Disaster response: A story of giving
By Fleischmanns Mayor Todd Pascarella
It’s been a hard year since Hurricane Irene blew through town. A long, tough year since Bill Birns stopped me while I was walking through the mud on Main Street in Fleischmanns the day after the flood and said, “This is way worse than ‘96, this is the worst thing ever here.”
I had no reason to doubt him as I discovered scene after scene of destruction, each one more indescribable than the next. “Where do we even begin...” I wondered.
The Great Flood of August 28, 2011 gave us a true glimpse of what the awesome power of nature is capable of destroying. However, as I now reflect back at every single day since the flood, I realize that we have seen something far stronger than a natural disaster. We have indeed witnessed the power of the human spirit to rise above and overcome the worst of tragedies. By tapping into the goodness in their hearts, people in our community have given to their fellow man in ways that they probably never thought they would have to, or knew they were capable of. It has become clear that the story of the last 12 months is not really about the details of flooding and streams and such. This is a story about giving.
Took quick action
From the first signs of high water, emergency responders and volunteers put themselves at risk to get others to safety and worked for days on end without sleep or pay. Once safe, volunteers worked countless hours to make sure displaced or isolated people were fed and clothed and had somewhere to stay. Donations poured in from every direction to make that possible. In an already difficult economy, people gave precious dollars and goods towards the recovery, and gave their time selflessly to help others through some of the worst days of their lives.
Then the immense task of ripping out, cleaning up, and building back stared us in the face. Again, teams of local volunteers as well as people from places we never heard of showed up to take on this endless mountain of work. While the community relief and recovery effort unfolded, the municipal governments were coming to grips with the damage to the public infrastructure. The battered bridges and roads and stream banks and park in the Village of Fleischmanns were part of a damage estimate totaling in the millions. It became clear early that the federal government was not going to just cut us a check to cover our immense losses.
Dedicated volunteers had to comb through decades of records and document every penny worth of damage on public property with hope that we would be compensated for at least some of it. It is hard to believe but on just this task alone thousands of thankless volunteer man-hours have been spent, and the work continues.
Besides the immediate front-line volunteers, many family members of those working in response to the disaster had to make huge sacrifices and often did not get to spend much time with their loved ones for weeks and months.
The economic impact of lost pay resulting from the thousands and thousands of man-hours given to the recovery effort became another painful reality. Still others gave in subtler ways and leant support however they could. The story of this first year since the Great Flood is really the legacy of those who have worked hard and given so much to get the community back to as close to “normal” as possible, which is where we all want to be.
As far as we have come however, it is also clear that we are closer to the beginning than the end of the long-term rebuilding process. The millions of dollars in lost infrastructure as well as the millions in badly needed new infrastructure loom large in our valley. Daunting are the tasks ahead, but this is where the story of giving starts rising to the level of the challenge itself.
Months ago we got word that Delaware County had procured millions in federal grant funds to cover 75 percent of the cost of emergency watershed protection projects, mainly to build stronger stone walls along the streams and open up the channels and floodplains to allow more water to pass safely. That’s great news, but with a total of $2 million in projects possible in the Village of Fleischmanns alone, that leaves an awful large 25 percent match to come up with.
This is where an unexpected but welcome new funding source comes in. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) now recognizes that the uncontrolled flooding through our towns and villages is perhaps the most detrimental of all threats to the quality of water in their watershed. Because of this change of heart, the DEP has decided it is in everyone’s interest that they pick up the rest of the tab for these flood protection projects. We finally have a new partner in our long-term fight against future flood damage, the DEP.
With a plan in place to address flood protection projects going forward, we turn to the need for a long-term plan for the economic renaissance of Fleischmanns. A process actually begun well before the flood, but because of the devastation, it has now been elevated to a battle for our very survival. Main Street is undergoing an awakening as people are taking a stand by fixing up their old buildings and starting new businesses and opening the doors to new commerce not seen in years.
This badly needed capital infusion in our village is happening with no guarantee of outcome, as is always the case with any investment. However, what is driving much of it is a belief that a brighter future lays ahead for Fleischmanns if the community bands together to make it so. We were once a thriving resort community with great opportunity and we can and will be once again. We owe a lot to those willing to make a stand and an investment on Main Street despite the setbacks caused by the flood.
The last aspect of Fleischmanns’ recovery is perhaps the closest to the hearts of people inside and outside the village; the ballpark. It has always been the place people would gather in the summer for all manner of recreation and relaxation. In the 2009 Park Plan, the community recognized the importance of the park as a resource to draw people in to spend time and money in the village, but also identified upgrades to the amenities offered at the park needed to truly realize this vision.
Then came the flood; which wiped out or damaged everything that was in the park, and created a blank canvas on which to implement the 2009 plan. The challenge became funding.
Since FEMA will not pay to totally recreate the park with the upgrades, can we combine all the possible sources of funding? Will FEMA even give us anything at the end of the day” These are the critical questions that we still need answers to, and may not have for some time.
However, as the outlook for FEMA funding in the park looked bleak this summer, something else began to happen; people spontaneously started giving. I got a call from Kingdon Gould one afternoon. He couldn’t stand to look at the disaster area in the park any longer. He offered to pay to have the field professionally restored by Hubbell Inc., who would also be contributing, and today the grass is growing once again. This generous move gave a tremendous jump-start to the project and a much needed morale booster as well.
That inspired Dave Mann of Alta Log Homes, with whom we had been discussing the potential design of the new bathroom, kitchen, and pavilion building, to offer to fully donate his design services so that the village could begin working now on a drawing for when the funding is finally available.
Not only can we start moving ahead with designing but also the value of the contribution can be used as a match to leverage other grant funds we have access to. This act of generosity inspired Brian Walsh of Brian Walsh Plumbing to offer to donate his labor for the plumbing portion of the new building.
A long list
Also stepping forward were Margaretville Central School teacher Denise Asher and Village Trustee Kathleen Rostad to join Jeanine Pascarella in fundraising for the playground to add to the donations already collected for it. Others have offered to volunteer their labor for the construction of the playground, which will keep the cost of that project potentially much lower. This in turn helped inspire long-time tennis community leader Sindy Becker to offer to spearhead the effort to raise enough money to reconstruct the tennis courts. And it just keeps going as more people offer to help.
The story unfolding in Fleischmanns is one of a community coming together to overcome tragedy by using the best part of humanity; the compassion that compels us simply to give as much as we can. With this kind of community spirit working, we will be able to accomplish tremendous good. It will help put the pain of the Great Flood of 2011 behind us, make us even stronger than we were before the flood, and hand the next generation something of which they can be very proud.
Perhaps the biggest gift we can pass on is the example of how, when a community pulls together like we have, even the worst disaster can be overcome.