PRATTSVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Tropical Storm Irene put a $1 billion whipping on New York, most of it upstate where heavy rains spawned flash floods that shredded roads, washed out bridges and knocked buildings from their foundations, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
Speaking in Prattsville, a Catskills Mountain community that like many others was hard hit by the torrential rains and wind on Sunday, Cuomo said 600 homes were damaged and 150 major highways disrupted. The storm caused $45 million in damage to farms, authorities said, and as of Wednesday morning, about 329,000 customers were still without power statewide.
“Upstate New York paid a terrible, terrible price for this storm,” Cuomo said.
But, “we are going to rebuild better than it was before,” he vowed. “New Yorkers are a tough breed and in our darkest hours is when we shine the brightest.”
The governor was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
On Tuesday, Cuomo had requested an “expedited major disaster declaration” from the federal government to help pay for preparation and cleanup. 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.
Prattsville resident Joel Sutch, 45, briefly interrupted the news conference of local, state and federal officials by saying the politicians have shown up only for the camera, not doing the work needed to help the locals.
He said National Guard troops also were there only briefly.
“They haven’t done nothing here, they are only here when the cameras are,” Sutch said. “It just seems to me, they (politicians) show up when it’s convenient.”
Cuomo and a local Greene County official countered that the National Guard troops as well as state officials have been in town throughout the ordeal and have been helpful
They said troops conducted door-to-door surveys on the mountaintop the day the storm hit.
Not everybody agreed with Sutch.
“That’s not the consensus of our town,” said Darcy Jaeger-Brand, 39, of Prattsville. “The guard has been here.”
Mud filled the streets, along with what remained of houses, as the smell of decay hung in the air on Wednesday. As much as any of the close-knit hamlets devastated by Irene, this is ground zero, with FEMA choosing Prattsville as its backdrop to announce one of the first major disasters declared after the storm.
The sign for Beth’s Cafe sagged almost to the muck on the cracked sidewalk, under an American flag hung from a telephone pole.
Across the narrow street, the Prattsville Tavern’s sign carried a motto reflecting the isolation of the mountain town: “Musta got lost.”
Inside, the mud at one point reached nearly to the top of the bar. Outside, mud-caked stools and tables were left to dry out. The door was open with no one around because there is little left to lose.
Doris Plankhorn, 74, who walks with a cane, found herself on her roof Sunday with a rope around her waist. Her neighbor held tight to the other end as she slowly braved the rushing floodwaters to half-walk, half-swim to safety.
By Wednesday, she would be one of the people ravaged by Irene who FEMA promises to help first.
“The water just started pouring out,” she said in an interview. “We couldn’t get out of the house.”
Inside, the water reached kitchen countertops. A full-sized refrigerator was toppled. Furniture was bunched up as if wadded up and tossed.
“I couldn’t walk because there was so much water flowing,” she said.
Fugate said that if residents register with FEMA immediately, they could get checks within days. He said the maximum check from FEMA is $30,000, but many can expect $2,000 to $3,000 if they qualify for grants. FEMA will also offer low-interest loans and aid to state and local governments.
In Windham, 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.
“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 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.
Applications for disaster aid can be made starting Thursday at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY).