Communities ‘Standing Strong’ together

FORT PLAIN – Kern Bridgewater is a man who typically doesn’t have a lot of time off. He works six, sometimes seven days a week as a home-improvement contractor to help feed and house his family of five.

The ground floor of his Reid Street home was destroyed in the late-June flood, about $60,000 worth of damage done, so he’s had his hands full. But he spent the day Saturday volunteering in the information booth at Haslett Park, helping to take flood repair requests for the Fulton Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee.

“I have to give back,” he said.

This was one small part of the “Standing Strong: A River Through Time” fundraising event, organized by the Mohawk Valley Collective, which took place in Canajoharie and Fort Plain on Saturday. The event included live music, T-shirt sales, a raffle and a chicken barbecue, guided tours in both villages, and a craft fair at the Arkell Museum parking lot in Canajoharie.

The event originally was planned as a tourism celebration aimed at illustrating the artistic and historic heritage of the area and to highlight the grand opening of the Mohawk Valley Collective’s new Tourism Information Center at 89 Church St. in Canajoharie, but the flood changed those plans.

The proceeds from “Standing Strong: A River Through Time” will be donated to help meet the unmet needs of flood victims. Tolga Morawski, one of the leaders of the collective, said his organization had planned Saturday’s event for about seven months, with the aim of raising money for the restoration of Fort Plain’s Unity Hall and the West Hill School in Canajoharie, but, after the flood, they knew they had to change focus.

“Ultimately, what we’re hoping, is that this is a short-term setback, but long-term, I think this is going to be huge for the area, much more important

than a fundraiser. To get people working together, the way this flood has done, is priceless,” Morawski said. “We hope to raise at least a few thousand from this.”

The ribbon-cutting at the tourism information center was attended by more than a dozen public officials from throughout the region, including U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.

Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton summed up the event’s confluence of disaster and tourism.

“If you want to see tourism, have a flood, and you’ll see the amount of people who come to look at it,” he quipped, but then he added, more somberly, “No, no more floods. Seriously, the people of Fort Plain were devastated by this flood, and if it wasn’t for all of the help we’ve received from the surrounding communities, we’d be in much worse shape today.”

It was a change in community that motivated Bridgewater to move to Fort Plain. His family had lived in Poughkeepsie, but after his son was almost hit by a stray bullet from gang violence, he said, he knew he had to get out. But even after years of living in the tiny village, it took a disaster to really show him the home he’s found in Fort Plain.

“I’m virtually a newcomer to this community; we’ve only lived here about seven years,” he said. “Other than the inconvenience of the damage, my experience with this flood has been how awesome this town really is, with all of the help and the donations.”

An early riser, Bridgewater knew his family was in trouble on the morning of June 28, when the flood waters rose above his porch. The water damaged seven rooms in their house, most of their furniture and big appliances and their chicken coops in the backyard.

What Bridgewater didn’t know was how his family was going to recover. At first, they stayed in a hotel for about a week. He applied for a $31,000 grant from New York state, money made available to help flood victims. They received a donation from the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist charity group. But the help that meant the most was from his neighbors, Craig and Linda Stevens, whom the Bridgewaters had only known in passing before. The Stevens offered to put up the family while they worked to restore electricity and hot water to the home. He couldn’t believe the generosity.

“I said, ‘Do you realize there’s five of us?’ And she said, ‘no, you’re coming to live with me, I don’t want to hear any arguments.’ … They fed me and my family, breakfast and dinner, for nine days,” he said.

The family is now back in their home, and although they’re basically “camping out” at home, with no heat, grilling their food every night, Bridgewater said he knows his family will be able to rebuild. Now, he’s worried about the many other victims of the tragedy.

“Even $31,000 won’t be enough for most people to repair their homes, not if they have to pay for labor. I can do the work myself; not everyone can do that,” he said. “I want to help people at least get to the point where I am.”

According to the Unmet Needs Committee, about 42 percent of the flood victims are not eligible for state funding, many of them renters living in apartments that lacked “Doing Business As” designations that would have allowed their landlords to apply for funding. Committee officials fear that without a significant effort to rehabilitate condemned buildings in the village, and soon, these renters will simply leave the area and never return.

Cyndi Tracy, chairwoman of the Unmet Needs Committee, said on Aug. 31 the group is organizing skilled tradesmen to volunteer for flood repair jobs that could help people move back into their homes. They are also looking for donations of sheet rock and other materials to help with this effort.

Skilled tradesmen and or people looking to donate materials can contact the River of Jubilee Church at 705-8695.

People interested in making monetary donations should contact Ken Gies with the Longterm Recovery Committee at (954) 895-6981.