Recovering from a flood in a small community
On August 28, 2011, Schoharie, New York was inundated by floodwaters from nearby Schoharie Creek, the result of severe rains brought by Hurricane Irene. Schoharie and several other villages in the Schoharie Valley were severely damaged. A week later, Tropical Storm Lee brought more heavy rain. The flooding from both storms was made worse by water released from upstream dams.
Schoharie is still recovering from the damage—and preparing for the next flood. The village has a long history of flooding that dates back to the first recorded flood in 1696. In the decades since World War II, major floods occurred in 1955, 1987, 1996, 2002, and 2011. As a high school student in Schoharie, I helped with clean-up activities following the flood of 1955.
What can a small community like Schoharie do to prepare for natural disasters? How can residents rebuild in a way that makes the town more resilient?
The damage and recovery
No one in the Village of Schoharie died because of the flooding, but the damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure was extensive. Public buildings, highways and bridges, water and sewer systems, and telecommunications were all affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state and local government, the National Guard, and several nonprofit, civic, and religious organizations all helped with the recovery efforts. In addition, concerned citizens created Schoharie Area Long Term, Inc. (SALT) to coordinate food distribution and clean-up activities in the immediate aftermath of the flood. Now, nearly four full years after the flood, SALT continues to promote economic recovery, restoration, and civic engagement.
Recovery in Schoharie and surrounding areas is ongoing, but slow. Certain anchor businesses have not reopened and some homes continue to be vacant. Some unrestored homes are owned by absentee homebuyers who acquired these properties with speculative motives and not as prospective residences for themselves.
Three developments bode well for Schoharie’s future.
- Release of water behind upstream dams. In the past, the dams and reservoirs at the headwaters of the Schoharie Creek did not coordinate their water storage and release activities in a way that would lessen the likelihood and severity of flooding. The organizations that control the dams—New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, the New York Power Authority, and county flood control authorities—have had insufficient regard for downstream communities when managing the water levels for their own constituency’s needs: drinking water for New York City, the statewide electrical power grid, and local flood control. In the future, they will be under greater pressure to prevent the major water releases that have contributed to the severity of past flooding.
- Enhanced flood insurance coverage. The Village of Schoharie plans to join the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) Community Rating System. In return for implementing a floodplain management plan approved by FEMA, property owners in Schoharie will be able to purchase NFIP flood insurance at lower rates. This plan will enhance NFIP coverage and reduce future flood-related losses.
- Restoration that meets flood mitigation requirements. A number of homes and businesses in the village have been restored with an eye to meeting NFIP flood mitigation requirements. For example, residents and business owners have placed furnaces and electrical controls in rooms above the 100-year flood level, as identified in flood maps prepared by the US Army Corps of Engineers. These and other adjustments will lessen the damage even if future flooding matches the peak levels of the 2011 flood.
The net effect of these adjustments will increase the resilience of the community in preparing for and responding to future flooding.