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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

People Helping People - It's Powerful Stuff

Antonia Schreiber stood Tuesday afternoon in the 200-year-old Victorian cottage she had transformed into a luxury day spa and marveled that she could see blond floorboards where 24 hours earlier there had been a foot of mud, mangled shrubs and tree limbs left by Irene's floodwaters.

"Friends, loved ones, people I don't even know showed up with trucks, bulldozers and hugs," said the 26-year-old massage therapist, as men and women scraped and mopped around her. "The magnitude of generosity and good will is just overwhelming. I'm numb."

It was the same story up and down Main Street in Windham, a ski town high in the Catskill Mountains that was under several feet of brick-red water Sunday night when a stony creek, the Batavia Kill, grew to a raging river fueled by a foot of rain.

There was still no municipal water on Tuesday in Windham and the sewage system was broken. Residents who gathered on the community center lawn said state or federal aid had not materialized yet on Tuesday morning, so people took matters into their own hands.

"The National Guard showed up yesterday but they didn't bring water or anything," said Erica Regan, who looked for a way to help others after finding her flower shop unharmed. "I can't drive a bulldozer, but I can make coffee."

She set up a coffee urn on a folding table beside the picture-book white church that houses the community center, and before long, other people started bringing things — baked goods, cases of bottled water, jugs of milk, gas grills, burgers, hot dogs. Members of the Bruderhof religious community on another mountainside, dressed in long blue skirts, grilled chicken for hungry cleanup volunteers.

Steven Zeregas took a break to eat a hot dog after working to clean up his pizza shop, where the front deck was scrunched into a V by floodwaters. "My kitchen, fuhgetaboutit," Zarega said. "I lost so much food. The water heater was floating in four feet of water. I spent $10,000 to put in a new patio out back last year, and now it's all gone."

Zaregas said he'll use his savings to repair what he can, submit the receipts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "and pray I get some money back."

"Nobody has flood insurance here; it's too expensive," Schreiber said.

Irene destroyed 500 to 600 homes and thousands of acres of farmland and left six people dead upstate. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 470,000 customers were without power statewide.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo requested an "expedited major disaster declaration" from the federal government to help pay for preparation and cleanup. He said preliminary estimates show damage far exceeds the $25 million threshold.

Early Wednesday, President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York, freeing up federal recovery funds for people in the counties of Albany, Delaware, Dutchess, Essex, Greene, Schenectady, Schoharie, and Ulster. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs.

The declaration also means the state and eligible local governments and non-profits can apply for funding to rebuild in the counties of Albany, Bronx, Clinton, Delaware, Dutchess, Essex, Greene, Montgomery, Nassau, New York, Queens, Rensselaer, Richmond, Rockland, Schoharie, Suffolk, Ulster, Warren, and Westchester.

Also early Wednesday, the New York State Thruway reopened in both directions from Schenectady to Syracuse, the last stretch of road closed by flooding caused by Irene.

In Windham, bike shop owner Lori Torgersen helped set up a relief organization called WARF — Windham Area Relief Foundation — with a website where people can make donations (

"There are all sorts of limits to government aid, as we've quickly learned," Torgersen said. "I have two friends whose shops were devastated, and they were told FEMA doesn't generally help small businesses."

The streets of Windham were coated with a film of dried red mud Tuesday. Sidewalks were buckled, and beneath them the soil was gone and pipes lay exposed and broken. Lawns were strewn with flotsam left by the floodwaters, including several cars, a backhoe, and a small cottage that was crushed against the bridge. Some of the gingerbread-trimmed homes were still surrounded by shallow ponds.

Billy Martin, 43, a retired New York City firefighter who was at ground zero on 9/11, said his Windham home is on a hill and wasn't damaged. "I'm here trying to help people out any way I can," he said.

Natasha Shuster, a former pro skier who owns the Catskill Country Store with her husband, said 150 people showed up on Monday to help with cleanup. About a dozen were there Tuesday. Two cars from another part of town lay partly buried by mud in front of the store, one with the letters "RIP" written on the roof with red clay.

"The FEMA people were really nice and sympathetic, but they said they can't help us," Shuster said.

"But it's all good, nobody died here," Shuster said. "Our family and friends are OK. We'll be fine."

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