October 2011
September 19, 2011

Tropical storms update: Mud, sweat and tears

Author: Liza Frenette and Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Schalmont TA President Mary Beth Flatley, far right, stands with teaching, retired and support staff members of her local, from left, Dee Ann Coniglio, Ben Gerardo, Donna Wolbert, Bev Haringa, Debbie Massaroni, Cori Kinns. The local was instrumental in helping respond to flooding victims' needs. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Though the floodwaters have receded, NYSUT members remain — working hard to help their communities recover from the devastation of back-to-back tropical storms Irene and Lee just as students were set to return to school.

Local unions all over the state have set up collection centers and are gathering clothing, donating money, hosting food drives, and bringing plastic bins, gift cards and cleaning supplies to those in need. NYSUT members continue to help haul out mud-slicked furniture, floorboards and shredded walls from schools, homes and businesses. Numerous schools were unable to open on time to start the school year as volunteers were still swabbing out slime and fighting mildew.

Early estimates show more than 2,600 homes, including those of NYSUT members, were damaged or destroyed by flooding. The number of lost homes will likely grow as members, like math teacher and Schalmont Teachers Association member Ben Gerardo, await word from engineers about whether their homes can be rebuilt.

Gerardo's two-story house in Rotterdam Junction, Schenectady County, has been gutted to the studs. The flooding "was a shock," he said, as he walked gingerly across his muddy lawn strewn with piles of debris.

At least 30 counties, from Essex in the North Country to Broome in the Southern Tier to Suffolk on Long Island, have been declared disaster areas and are eligible for federal aid. Schools, businesses, roads and bridges were severely impacted by record-level flood waters caused by 37 swollen rivers and creeks in New York.

"The toll is terribly widespread. Many members have lost all their possessions and, in some cases, their homes," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "Their needs are acute and immediate, and the response of members and locals has been great — but still more is needed."

In solidarity, the disaster relief committee of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City pledged to support the relief efforts with direct aid for members and students in the Schoharie Valley, where floodwaters damaged more than 140,000 acres. The Schoharie TA also pledged $10,000 to insulate homes damaged by flooding. Volunteers will start work there Columbus Day weekend.

The UFT Disaster Relief Fund has been used to help rebuild a school in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to help the country of Haiti.

"This historic flooding demands an immediate response," said Karen Alford, a UFT vice president and member of the NYSUT Board of Directors. "That is why we are NYSUT — united teachers — standing together to help rebuild communities and lives."

NYSUT is renewing calls for donations to its Disaster Relief Fund. The statewide union is also making donations to the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York and the United Way of New York State.

Smell of mold everywhere

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta and NYSUT staff members helped the Schoharie TA's door-to-door efforts to rebuild their community.

"I'd seen the damage on television and on NYSUT's blog, but that did not prepare me for what we'd be doing," Pallotta said.

Pallotta and staffers helped a half-dozen STA members and several NYSUT retirees from nearby locals remove sodden drywall, plaster, lathe, floorboards, appliances and heavy furniture from the home of three students.

"Until you smell the mold — and I don't know how to describe the smell of the walls, the ceiling and the floors that were rotting — and you have to rip it out and put it in a bucket and carry it to the street, and then realize you have to do this again and again to try to save the structure," Pallotta said. "Then you start to get the idea of what these families are dealing with."

When a homeowner realized the family's heirloom player-piano could not be saved, "throwing away the piano was a hard thing to do," Pallotta said. "And there on the floor, all crushed and wet, was a little dollhouse. I keep remembering the little dollhouse and how it had to be thrown away because it was covered with mold," he said.

Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake TA members traveled twice to Schoharie to clean out and fix up homes, and then to Middleburgh to clear mud from the basement of the high school. The local is also adopting classrooms there to help teachers replace supplies.

In Windham, school opened weeks after the swollen Batavia Kill overflowed onto Route 23, taking cars, businesses and school buses on its helter-skelter swirl.

"We have many members who suffered damages and even complete loss of their homes," said Melissa Glennon, Windham-Ashland- Jewett TA president.

Rains reached as far north as the North Country where the AuSable River upheaved sections of the major roadway through Keene Valley.

