Rebuilding Middleburgh: 10 months after the 500-year flood

By Christian Vischi*
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Members of a Volunteers in Mission team from Albany/Troy/Schenectady area work on replacing a first level floor. "My special angels are Jack and this bunch that come every Monday," said the Rev. Carol Coltrain, pastor of Huntersland UMC, of this VIM team.

One irony of the 2011 flooding of Middleburgh was that there was too much water to save a barn from fire.

One remnant of the damage done by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is the many shuttered businesses and residences on Route 30 – which runs parallel to the Schoharie Creek.

And one spark of hope comes from a troop of Volunteers in Mission (VIM) who have traveled 50 to 75 miles each way every Monday – since day one – to repair homes in a community where many didn't have flood insurance.

Turning back the clock

Middleburgh – a community of about 1,500 in Schoharie County (Oneonta District) – is like a bowl. The low point is the Schoharie Creek. As you travel southeast on Main Street from the creek you rise in elevation by 72 feet before you reach the edge of the village.

Hurricane Irene – which weakened from a category 3 hurricane as it traveled up the Eastern Seaboard, was the first to hit. Less than two weeks later Tropical Storm Lee brought more rain. With the creek having already breached its banks and 100 percent ground saturation, there was nothing to hold back the current.

Although the flood waters only lasted about 24 to 36 hours before receding, John "Jack" Hill said homeowners told him that they rose up faster than you could fill a bathtub.

Fields had more than six feet of water above them, just days before they would have been ready for harvest. The 12-feet-tall street lamp at the "X" – a bridge where state routes 145 and 30 cross over the Schoharie Creek – had water to the bottom of its globe, and the first floor of buildings in the vicinity weren't visible above the water level. The properties spared were the ones farther up the sides of the "bowl," those farther up Main Street.

Hill, who is the Albany District VIM coordinator and a member of Valley Falls United Methodist Church, related the story of the barn that had spontaneously combusted from the hay inside. However, the property it was on was located on the west side of Middleburgh, and fire crews could not traverse the X bridge.

As Hill drove on state Route 30, he pointed out a grocery store, a restaurant, a small strip of stores and an automotive repair shop that – even now – have no visible signs of repair. The only signs displayed are warnings to potential vandals, noting that looters would be prosecuted or worse.

Here come the angels

Teams of volunteers have come from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan and Central New York to help rehabilitate homes in Middleburgh. But the Rev. Carol Coltrain, pastor of Huntersland United Methodist Church about 4 miles up the hill from the village, said she is impressed with the devotion of Hill's group.

"My special angels are Jack and this bunch that come every Monday," Rev. Coltrain said. "They provide real hope because the community sees them, that they are faithful – they are here all the time."

John "Jack" Hill stands on the porch of a residence on Route 30 in Middleburgh, pointing to height of the water level during the flooding.

That group consists of about 18 individuals, mostly retired, from eight to 10 large and small churches in the Albany/Troy/Schenectady area. Although they have performed VIM work locally, nationally (like projects in Mississippi, Iowa and Georgia) and internationally (recent trips have included Brazil, Bosnia and Ireland), the majority of their work is in the U.S.

"We recognize that this is where we need to be," said Hill.

As Rev. Coltrain would acknowledge, the community of Middleburgh became a family. Everyone, it seems, chipped in to start the rebuilding, from day one.

The Middleburgh UMC became "the warehouse for people," a home away from home for VIM teams. A shower was added to the men's room there, and a new refrigerator was purchased. The Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church prepared lunches and the Middleburgh UMC provided dinner.

"This was a real ecumenical effort," said Rev. Coltrain, "and an outpouring of faith from the community."

A distribution center was set up at the elementary school by the American Red Cross.

One local business, Rev. Coltrain recalled, completely relied on faith. The hardware store was the first business in the community to reopen. However, without power the cash register did not work.

"He told people take it and come back later," Rev. Coltrain said of the owner. "They all came back to pay him. ... I got this and this and this," they would tell him, she said.

Hill said that and several other local businesses are frequented by his group and other teams that come to Middleburgh.

"We're not only here to go out and rebuild a home, but to rebuild the people that are there," said Hill.

"It's the hope (they provide)," said Rev. Coltrain. "It's not gonna happen in two minutes, but they can see it's gonna happen."

This home in Middleburgh needed a completely new electrical run. Pictured are the old wired piled up and new runs to the electric panel.

The angels' angels

Middleburgh is just one area of the state was affected by the storms of 2011. Vestal, Johnson City, Owego, Tioga Center, Cobleskill, Blenheim and Prattsville are just a few that were devastated by the flooding, and all require financial resources for rebuilding.

To date, about $43,000 has been used in the recovery effort in Middleburgh, said Hill. "So far, we have met every bill on time."

"We've enjoyed a real warm response from people; churches I didn't even think knew about us have sent in substantial checks," he said. " ... It's been gratifying the response from the people."

The Upper New York Annual Conference also contributed $10,000 to their efforts. Hill recalled that at one point the checkbook had a balance of just $100, but within two days they were $4,000 in the black.

Celebrating milestones 

This week, members of Hill's VIM team were the first to use the Shower Trailer, a six-stall mobile shower facility for the UMVIM of the Northeastern Jurisdiction. It also houses a stacked washer and dryer unit.

This week, residents were able to return to the 19th home renovated.

The week of Aug. 3-5, Middleburgh will celebrate its 300th birthday.

There is still years of rebuilding ahead – the grocery store is shuttered and the Reformed Church of Middleburgh is still long way from reopening the sanctuary. But, Lara Kelley, whose husband is the pastor at the Reformed Church, said they are, in fact, "open."

"We hold services in our Fellowship Hall every Sunday and community groups are able to use the space during the week. This area is at a higher elevation than our sanctuary which sustained much more damage and will take longer to repair, but we are working on it," said Kelly. "... The Methodist Church was generous enough to host our congregation until we were able to move back into our Fellowship Hall."

One day the whole community will be restored, just as it was after the last great flood.

"This was originally called the 100-year flood," said Rev. Coltrain, "but now (they are) referring to it as the 500-year flood." The last big flood was in 1956: "'56 was a whale of a flood, but not like this."

*Christian Vischi is the communications associate for the Upper New York Annual Conference.