PLATTSBURGH — After the floodwaters subsided that long, wet and windy spring of 2011, the odor of dead fish wrinkled noses.
The lack of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, too — but that lasted longer.
“They did absolutely nothing for us,” said Michael Tumbarello, president of Willow Beach Home Owner’s Association on Route 9 in Plattsburgh. “They said the damage was not significant enough.”
FEMA came through for municipalities — New York state declared Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties disaster areas, and the federal government followed suit. But funding
for individuals was shot down not once, but again following appeal.
Vermont suffered extensive flooding during the same period, when Lake Champlain crested higher than ever in recorded history; FEMA did dispense private aid to landowners there.
FEMA officials said New York’s numbers didn’t add up to the proper threshold to qualify for individual aid.
There were opportunities for low-interest loans through the government, but that didn’t provide answers to those who felt they couldn’t afford payments after all their losses.
“FEMA was around, but I guess they didn’t think they had to help us,” said Jack Smith, whose Willow Beach home was among those afflicted. “I can take care of myself; it’s fine. But don’t tell me you can’t help and then offer help to all these other people.”
Smith said he had to pay $35,000 out of pocket to cover the repairs to his unit and the lodging costs he incurred while he waited for the water to go down.
“The water stayed up for a long time,” he said. “I had (had) flood insurance for 10 years, and last year was the first time I didn’t renew it.”
The Home Owner’s Association is only responsible for exterior damage to the property; residents had to cover their own costs — with or without the help of flood insurance.
Rita and Lawrence Blossom had been living in Willow Beach for 20 years when the flood waters began pouring into their townhouse in April 2011.
“My husband tried to get the water out of the bathroom and the different rooms, but it came so fast he couldn’t keep up with it,” Rita said.
The couple and their three cats took up temporary residence at Plattsburgh’s Super 8 Motel, but when the second wave of flooding began in May, the Blossoms knew they would not be returning home anytime soon.
Several inches of water flowed into their kitchen and living room, destroying their furniture and appliances, as well as the new flooring that had been installed just a year before.
And with the standing water, of course, came mold.
“It was just a bad experience,” Rita said.
START FROM SCRATCH
And to make matters worse, finding an apartment in the area that would welcome three cats on a short-term lease proved challenging for the couple.
“It was almost impossible,” Rita said.
So the Blossoms were forced to relocate to Latham for seven months, while contractors worked to restore their waterlogged home.
That FEMA would help Vermonters but not those in New York, Rita said, “I couldn’t understand that.”
The couple had flood insurance, but even that, she said, wasn’t enough to cover all of the physical and emotional damage that had been done.
Last November, the couple returned to their Willow Beach home, where they found themselves having to start from scratch.
“It takes a while to restore it to its original beginning,” Rita said.
‘WE CAME BACK’
The common property at Willow Beach also took a huge hit.
Prior to the flood, a wooden flood wall at the far end of Willow Beach’s parking lot kept high water from the lake at bay.
The floods destroyed the wall, forcing maintenance crews to create a barrier of sandbags in an attempt to keep the water back.
“The options are to walk away or to rebuild,” Tumbarello said. “The lake is right there. We watched it eat our houses, but we came back and rebuilt.”
Joe Southwick was able to rebuild his home on Point au Fer Road mostly himself, first gutting it from floors to drywall.
Forced out of the house by floodwater on April 29, 2011, Southwick, his wife, Karen, daughter, Paige, and son, Nick, had to rent a house for five months while they waited for Lake Champlain to loose its grip on the property and then during much of the renovations.
“It wasn’t terrible; we had a place to live,” Joe said. “Paying rent wasn’t that great though.”
Seven months later, in September, they were home again.
But the waiting wasn’t over.
The Southwicks were fortunate enough to have flood insurance, but their rebuilding costs had to be paid for out of pocket while they waited months for his insurance company to write him a check.
“Having to constantly pester them for the money was more of a nuisance than I expected it to be. It was a bit of a challenge,” Joe said of the stalling tactics seemingly employed by the company.
In the end, he said, “I think they just ran out of excuses.”
Norm LaRoche in Coopersville didn’t begin repair to his camp by the Great Chazy River until this spring.
“I’ve been picking at it ever since spring,” he said recently. “Last year, I didn’t bother with it at all because it was wet for so long.
“It was under water for close to two months — it was a long time.”
He is retired, and the quaint structure isn’t his primary residence, so LaRoche had the luxury to work on the camp at his leisure.
“I had to throw away the whole kitchen sink area, and all of the bottom cabinets,” he said. “I haven’t fired up the hot-water heater yet, so I don’t know if it works.”
He and his wife, Suzanne, watched the water rise from their home a short walk uphill from the camp. The river made itself at home in the yard. Boats flying by tended to ignore the fact their wakes were pushing water higher against the homes of neighbors, they said, where people struggled with sandbags and pumps to keep them dry.
When the water was gone, yards were sodden, muddy messes.
“I completely lost all my bulbs, all the flowers I had in my garden,” Suzanne said, though she measured that loss nothing against the damage others suffered.
The flooding did, however, bring some good, or as least interesting, memories.
“I did catch a 20-inch pike in my backyard last summer,” Norm said, “right from my porch steps.”