Hard times bring out hometown heroes
Norman Percevel Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) was a 20th-century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States for their reflection of American culture. Living in a small village in Tioga County, N.Y., and enjoying the pleasures of traveling to the areas that surround it, such as Ithaca, N.Y. and the Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania, the concepts of Norman Rockwell resonate on my mind.
The small quaint communities, and the rural farmland with its agri-tourism, obviously account for the reasons why many locate to this region and decide to call it home. Or as it was once stated, “If you stay in one location long enough you will grow roots.”
In my case, having lived much of my life in suburbs and urban areas, this statement rang true. But outside of the small quaint villages with rows of “mom and pop” shops, along with farm areas where one can tour, or test products that are made or grown locally, is the substance of its people, who, when faced with difficult times, become stronger and unite.
Recalling the tragedies experienced with last year’s flooding in September, this resiliency became overwhelmingly apparent. And in spite of predictions that the rebuilding might falter, it was strengthened by the perseverance of its residents who call this area home.
As we reflect upon 2011, which has been dubbed by many as a very difficult year, we can begin to search for a new type of gratitude for the things that surround us ... the beauty of the area, the relative safety of the communities we live in, the kindness of the neighbors that surround us.
When the floodwaters hit home for most in September, one of the most inspiring stories is of the heroes that emerged from the flood waters to offer, without expectations, help to their neighbors in need. This continuity exists well into 2012, while many continue to rebuild.
For those who weren’t personally affected by the flooding, they were ultimately inconvenienced by the power outages, some that lasted over a week, and an inability to travel outside of their residential areas to gather items like food and fuel. Most lost their water as well, due to the power outage.
But from the moment the flood waters rose, inundating communities, the heroes quickly emerged, arriving to assist stranded residents by boat, and by foot at times.
Organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross immediately activated within the communities to provide assistance and emergency shelter for those who had to evacuate their homes..
In Binghamton, N.Y., the airport provided shelter to a near 20,000 residents displaced, along with their animals.
But it was what happened on the ground that turned into the real story.
In Athens, Pa., an area hit hard when the flood waters rose, residents were faced with assessing the damage when the waters finally receded.
Hard hit, based on the scope and area of the damage, many were first tasked with an initial gutting and emptying out of their homes before they could even assess the next step to take towards recovery.
At the residence of Robin and Gerald Wilson in Athens, Pa., workers from the gas drilling industry arrived to assist. According to Robin, the large group came in and cleared everything out for them — gutting walls and tearing out sheetrock.
In Nichols, N.Y., nearly 400 arrived from the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the days following the flooding to assist the owners of the Engelbert Farm, whose story of rescuing their livestock moved many in the community. The volunteers also assisted residents throughout Tioga County in the days that followed.
At Tioga Opportunities Inc., the Salvation Army set up a station to begin assisting residents with food and clothing, and eventually substitute heaters, fans and dehumidifiers. The Salvation Army presence was consistent, as they manned their station at the Countryside Community Center for the months that followed.
In Nichols, N.Y., the Community Care Network of Nichols (CCNN) set up a hub at the former Nichols elementary school that would soon serve thousands with assistance that included a station that housed FEMA and Small Business Administration representatives.
According to Dot Richter, from the CCNN, there were so many affected from the flooding that needed help with just basic needs. The station set up meals each day as well.
In the initial days following the flooding, the fire station in Nichols, N.Y. also served as a place where affected residents could get something to eat, and receive assistance.
In Owego, N.Y., fire departments and volunteer emergency responders worked tirelessly to assist residents, and to keep areas safe until the waters receded. Soon, volunteer fire departments from all over New York arrived to assist with clean up and recovery efforts.
Down the road, and with businesses located on either side of Owego, businessman Adam Weitsman would soon do something that further impacted recovery efforts.
Feeling powerless over what he had seen happen within the village, the owner of Ben Weitsman & Son and Upstate Shredding, along with his wife Kim, donated $100,000 to assist those activated on the ground that were currently assisting with cleanup and recovery efforts.
From distributing funds to residents and businesses that were feeding those affected by the flood, to large donations made to Owego and neighboring fire departments, his donation injected enough money to keep the community fed, and to keep it moving forward.
“These people need help, and they need it fast,” said Adam Weitsman on the day that he distributed these funds.
Bob and Sandy Layman, from the Cellar Restaurant in Owego, were one of the recipients of some of these funds. Following the flooding, in which their restaurant sustained a significant amount of damage, the Laymans immediately set to the task of setting up a serving station outside of their restaurant, and quickly began feeding residents. The food utilized they recovered from their own freezers, as well as food that was brought to them by residents who had lost power.
“Last flood the food went to waste,” said Bob as he worked to prepare food for the hundreds that would arrive each day. “This time we thought it would be better to feed people, and there were more affected,” he added.
Bob was already serving people at the time he received a donation from Adam Weitsman.
Throughout the streets, in and around the community, individuals and churches were doing the same.
New Life Ministries, based out of Owego and Endicott, set up relief tents throughout the Owego community, offering food, paper products, personal hygiene items, and other sundries for residents. Living Water Baptist Church provided a type of “meals on wheels,” delivering food to area residents out of a church van.
In Candor, N.Y., the McKendree United Methodist Church also set up an outreach, providing food and clothing to affected residents for weeks following the flooding. The Presbyterian Church in Owego also set up a recovery center that continued for months, providing food, supplies and clothing.
Others, who are current or former residents, set up stations of their own, because they just wanted to help out.
The list of heroes is too long to list, but one can garner from this brief description that there were many that answered the call in our communities.
As we proceed optimistically into 2012, with hopes for a better year ahead, many are still grappling with the daunting task of flood recovery.
Although help has arrived along the way, like a recent New York State Agricultural & Community Recovery Grant that will assist businesses in the Town and Village of Owego, many are still struggling to repair or return to their homes or businesses, and municipalities are tallying the loss of revenue to the tax base as homes are being demolished due to irreparable structural damages.
In Tioga Center, N.Y. last month, George Swansbrough from Upstate Machinery worked to raze a home located on Route 17C near the school grounds. This home is one of 15, according to Tioga County Emergency Management Office Drector Richard LaCount, to be demolished. Another 21 homes in Nichols, N.Y. were scheduled to be razed as well.
In the meantime, FEMA trailers have arrived to assist as well, and provide housing for those awaiting either repairs to their home, or while they locate adequate housing.
One such park, set up in Catatonk, N.Y., was completed in time for the holidays. Others, who have chosen to stay in their homes, did so by mainly residing on their second levels.
Michelle Anders, an Owego, N.Y. resident who resides in a two-story home with her children, was able to spend Christmas Day at her home, and celebrated Christmas from her second floor.
Now through the lengthy process of receiving necessary funds for repair through her insurance company, Anders is in the initial stages of rebuilding. Although frustrated that her home isn’t complete yet, Anders is hopeful that she will once again be able to live, normally, in her home.
Krista Carter-Shafer, whose historic Main Street home was significantly damaged by flooding, is seeing progress as well.
In regards to other homes within the communities that remain empty, for sale signs posted near the door, only time will determine whether they will once again be occupied, in this small, quaint village community.