Almost four weeks ago Hurricane Irene arrived just as Oswego State students were moving into college. Weather forecasters anticipated the danger to be greatest along the coast, that the storm surge would take over the coastal beaches and that salt water would be the danger.
But they were wrong.
It was the fresh water that flooded the valley. Places that have not flooded in 500 years, like Amsterdam and Schoharie, were suddenly sitting under seven feet of water.
The residents knew a storm was coming. Most knew. But the national weather maps were literally bent, focusing attention on the heavily coastline and the inland remained out of the limelight, until it was hit.
Even worse, the storm disarmed the backup plans. A foot of rain that fell during the storm ran down the hills, demolishing evacuation routes out of the valley. Once the water ran into the lowlands, homes that had never felt the gentle lap of water were swept away and farmers lost their entire livelihood as crops and livestock drowned.
Of the cows that did survive, trucks could not get to them since most bridges were closed, causing farmers to pour lactic gold into the rivers.
It was these valleys that were hit the hardest. These little farming communities and low-lying towns were devastated. And just as this storm hit, some of the most able-bodied residents returned to college.
For those of us that managed to leave before the storm, all we could do was fester in the dorms and stew as photo after photo, status after status, and video after video were posted. All we could do is pray that those back home were safe. That everyone evacuated from the valleys.
My own Schoharie County faced another danger: the Gilboa Dam. The 85-year-old Schoharie Reservoir, part of a system that gives New York City much of its drinking water, has been under close watch for years because of structural damage.
After Irene, water reached record-breaking heights and the evacuation alarms sounded. If Gilboa Dam broke, the valley would be swept away. And I watched as a flurry of Facebook statuses reached my home page, praying that the dam would hold, because the valley could not sustain the damage.
My friends at Oswego State, could not understand my anguish. Nor could I expect them to. How could they try and understand that seven feet of water was a big deal? Seven feet isn’t bad, in a pond. But in my godparents’ living room it was. When it happened, all the walls on their first floor had to be removed.
Those here could not see that it was not just a little bit of water, but that it moved houses and was killing a lifestyle that was already suffocating.
In those moments, I realized that I am proud of where I came from. While we are an agricultural area, the businessmen and the artisans come together with the farmers to make a true community.
But what was true for small business did not hold for large corporations. For example, a large corporate gas station, which did not sustain damage, received criticism for not helping flood victims then raising prices on necessities. The local people were angry, that they had allowed these businesses into their community and their welcoming was used.
When I went home for Labor Day weekend and I saw a shattered county. But I have never seen it stronger. We united. Now, three weeks later, it’s piecing itself back together.
Yet, there is much still to be done. The county building probably won’t reopen for months, leaving the Department of Social Services operating out of a local church. Meanwhile, homes outside the valley are selling quickly, as people are trying to return to their lives.
Going back to Oswego after Labor Day weekend, I watched as a line of 13 emergency vehicles from the western part entered Schoharie County just as I was leaving. They had traveled for hours just to help my region.
It reminded me that I am not just proud of the little agricultural town that I come from, but I’m also proud of America, because we’re a population that supports each other.