N.Y. Firefighters Recall Being Trapped by Irene

Aug. 14--PRATTSVILLE -- On the day everything changed in this weathered Greene County town, Aug. 28, 2011, it seemed like a good idea to local volunteer firefighters to gather at the Prattsville Hose Company building on Main Street.

After all, it was where their emergency equipment was stored, and it was where calls for help would be coming in if the predictions of potentially serious flooding were to be fulfilled and their assistance needed in the surrounding community.

But what they could not envision was that the water unleashed by the surging Schoharie Creek would later be likened by some witnesses to the cascade from Niagara Falls. The nearby Batavia Kill would also overflow.

The double whammy produced record-high flooding in the small rural community that brackets State Route 23, just east of Delaware County. Some houses that had stood for decades were knocked off their foundations and swept into the watery swirl. Main Street resembled a raging river as the water surged higher and higher, approaching the top of the first floor of many structures along the road.

It was so high, in fact, that more than 20 firefighters who crowded into the second floor of the old firehouse ended up being trapped for hours during the peak of the flooding triggered by Hurricane Irene, Prattsville Hose Company Chief Tom Olson recalled Wednesday.

As the day dawned, he recalled, his volunteers had fanned out across the community, knocking on doors, warning residents that flooding was expected and urging them to evacuate.

"We said, 'It's a good idea go get out of the house now, because we're not coming back,'" he remembered. "And people said, 'Yeah. We'll keep an eye on it.'"

But many people did stay put, said Olson and Dennis Hull, a consultant to the fire department.

As the water rose higher as the morning progressed, the volunteers were unable to respond to calls for service.

"We couldn't get to them," Olson said. It took hours for rescue workers to arrive from other communities with specialized watercraft allowing them to get into the disaster area, where, fortuitously, there was no loss of life.

But the property loss was substantial throughout the community, and the fire department wasn't spared. The firehouse itself was among the casualties, as was one of its vehicles.

In the nearly three years since Hurricane Irene, local fire officials are looking back and expressing gratitude that the commissioners of the fire district had the foresight to have flood insurance on the firehouse.

The policy has resulted in a $442,000 payout, and combined with funds approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the fire district now has the funding lined up to move forward with a $2.3 million firehouse replacement project.

The total includes the amount of the insurance payment, with the rest coming from FEMA.

The next firehouse will have the same amount of space -- approximately 10,000 square feet -- and will sit on a different site in town, one that is on higher ground, outside the 500-year flood plain, on what is now an elevated field on the north side of Route 23, on property known as the old Becker farm.

A groundbreaking date has not been set.

The new site will have two emergency means of entrance access and egress in the event Main Street becomes flooded again, Hull pointed out.

This means the scenario of firefighters becoming trapped in their own firehouse, as played out on Aug. 28, 2011, won't happen again as the result of flooding, he said.

The new building can also be used as a safe haven for Prattsville area residents should another disaster hit the area.

After months of reviews by FEMA, accompanied by environmental surveys and engineering, the plans for the new firehouse have been approved by FEMA and the town planning board, Hull said.

"This has taken such a long time, but it's that something good is finally coming out of this," he said.

The recent funding approvals from the state and federal governments means that local taxpayers, many of whom are still struggling from the costs of rebuilding after the flood, won't have to dig deeper to pay for the new firehouse, he and Olson said.

Instrumental in providing guidance for the project and opening lines of communication with FEMA, he said, were Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie and local Greene County Legislator Jim Hitchcock.

Cooperation from neighbors was also essential in the location of the access roads into the new firehouse site, Hull added.

The state Office of Emergency Management also went to bat for the project.

The new building will be accessible to those with physical disabilities and will be more "user friendly," plus have room for expansion, should that need arise, he said.

The fate of the old firehouse is not clear. Hull said the town is looking at various potential uses for it.

The fire district recently closed on the purchase of the property where the new firehouse will go.

"It's a big ray of hope for this community," Hull said.

Copyright 2014 - The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.