KEENE — Exactly one year ago today, Keene firefighters stood at their destroyed fire station and wondered where to start.
“We have to rebuild,” Fire Chief Jody Whitney said that morning.
The roof and walls of two fire-truck bays leaned precariously into Gulf Brook, boards toppled like matchsticks.
At noon Wednesday, a year since the deluge of Tropical Storm Irene, Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped bring that vision into focus.
Standing on land cleared for building, Cuomo provided some $640,000 in state funding to help Keene move and rebuild the $2.4 million Fire Station to New York’s Essential Services Code specifications.
Cuomo told a crowd of about 60 gathered that two images stuck in his mind from that day a year ago.
“The power of Mother Nature,” he said, “how streams and rivers rose up ... and people’s lives washed away. It was really breathtaking and frightening to see. The devastation, that was one image.
The other, he continued, “was our response to what happened, how people came together ... and the spirit of community that was alive and well and present.”
He recalled working to clear an inundated cellar of debris. A woman was there helping, and both of them were covered, head to toe, in mud.
The woman said she was there to help because “this is my neighbor,” Cuomo recalled.
“Her house was just as bad, and she hadn’t even started. But she said, ‘We will find a way. And we will find a way together.’ In many ways, that was the story all across the state. That was a powerful message that served me well.”
ALL TYPES OF AID
Cuomo then signed an oversized check for $640,000 in state funds for Keene Volunteer Fire Department.
“We said we will build back better than before,” he offered, stepping in to allay the confusion and letdown by FEMA.
“It was a long shortfall, if there’s any such thing. It is my pleasure, as your friend, your partner, to provide $640,000 so you can build that firehouse.”
He finished the honorary signature on the check with an exclamation point.
Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee was struck by Cuomo’s action.
“The governor has stayed with us for the long haul,” Ferebee said, “and he meant it.”
The supervisor recalled the hundreds from around New York who came to help clean up in both hamlets, Keene and Keene Valley, and then continued to help with a Christmas toy drive.
In April, Cuomo announced the state would pick up the local share of emergency recovery costs.
“The governor has shown us we are not alone,” Ferebee said. “Today, there are a lot of different expressions on (first-responders’ and residents’) faces. The faces are no longer the faces of sorrow. There is a feeling of togetherness. We have recovered well.”
Chief Whitney and fire commissioners worked diligently over the past 12 months to organize the reconstruction and gather funds.
“I am very pleased with Gov. Cuomo and his presence,” the chief said. “He has been helping us rebuild for a year. The first thing he said when he came to see what had happened was ‘We will rebuild the fire station bigger and better.”
The commissioners and firefighters had nearly all of their ducks in a row — insurance funding, municipal bond approval from voters, donations and a Federal Emergency Management Agency promise, after appeal — to help relocate.
But with shovels ready in early August, FEMA pulled half the allocation previously granted to Keene.
READY TO BUILD
There isn’t much time left in the 2012 construction season, but fire officials here plan to proceed.
Alan Carey, chairman of the Keene Fire Commission, said they would meet to begin setting a timeline.
“We are going to crunch a few numbers. The construction bids are only good until Sept. 14. We’re looking to get started on the project in seven to 10 days. We wouldn’t be able to be in here until next spring.”
Carey’s granddaughter Quinn, who is 8, sat patiently in the front row while Cuomo spoke and other leaders thanked him. After the governor’s official work was done, she shyly stepped up and handed him a bouquet of fresh wild flowers.
Beforehand, Megan said the flowers showed her appreciation for all that people had done to help her town rebuild.
“Firemen fight fires and help people when they’re hurt,” she said of the need for a new Fire Station.
Jay Town Supervisor Randy Douglas thanked Cuomo and reflected on the amount of time the chief of New York state has spent in Essex County.
With a chuckle, he offered the governor a voter-registration form, and the crowd laughed.
“He has been a hands-on governor, securing the necessary funds for recovery.”
Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) said the state funds would be very helpful.
“The site is ready. The decision to rebuild is made. FEMA is going slower than usual, and we have such a short building season that we have to get started so the fire trucks are under cover this winter,” she said.
The Upper Jay Fire Department is also looking to raise enough capital to relocate their fire station. That discussion is next on the state’s table. Cuomo already helped sort the insurance settlement with assistance from the state’s Insurance Department.
He said the state will continue to work with FEMA to sort emergency-recovery remuneration.
“We’ll figure it out, one way or the other,” he told reporters. “If we didn’t start (rebuilding here) soon, we would lose the bids. We’re building back better than before.”
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