Volunteers Help Upstate Town

Pastor Yuri Ando, Patricia Bugante, Kiana Mugat, and Beaubelle Bugante
Reporting for duty: Pastor Yuri Ando, Patricia Bugante, Kiana Mugat, and Beaubelle Bugante

    “We arrived in the dead of night,” said Yuri Ando, pastor of the East Hampton Methodist Church, speaking of an Aug. 25 church mission to the Catskill Mountain town of Prattsville. “The motel owner gave us a special rate after I told him why we were there, which made it $10 a night for each of us.”
    Ms. Ando was accompanied by three church members, Kiana Magat, Beaubelle Bugante, and Patricia Bugante, their trip made possible by church collections and donations. They left after the Aug. 25 services in East Hampton.
    The next morning, as the sun’s rays spread over Prattsville, Ms. Ando was awestruck — much of the town remains in shambles a year after it was hit by Tropical Storm Irene.
    “We only had two full days to work, and I wondered if we could even put a dent in it,” said Ms. Ando. “We decided to go on mission to Prattsville because there is a volunteer coordinator in place,” she said. “We just figured if we can help, then why wouldn’t we?”
    They were assigned to a 2,500-square-foot New England farmhouse on Main Street, where they ripped away drywall and plaster and used a special vacuum to remove moldy insulation. About the dirty job, she said, “Wearing one surgical mask was not enough . . . I had to wear two.”
    The house was one of three that was recently bought for $7,000 by a Prattsville resident who wants to “keep homes available for residents to purchase,” according to Jackie Wilkie of Huntersfield Christian Training Center, who has coordinated volunteers like Ms. Ando since last September. “After mold remediation, foundation repairs, and electrical work [done by volunteers], the new homeowner will have a better starting point to build on.” To date, Ms. Wilkie’s organization has rebuilt 25 houses in Prattsville.
    “The government is helping, but change is slow,” Ms. Ando said of Prattsville, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo named the New York State town hit hardest hit by Irene. “What people have received so far is barely enough to buy materials, much less rebuild an entire home.”
    In an Aug. 23 press release, Governor Cuomo said more than $574 million in state aid had been apportioned to the area to assist in recovery from Tropical Storm Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which further defiled the region 10 days later. He said Prattsville businesses and homeowners are eligible for up to an additional $500,000.
    Moreover, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it could allocate additional funding to cover un-met individual needs of storm victims, as well as for the acquisition of uninhabitable properties.
    “It was difficult for the residents to fathom that people were there to help and expected nothing in return,” Ms. Ando said, because many storm victims believed she would attempt to recruit them to her church. “You don’t have to believe in God to be helped.”
    She told of several other volunteer groups that had come from Michigan, California, and North Carolina, most of which are from faith-based groups, lending a helping hand to the town of 650 people.
    “They’re even finding humor in their tragedy — the community held a first anniversary event they named Mudfest,” said Ms. Ando. “The town raised funds by selling mud pies, mud pancakes, and a rides on a ‘mudslide,’ where kids launched themselves down a wet tarp into a pool of mud.”
    Mudfest wasn’t all fun and games. A Native American ceremony was held to bless the Schoharie Creek, water from which jumped the Gilboa Dam and washed away much of the town during the storm.
    “Just as you’re driving out of the town, there is a sign that says, ‘Prattsville perseveres with your help,’ ” Ms. Ando said. “I see hope for that place.”
    It’s a different scene from a year ago, when graffiti-laced buildings hosted messages like “Tx FEMA . . . 4 nutt’n.”
    Several reports have said that Prattsville is rebuilding a more modern town less prone to floods, one that will have a town green, a recreation complex, and more modern houses. Governor Cuomo’s plan for the area includes funding for dam improvements and increased cellphone coverage.
    “The people of Prattsville are very resilient and independent, which meant that few of them sought government assistance,” James Coleman, a community recovery specialist at FEMA, said in a telephone conversation from New Orleans, where he was assessing Hurricane Isaac’s impact. “Only eight of Prattsville’s 700 or so residents initially asked for temporary housing. Even later with a little nudging from FEMA, only around 20 trailers were dispatched.” Instead of seeking government help, many residents just moved in with family and friends nearby, according to Mr. Coleman.
    The temporary housing units were erected on the west side of the town’s center in a mobile home park, one of the only neighborhoods above the floodplain, Mr. Coleman said.
    “Everything in town was underwater,” he said, adding that no one in town had a functional automobile. “It was akin to being hit with several tsunamis, which channeled down Main Street.”
    “The first determination we usually ask residents to make after a disaster like that is whether or not they want to return,” Mr. Coleman said. “Many Prattsville residents live in 200-year-old-plus Victorian and Queen Anne houses that have been passed down through many generations.”
    Although FEMA’s long-term community recovery division left the area in May, the agency’s Albany office visits Prattsville on a regular basis to ensure continued progress, Mr. Coleman said.
    “There is not one emergency services personnel, resident, or community planner who does not hold volunteers [like Yuri Ando’s group] in the highest regard,” Mr. Coleman said. “They are the true face of recovery.”