"In a catastrophe, rivers seek out their original course," said art teacher Cheryl MacFadden, president of the 27-member Keene Central School TA. "Huge chunks of highways (routes 73 and 9N) were lifted up and taken away." She was stranded the first night and stayed with a teaching colleague.

Keene retiree Linda Deyo lost a barn and her home was severely damaged; cafeteria manager Julie Holbrook and her family can no longer drive to their home because a bridge washed out. For three weeks, transportation crews worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day to reopen roads.

The Keene CSTA bought school supplies for students whose homes were damaged. They helped flooded neighbors and business owners with cleaning and hauling. They also collected money for the Adirondack Community Trust to help community members in need; the nearby Saranac Lake TA donated $500.

"I was incredibly thankful for their thoughtfulness, especially at the end of summer when there hasn't been a paycheck in a while, and teachers are starting to eat a lot of peanut butter," MacFadden said.

Higher ed faculty, SRPs help

Rain from Tropical Storm Lee flooded much of the Southern Tier. SUNY Binghamton activated its emergency response team and, within several hours of flood warnings, was able to house and care for 1,800 evacuees. In Johnson City, the high school became an island, sheltering 400 residents that the American Red Cross could not get to. "Every category of employee in the school district came to help," said Pat Weinrum, a member of the Johnson City Employees Association. "When we realized we only had 50 cots, we went and got mats from the wrestling room. When we realized the Red Cross could not bring us food, support staff went out to get donations." One week after 25 percent of the community was underwater, Weinrum said staffers are only beginning to get a handle on how much need remains.

School-Related Professionals from the Owego-Apalachin EA continue to pull together to help those in need in the town of Owego.

Veteran school bus driver and NYSUT SRP Advisory Committee member Donna Signs has been working with her colleagues nearly around the clock. After safely driving school children home from the first day of school, "seven of our school bus drivers assisted the National Guard in evacuating about 70 nursing home residents," said Signs. "One of our mechanics drove for 15 hours." Residents were safely relocated to Ithaca, 30 miles away.

"We lost Owego Elementary School and people have lost homes and businesses here," said Signs, noting that James Miller, president of the SRP unit, lost his home.

The cleanup effort continues to be all-encompassing, she said. Her friend lost her grocery store. "We threw out 20 tons of food the first day alone," Signs said. Members of Owego-Apalachin EA and of the Owego Apalachin TA, which is led by Daniel Whippo, helped gut the water-damaged first floor of SRP Vice President Pam Donovan's home, Signs said.

Signs said those who still have homes are helping in remarkable ways — doing laundry, delivering food and even providing housing to those in need. Signs' husband has been repairing small machinery for free.

In Binghamton, MacArthur Elementary School will take a year to rebuild after the building's first floor took in more than four feet of floodwaters.

School nurse loses home

Schalmont school nurse Donna Wolbert was on an end-of-summer vacation when the Mohawk River took over the town of Rotterdam Junction's main street. Thick, brown water flowed all the way up to the second floor of her home.

Wolbert spent the next six days helping other flood victims, including her parents and sister. When she could finally get into her own home, 40-50 people showed up at her front door to help carry out her toppled, squished and soaked possessions. A mattress was found in the yard near two ruined vehicles. Wolbert is now staying with a friend.

"I loved my home," Wolbert said as she walked through the now-empty house, wiping away tears. She pointed to the new addition and marveled that a coffee pot somehow landed upright on a high window ledge in the kitchen. She consoles herself with the words she is telling her adult children: "It's the 'we' that makes the home."

Down the street, the gym at the former Woestina Elementary School (it closed in June due to budget cuts) is a collection center activated by Schalmont TA special ed teacher Cori Kinns and staffed by teachers and aides. Schalmont TA President Mary Beth Flatley thanked both the Guilderland TA and Watervliet TA for helping with food and clothing drives.

As usual, NYSUT retirees provided much muscle.

"If I hadn't retired, I'd be setting up media services in the Guilderland schools today," said Nick Viscio, taking a break from ripping out drywall, plaster and lathe from a home in Schoharie. "Instead I'm here and happy to help."

Other unions also pledging physical and/or financial assistance to help devastated communities are the United University Professions chapter at SUNY-Cobleskill and educator unions from Duanesburg, Mahopac, South Glens Falls and Troy.

Staff writer Leslie Duncan Fottrell contributed to this story.