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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011

Rebuilding follows Irene’s destruction

ALBANY COUNTY — While this summer’s tropical storms, Irene and Lee, ravaged much of the area, leaving death and destruction in their wake, by the close of the year, many residents were in the process of rebuilding.

This week, Robert Stempel knelt on the floor of his soon-to-be bedroom, carefully removing staples that had once held carpet in place. He now plans to install linoleum, which resists mold.

Stempel had worn holes through the knees of his jeans, but he wasn’t complaining.

“Ever since people read about us in your paper,” he said, “total strangers will go up to you and pat you on the back and wish you well. They say, ‘We’re praying for you’ and it keeps us going. It makes me teary-eyed just to think of it.”

Stempel is also grateful that the town of Berne road crew had, prior to the Aug. 28 storm, cleared the shale bank in front of his house. “If they hadn’t made that channel, eight feet of water would have hit the house. It would have washed it away,” he said.

He went on, praising the road crew, “All the town guys have been swell. After the storm, they patched all the roads and got them open. That’s a dedicated crew.”

On Aug. 28, the day Irene hit, Stempel and his wife, Audra, were trapped in their East Berne home. “Trees and boulders were rolling by; it was quite a mess,” he said earlier.

A carpenter, plumber, and electrician, who is now retired, Stempel had built the one-story house — 48 by 26 1/2 feet — with his own hands. That was in 1967, and in those 44 years, the cellar had never been damp before. After Irene, it filled with four feet of water. At the same time, torrential rain pounded on the roof, causing damage.

“There were hailstones the size of golf balls,” he said, “and the rain was so heavy, I couldn’t see my mailbox, which is 10 feet from the house.”

Stempel, who is 65 and grew up in a farmhouse nearby, said, “I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like it.”

When the rain stopped and the water receded, it seemed like the worst should be over.

But, said Stempel in mid-September, “It subsided and we had mold. Boy, does it stink. It’s on all of our clothes, all of my books, everything. We had all our windows open and fans going. You really can’t kill it.”

The Stempels had tried to save their carpet, among other things, by using Clorox and baking soda. The mold kept growing and aggravated their asthma. Ultimately, they had to gut their home, tearing out the carpet and ripping down the walls.

“It was down to the studs,” said Mrs. Stempel.

“We gutted the whole house,” agreed her husband.

Now new Sheetrock is screwed into place.

So far, Mr. Stempel estimates he’s spent $20,000 on renovations. He got $15,000 from his insurance company. The Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed $1,500 for supplies, and $800, which was used to buy clothes for Mrs. Stempel, the couple said.

The Stempels had hoped to move back in by Dec. 17, Mrs. Stempel’s birthday. Now they think their home will be ready in perhaps another month. Mr. Stempel plans to finish the work himself; he has no more funds.

His hands are swollen from the labor. “The doctor says I’m not supposed to be doing this, but I’ve got to get her back into her house,” he said.

Mrs. Stempel, who had worked at the Hannaford market in Voorheesville, is pleased that she’ll begin a full-time job at an Albany Hannaford with the start of the new year.

For four months, the Stempels have been living in their garage. In addition to their car, their unfinished garage holds their bed, a television, two tables piled with supplies, three chairs, and a woodburning stove that they use for both heating and cooking. The garage also holds a new hot-water heater. The old one in the cellar was destroyed in the flood. The couple couldn’t heft the new one down the cellar stairs, and so Mr. Stempel installed it in the garage.

A fine film of soot and ashes from the stove lay on their shiny dark blue car this week.

Mr. Stempel, who does most of the cooking, prepared their Christmas dinner on the flat lip of the Frontier stove. The meal included potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, broccoli with carrots, and, of course, turkey.

“It was just the two of us,” said Mrs. Stempel.

“We’ve got each other; that’s all that matters,” said Mr. Stempel.


Not everyone was so fortunate.

In New Scotland, as Irene raged, Sharon Stein, 68, was packing up a car with her husband, Geoffrey, so they could evacuate their creek-side home in Clarksville when the swelled Onesquethaw swept her downstream. Later that day, passers-by saw her body lodged against some trees.

Mrs. Stein was an accomplished organist. Before retiring, she had worked in health care. She played the organ for several local congregations, and she was particularly fond of Bach.

“The way Bach created music — it was complex, it was appealing to the ear, and it was the kind of music that she like,” said her husband.

Floodwaters also took the life of Stephen Terleckey, 72, of Amsterdam. He had local connections as his wife, Karen, was raised in Altamont. The couple met square dancing at what used to be Pat’s Ranch on Gun Club Road just outside the village.

The day after Irene hit, Terleckey, driving a pickup truck, crossed barriers on a washed-out section of Route 5S in Montgomery County; he drowned in his truck.

