sunday evening, Williams went out to look about.

“I saw dishwashers half-a-mile down the road; I saw dryers; auto supplies from the hardware store embedded in the guardrails halfway down to Gallupville; guardrails lying in the creek; power poles split in two, laying in the road; wires down all over,” she said.

After about two-and-a-half hours, she decided to go home, and she made it to about half-a-mile from her home when she found a tree had fallen in the road.

“I had to turn around and go back over to West Berne, and a friend was having a cookout in the house. So, we sat there and ate lasagna, and meatballs, and pork chops. His back porch goes right down to the creek, and the water was halfway up his back steps, and he’s got about 20 or 30 steps.”


Russell Pokorny, a Knox firefighter and also the town’s assessor, was one of many sent to put out a fire at a mobile home in Gallupville. Departments of Berne and Knox made efforts to reach the burning trailer, but there were impassable obstacles at almost every turn.

“Finally, I think we were on Schoonmaker Road, and the flames from the house were just barely visible, so we were probably within a couple hundred yards of the house,” Pokorny said. “It’s really frustrating, because we had our pumper and our tanker, so, if we got to the house, we could have put a lot of water on it fast. And, for that matter, we could have drawn water from anywhere on that day…With something like that, you say, ‘We did our best; now, I have to go home.’”

He and his wife, Amy Pokorny, live in Knox, in a home that is completely off the grid.

“We have our renewable energy system, so we never lost power,” Amy Pokorny said. “We didn’t get much from our solar panels, but our windmill was spinning all day and through the night. We had our batteries filled up all the way, so we had electricity, and we had excess to heat water.”

In Berne

The governing bodies in all four Hilltowns have been working steadily since the storm lulled. Representatives from each town commented this week on the progress made thus far.

Supervisor Gebe of Berne said that the town is working to bring in a contractor to remove debris from the bridge in the hamlet.

“It looks like, as soon as they take some of the blacktop off the road, they’ll be able to open it up again by the weekend, which is good news,” Gebe said Wednesday. “County and state roads, they’re still trying to get repairs because they’re still washed out underneath.”

County Route 2 and Woodstock Lake Road were washed out as well. Route 2 is still closed between Woodstock Road and County Route 1, according to a release yesterday from the Albany County Department of Public Works.

“We lost a culvert at Woodstock Lake,” said Gebe. “We were up there trying to get the culvert in. That’s one that a woman actually drove around a barricade and drove into. She didn’t get hurt or anything, which is lucky.”

Both the hamlet and East Berne have power now, he said on Wednesday.

“I think, with the power coming in from the Middleburgh, Schoharie area, they’re still assessing what happened,” said Gebe. “We do get power from up in that area, and that could be another two weeks.”

In Rensselaerville

Supervisor Dermody said this week that the hamlet of Preston Hollow in Rensselaerville was still flooded.

“There’s a bridge on [Route] 145 towards the center of the hamlet that’s closed, so we have an alternate route to get from one end of the hamlet to the other,” Dermody said this week. “They are still without power. We have a Red Cross shelter set up at the ambulance building on Fox Creek Road. We’re awaiting the arrival of a Red Cross bulk-distribution truck, bringing food, water, we hope dry ice, and fuel for generators.”

The truck is expected to make the delivery to the Tri-Village Fire Company on Route 145 in Preston Hollow, she said.

“It’s really the state highway here that sustained incredible damage,” she went on. “Route 145, last I heard, is closed from the Albany County line with Schoharie County, to Livingstonville. Route 81 is closed at the intersection with 145 because that bridge got severely damaged.”

The area, she said, is “devastated.”

“I know there was a mobile home that went floating down the Catskill Creek,” said Dermody. “There are homes in the [hamlet] that I’m sure are uninhabitable.”

Highway Superintendent Potter said Wednesday that Part of Gulf Road is still washed out, along with a culvert on Gulf Road Extension.

“We’ve done a lot of ditching and had a lot of FEMA work in the last 20 years,” Potter said. “The FEMA culverts were filled to the brim.” He credits that work with keeping the damage from being worse.

Tigner Lane and South Street are still impassable, but are dead end roads, he said.

All other town roads, Potter said, have been fixed, though he estimated that half of the roads needed repair after the storm, mostly in their culverts and shoulders.

Potter’s wife, Kathy Potter, described the storm’s effect on their home.

“We have trucks overturned, moved 150 feet, bailers on top of other equipment, all our fences down,” said Kathy Potter. Her sister, she went on, lives in Middleburgh.

“She stood up on a picnic table with binoculars,” she said, “and it just looked like one huge river from mountain to mountain.”

In Knox

“We faired a little better than our surrounding communities,” Supervisor Hammond said on Monday. “We have a granddaughter who lost an entire home in Esperance; the Schoharie creek just wiped it out.”

Highway Superintendent Salisbury said that Cross Road was completely washed out, a large culvert on Quay Road was lost, and a home on Zimmer Road was badly damaged.

“Just about every road in town has pretty substantial damage, mostly shoulders gone, a lot of culvert pipes’ ends got washed out, lots of trees are gone,” Salisbury said Tuesday. “We’ve got pretty much all the roads open, with the exception of the upper end of Street Road, because there’s a power pole across it. We’re waiting for National Grid to put a new pole in, and then we’re good. But we’ve got an incredible amount of shoulder work to do.”

In Westerlo

Supervisor Rapp said that Westerlo, like the other Hilltowns, has several downed power lines, and homes are still regaining electricity.

“We had a lot of damage; mainly, the roads are washed out,” he said, referring specifically to Tan Hollow Road, and Lobdell Mill Road as being in particularly bad shape — “When I say gone, I mean gone.”

According to a release yesterday from the county’s public works department, County Route 411 is still closed between Boomhower Road and Schlegel Road.

“Homes got damaged,” Rapp went on. “I know, down in South Westerlo, south of the bridge, there was some damage done to homes, and the bridge as well. The water just came with such force, it just took everything in its path. The biggest thing that happens is, when you get water like that, the limbs and debris get caught up like a dam, and when it gets loose, the power is unbelievable.”

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