People in Schoharie County take care of their own; they've always had to. While there's no shortage of bucolic beauty - rolling fields dappled with grass-munching livestock, lurid-leaved trees throughout the autumn and all the weathered Victoriana an antiques or architecture enthusiast could care to gawk at - it's just a bit too far, a bit too isolated and a bit too run down for most outsiders to bother with. For over two hundred years, residents have quietly and steadfastly gone about the business of raising families, supporting their community and feeding the rest of the New York State.
Schoharie is a breadbasket county of 626 square miles, providing milk, corn, fruit, vegetables and meat to the surrounding area, as well as markets and restaurants all the way down to New York City, roughly a four hour drive away. All that is in peril after Tropical Storm Irene unleashed its fury upon the East Coast, engorging the bodies of water that snake through upstate New York, and washing away cars, homes, businesses, lives and livelihoods.
Jack Cobeland, a retired 26-year Navy veteran from nearby Sharon Springs has weathered a few hurricanes in his day. From his volunteer post at the registration desk of the Carlisle Fire Department he reported, "I'm familiar with disaster situations. This is the hardest hit community I've seen since I've been out here...It's just the utter devastation of people who seem to be caught completely unaware as far as the total amount of damage."
He continued, "Esperance, Middleburgh, there was seven feet of water on Main Street in Schoharie."
This is eerily familiar for many locals, including Heidi Meka, manager of a local hotel. She saw her hometown of Canajoharie, New York engulfed in floodwaters six years ago. While the damage was not as widespread, the severity was extreme and locals came to the rescue - in part a reflection of the community's tight bonds, but also in some degree due to a dearth of faith in state and federal resources.
Meka said, "The lack of assistance from federal and state agencies was the biggest disappointment. Businesses that had been built over decades, where left with little choice as they closed their doors. We hope that on a large scale, there was a lesson learned by our government that encouraged them to respond so quickly and with such force in Schoharie County."
While Governor Andrew Cuomo's office unveiled a "Labor for Your Neighbor" volunteer program to tremendous response, announced a $15 Million Agricultural and Community Recovery Fund as well as federal disaster aid for multiple counties, locals wasted no time organizing relief efforts such as the one headquartered in the Carlisle Fire Department.
"You can't walk through, you can't drive through without crying," said Carlisle fire chief Susan Bortell. "A lot of people need a lot of help."
Bortell continued, "We are dealing with firefighters and rescue personnel that live in Central Bridge, and their trailer park was wiped out. They are first and foremost on our minds. We are also taking meals two or sometimes three times a day to Livingstonville because they have nothing down there. There are people that are stranded between two bridges because the bridges got wiped out. There's mudslides. They need food." Four-wheelers are some of the only vehicles that can make it through the soupy, ruined terrain, but the drivers remain undeterred from their mission.
The approach at the firehouse is two-pronged, Cobeland explained. A squad of volunteers prepares and ferries the food to the workers and another manages the collection and distribution of food and supplies donated by people in the surrounding communities. Damage is relative right now, and people are quick to downplay their own losses.
At the Sharon Springs Farmers Market, the ground had dried out by the weekend. Volunteers - including some who had yet to regain electrical power a week after the storm hit - accepted donated food, toiletries, clothing and household items for families who'd lost everything in the flood. Farmers who lost their current crops offered their weekend profits to farmers who had seen their livestock, buildings and equipment swallowed whole by the raging water.
The overwhelming sentiment is: I may have lost some, but there is someone else who has lost it all.
Volunteers like Betsy Busche Cross are seeing this play out daily at the Carlisle Firehouse. She said, "It's the whole rural attitude. People take care of themselves, so convincing them that it's okay to come in and take stuff is huge."
She continued, "It's the one to one - you have to have a conversation with them. If you ask them if they need anything, they're going to say no or give you one item, but when you start talking with them, that's when you start finding out what the real needs are. Who do you find out they have at home? You find out that they have pets at home and you send bags of pet food with them."
Laura Clough, who sought out volunteer opportunities on the internet after seeing footage of the damage. "I do see a little bit of reluctance to come in and actually take items...but it's become pretty clear from seeing everybody and watching the news that people really do need it. They're coming in and they're taking the things that they need, but they're concerned about feeling that they can actually come in ask for help."
"I didn't want to just write a check," said Clough's mother Dorothy, who'd come along with her daughter to Carlisle. The two of them had spent the day hunkered down on the floor, organizing donations, having conversations with flood victims, and gently, but firmly, insisting that they take a box brimming with provisions. They two joked that they had resisted sneaking boxes into the backs of people's trucks - but just barely.
Chief Bortell, however, had no qualms about laying bare her community's needs and asking for help. "Come up and volunteer, cash donations are always welcome, Price Chopper cards, Walmart cards. (People) can give their donations here and we will make sure that the families that have been affected will get it. I give my word on that and everybody in this room knows that."
She also had a message for the people in her community, "If we don't have it, you let me know and we will get it here."
Survival and strength run deep in Schoharie County, says Meka. This is not the end of the line for a region that's weathered some tough times. "They're self-made people. Their parents and grandparents, in many, cases built these communities. They are not so far removed from the inspired, hard working generations that paved their way. They have watched each other raise their families and build their businesses with an honest sense of hard work and sacrifice."
Meka continued, "It is not in their blood to sit back and lament their woes. They see the path set before them and will trudge on."
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