Mr. Terleckey was a hard-working farmer. He and his wife ran Karen’s Produce and Ice Cream, a popular community gathering spot.

In McKownville, Elizabeth Slagle, 88, was checking on the flooding in her basement when she fell down the stairs. An independent woman and a retired teacher, she lived alone in her Parkwood Avenue home; her family lives in Georgia.

A neighbor found her body on Monday, Aug. 29, the day after the storm, when she checked on her.

“Whether or not the death was storm-related is very interpretive,” said Carol Lawlor, chief of the Guilderland Police. “Since she wasn’t struck by lightning or swept away in a river, I’d call it secondary.”


As area homeowners struggled with the aftermath of the storms, many made the unwelcome discovery that flood damage is not covered by standard renters’ or homeowners’ insurance.

The federal government has a program — the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by FEMA — that allows property owners to protect themselves. But it has been poorly run and is now on shaky ground, continuing through a series of extensions.

Although floods are the most common hazard in the United States, according to FEMA, only 5 percent of Northeasterners have flood insurance.

On Aug. 31, President Barack Obama declared disaster for New York; this made residents of Albany County, among others, eligible for assistance. Individuals as well as municipalities applied to FEMA for loans and grants, with varying degrees of satisfaction.

Local fire departments and rescue squads pitched in during and after the storm.

In Gallupville, major routes were cut off by the flooding and, while residents felt isolated from outside help, they pulled together to help each other.

“It was a tight community effort,” said Peter Departolo, pastor of the Gallupville Lutheran Church, describing the way residents were coming together to clean up the mess left by Irene.

“There were no sheriffs or cops in the area; they were MIA, no communications,” said Jeff Vogel, a Gallupville resident Berne-Knox-Westerlo athletic coach. “The only saving grace was the fire department.”

Guilderland fared better than many surrounding municipalities, but emergency crews still worked around the clock to keep residents safe. David Dodge, chief of the Guilderland Center fire Department, said the week of the storm that 80 storm-related calls came in to his department.

“A vast majority of the calls were for pump-outs and related emergencies,” Dodge said. His department helped with two water rescues. In one, a boat was used to rescue a couple trapped in their Johnston Road home due to rising water from the Normans Kill.

Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, wrote that the village got more than 11 inches of rain. “The record amount of rain presented an incredible stress on our sewer and water infrastructure, causing extensive flooding in people’s cellars especially during the extended power outage throughout the event,” wrote Gaughan.

He commended Altamont’s public works department, volunteer fire department, and police department for “the superb support they provided.”

In New Scotland, several roads were closed because of flooding and water damage. The main road in Clarksville was shut, and Wolf Hill Road, Krumkill Road, and Indian Ledge Road were all severely damaged.

The Onesquethaw Volunteer Fire Company urged Clarksville residents to evacuate and set up a shelter for them at the Clarksville school.

The Hilltowns were among the hardest hit. The Fox Creek in Berne swelled with such power that it tore the garage off a home in the hamlet and left the front of the 200-year-old Berne Mill in a cavernous sinkhole. The Agway that is housed there has since reopened.

“I never saw water come down the road like that,” Steven Lendrum, the Agway’s owner, said the day after Irene hit.

Another Berne resident, Lynn Williams, described the scene she witnessed the day of the storm: “I saw dishwashers half-a-mile down the road; I saw dryers; auto supplies from the hardware store embedded in the guardrails lying in the creek; power poles split in two, laying in the road; wires down all over,” she said.

In Westerlo, the volunteer firefighters had contended with a house fire on Aug. 27, the day before Irene, during which four firefighters were injured. Over the next two days, they answered 63 calls, most of them pump-outs and then, at 4:29 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, another house caught fire.

“Although the team of Westerlo firefighters spent most of Saturday on the structure fire and all day Sunday answering calls, we were able to rally and get up and out quickly, in just a few minutes,” said Chief Tom Diederich.

Knox fared better than other Hilltowns. Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury said the week of the storm, “Just about every road in town has pretty substantial damage, mostly shoulders gone, a lot of culvert pipes’ ends got washed out, lots of trees are gone.” But, he went on, two days after the storm, “We’ve got pretty much all the roads open….”

In Rensselaervile, the hamlet of Preston Hollow was especially hard hit. The town’s supervisor, Marie Dermody, described the area as “devastated.”

“I know there was a mobile home that went floating down the Catskill Creek,” said Dermody. “There are homes in the [hamlet] that I’m sure are uninhabitable.”

Across the region ravaged by the tropical storms, local businesses, community groups, and individuals began raising funds and collecting goods to help those in the most damaged areas. Many of those efforts are ongoing.

 By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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