More than 2 years after flood, fire dept. recovers

FORT HUNTER – After waiting two years for renovations to be complete, the Fort Hunter Volunteer Fire District fire station is finally back in working order.

When tropical storm Irene hit the area in 2011, the district’s 24 active volunteers went out to help residents with their flooded homes before repairing their own station.

“We put the community first and then we took care of our fire house,” Fire Chief Tim Haegi said.

In late August 2011, tropical storm Irene dumped enough rain to flood the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River, and carried enough wind to down power lines and trees throughout the region. The morning after Irene hit, more than 20,000 homes and businesses were without electricity; many had lost their homes to raging waters. Flooding closed parts of Routes 29, 67, 30 and 30A and Mohawk River crossings. The New York State Thruway also was closed, leaving traffic to be rerouted through Main Street in Johnstown.

Haegi said the whole incident was overwhelming.

“Being on call with trees and power lines down and people needing our assistance, it was just very hectic,” he said. “We did more than 200 calls for the duration of the flood.”

The department helped pump mud from basements and move damaged wallboard to landfills, he said.

“Throughout the cleanup we were stressed, the guys were tired,” Haegi said. “We were doing 16 to 20-hour shifts. There were some nights we were on shift for 24 hours. During the flood we were on standby for three days straight with very limited sleep.”

After the flood damage had been controlled, however, the department had to look at its own station.

“[The fire house] had just shy of a foot of water and everything on the floor was ruined,” District Commissioner Jason Downing said.

Fire Capt. Cody Lewandowski said he didn’t think the flooding in the station was too bad at first.

“It was definitely weird seeing water flow through the fire department like it was,” Lewandowski said. “We figured it would all be fine, but things broke and water was flowing through and it wasn’t good.”

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Downing said the station needed a lot of repairs from the damage, but the first goal was to replace all of the damaged equipment so that the department could still work while renovations occurred.

“It was the most important thing, to make sure we could stay up and running. The building wasn’t as important, other than getting the heat turned back on for the winter,” he said.

The station hired specialty contractors to clean, replace doors and flooring and cut the walls to dry up the floodwater.

Computers, kitchen cupboards, windows, an enlarged bathroom and handicap accessible equipment were among the other replaced and modernized features added to the fire house.

Overall the total cost of restoration was $130,000. FEMA provided $92,000 to help pay for it.

Downing said the department is still waiting for their last FEMA check for $6,900.

He said the worst part of the flood-renovation process was dealing with FEMA.

“Personally, as chairman of the board, I would never deal with FEMA again. It was just horrendous. The amount of hours I lost from work to deal with them was just terrible,” he said.

Downing said there were many times when FEMA was frustrating and unhelpful, especially when the department needed help with its well.

“We have a well in front of the fire house, it was submerged in water for about 18 hours and after the flood we pumped it out, chlorinated it and had it tested,” he said. “We couldn’t get it to test clean. FEMA would not reimburse us to put a water filtration system in because we couldn’t show them the well was there before the flood. We showed them pictures of the well under water and they still didn’t believe us.”

Despite working more than 1,000 hours and not receiving adequate help, Downing said his optimism remained intact due to the community.

“We actually gained membership from the flood,” he said. “There were a few people in the village that our firemen helped out and when they got their houses back together, they thought what we did was so nice and they decided to join too.”

Downing and Haegi both think the new station is a lot better now.

“We’re better than we were before because now everything is new,” Downing said. “Other than the outside of the building, everything is new and fresh and we’re set to go.”