Damage from 2011 storm still being felt

Buckets and bowls are stacked in a corner of Ron and Linda Potwin’s living room, ready to catch rainwater from a leaking roof.

Parts of the ceiling, bowed and cracked, are supported by beams and poles.

“The roof only leaks when it rains,” Ron says, showing the couple’s ability to stay lighthearted in the face of a struggle that’s been ongoing since August 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene battered the region with heavy rains, wind and flooding.

Both retired, Ron in his 70s and Linda in her late 60s, the Potwins have tried to repair the damage themselves at their home on New Turnpike Road, a few miles west of Johnstown. But it’s difficult with their health troubles and financial limitations.

Along the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River, buildings were torn apart by the rushing waters and floating debris after Irene. Homes in Fulton County mostly were spared flooding, but they weren’t immune to the wind and rain.

The Potwins’ home is a prime example. First, Linda said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would help the couple repair the roof. Their front enclosed porch also was damaged, and Linda said with every major storm, the situation worsens.

“Before that, our roof over the house never leaked. After the storm, it started leaking really bad. Now my ceilings are all coming down. It has taken time to try to get help,” Linda said. “FEMA at first said they were going to help. Then they said no.”

Now the rainwater leaking into the house has caused mold to grow.

“Because it has taken so long, we’ve got black mold everywhere. I’ve got to keep washing the mold off the walls,” Linda said.

Through 51 years of marriage, the Potwins have overcome struggles through their faith, hope and strength. They’re now on their way to having life restored to normal after connecting with a disaster case manager at Catholic Charities, an organization that’s associated with the Fulton Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee.

“It’s a blessing, believe me,” Linda said. “I just thank God for it, because we never could have done it on our own.”

The Fulton Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee is made up of several organizations including not-for-profits, government groups, churches, charities and other groups and agencies that might each have their own disaster help programs.

They include the following: the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York, Salvation Army, Albany Presbyterian Disaster Response Task Force, Montgomery County United Way, River of Jubilee Church, Storm Aid 2011, Catholic Charities, Disaster Case Management, students from Fulton-Montgomery Community College, Montgomery County Emergency Management Office, Centro Civico, the Amsterdam Volunteer Fire Department and the New York State Youth Construction Initiative Program.

While other disasters and causes have displaced Irene and Lee in the media, some people in the area still wake up every day to the storm’s damage. This group seeks to help them finally recover after nearly two years, and they’ve located more than 40 households in need.

The committee facilitates communication between its member organizations to better connect people whose homes were damaged by Irene and Lee with the help they need. That could mean helping people find grants, loans or donations for repair work. It also brings together volunteers.

In addition to helping repair damage from Irene and Lee, the group also works to help communities be better prepared for future disasters.

“The long-term recovery committee has two main goals. One is to promote recovery of a community impacted by disaster. The other main goal is to create a platform for organizations to collaborate facing future disasters,” said the group’s co-chairman Michael Raphael, who works as the response manager for the American Red Cross Northeastern New York Region.

Andy McPherson, a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance group, said the committee provides people with last-resort help.

“When they’ve tried everybody else, they come to us,” McPherson said.

Those in need can approach a disaster case manager from Catholic Charities.

Disaster Case Manager Supervisor Linda Brown said people are often at their wits’ end when they come to Catholic Charities.

“I think the general public has forgotten. Even Schoharie County, which made the news all the time, people moved on who don’t live there. Then Superstorm Sandy happened, and unless you’re in it, it really doesn’t affect you,” Brown said.

Brown is the supervisor for Montgomery, Fulton, Herkimer, Schoharie and Delaware counties, so she’s on the road a lot and gets a firsthand look at what a storm can do to a community.

“They may have been financially fine before the flood, but now they may need help with the Department of Social Services, food stamps or stuff like that. Anything they need,” Brown said. “Our main focus is just to match up hurricane and flood survivors with what they need, and that can span anything from resources to funding or volunteers.”

She said the committee makes her job easier since the lines of communication among the groups already are established.

“Once the disaster case managers have qualified people as being financially in a position to really need those last-ditch services we provide, my job is to pool together [resources] and get estimates for building materials,” McPherson said.

The committee held its first cleanup day April 20, when it helped eight households in Fulton and Montgomery counties that were still dealing with the aftermath of Irene and Lee.

According to a pamphlet from the group, it identified and supported more than 48 families in 2012 before identifying 38 more people who needed help.

The group rounded up 70 volunteers to help April 20 for the Community Recovery and Resiliency Day program. The group is hoping to plan another volunteer day.

In April, the group started working on another house in Fulton County that has a collapsing foundation. The homeowner has been trying to find the means to fix it since the storms.

“They have called everybody including their congressman, assemblyman, FEMA and everybody else, and it’s taken this long of looking, asking and begging to try and get this guy some help,” McPherson said.

During the cleanup day, volunteers cleaned items out of the basement that would get in the way of rebuilding the wall. They took out soggy carpet and some electronic equipment and hauled it away. They had a carpenter come in and volunteer to put gutters along a side of the foundation, McPherson said.

Another man in Fonda, whose furnace was flooded during Irene, got through the past two winters with a pellet stove and some electric space heaters.

The group was able to arrange for a professional to safely install the pellet stove and make it more efficient until the group gets a furnace installed in the first floor instead of the basement.

“Since they live in a flood plain, rather than install it in the basement, back in harm’s way, it’s way more effective to put it on the first floor. That’s the process of mitigation we look at – both repair of current damage and also looking at it for the long term, as in what can we do to prevent damage,” McPherson said.

Raphael said this committee really started to get going last fall.

“They really only got done with getting all the protocols and concepts of operation done by September of last year,” Raphael said. “It’s really taken off in terms of abilities to give direct services to the community. Since then, we were able to get a lot of houses done.”

“It’s the relationships and personal knowledge people have in each other that facilitates coordination, cooperation and trust,” McPherson said.

The committee meets at least once a month, sometimes more often if planning an event. On Saturday, the group was at the Spring Fling in Amsterdam, providing information and demonstrations to help people with preparedness.

Raphael said helping a case all the way from start to finish – actually being part of getting the repair work done – is fulfilling.

“It’s getting them in a better situation and getting the power of the community to organize and the community realizing they can actually sustain and fulfill their needs in their own community if they just get together,” Raphael said.

The group still needs funding and volunteers to help. Anyone who needs help and wants to talk to a disaster case manager can contact Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties at 762-8313 or 842-4202.

For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page or call McPherson at 882-6831 or Raphael at 618-5731