New York State’s Heartland Overwhelmed

July 20-Aug. 2, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 25
New York State’s Heartland Overwhelmed
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Southern Tier residents rebuild in the wake of disastrous flooding

Three weeks ago in the Southern Tier, hundreds and hundreds of families lost all that they had when dire rains swelled to overflow the banks of the Susquehanna River. In the wake of the flood, which claimed some 800 homes in Broome County, hundreds and hundreds of volunteers rose to meet the challenge facing their community.

The flood affected five counties in New York State’s Southern Tier including Tioga, Delaware, Chenango and Otsego along with Broome. In all, the flood impacted 4,759 homes, a figure that was confirmed by Southern Tier Chapter of the Red Cross CEO Cindy Gordineer. She added, however, that additional damaged homes had been discovered since that total was announced.

Mary Guinane, parish secretary at St. James Church in Johnson City, was among those who lost everything when the flood’s murky waters infiltrated and swept through two stories of her rental property. Guinane said that she was “still in shock” and that even one week later she found herself “just going through the motions” of her daily routine.

Nevertheless, Guinane and many other residents are finding joy in Mudville as they reconstitute their community. During a telephone interview, Guinane was brought to the verge of tears while describing her experience in the worst disaster to befall the Southern Tier in an estimated 300 years. But it wasn’t the loss of her home that elicited the tears; it was the manner in which her neighbors throughout the community had responded.

“All of the neighbors are coming together,” she said. “It showed you that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” Conklin, a small village adjacent to Binghamton, was the hardest hit by the flooding. In describing her neighborhood in Johnson City a few days after the flood, Guinane said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody’s life was just out there on the curb.” The same description could be applied to Conklin.

A week after the Susquehanna rose and stormed through the village; the neighborhoods near the river remained covered in a fine film of brown mud and piles of debris from gutted houses towered along streets. That same debris had once been entertainment centers, couches, exercise bikes and other comforts of home. Those niceties were reduced to exposed and mountainous eyesores in the flood’s wake. Many of the houses were marked with spray painted “Xs” and cryptic acronyms left by rescue teams who had checked and double checked the dwellings for occupants and pets during the evacuation. Little league fields and parks, which once sported splendid green carpets, were reduced to brown expanses coated in mud.

Catherine Minoia and her family lost a great deal to the flood. Knickknacks on shelves as low as one’s forehead in her now gutted home on Conklin Road were pristine. Beneath them, all of her belongings had to be removed and the family was in the process of overhauling the walls entirely.

“We’re going to redo it,” she said, adding that compared to village residents living closer to the river, her family had been fortunate. “We’re lucky. But we’re starting from scratch.” The village of Conklin is under the umbrella of St. Mary’s Parish in nearby Kirkwood. Some parishioners from the Kirkwood church needed to be rescued by helicopter and many homes in the area exploded when gas mains were compromised. Nearby Great Bend, Pa., which several St. Mary’s parishioners also call home, was still partially underwater nearly one week following the flood. A Binghamton native and pastor at St. Mary’s, Father Thomas Catucci had ventured south to Great Bend in order to make contact with some of his parishioners. He observed propane tanks floating throughout a small portion of the submerged community.

Bishop James Moynihan visited the Southern Tier July 10 and presided over a Mass at St. Mary’s in Kirkwood. He praised the spirit and faith of the people in that stricken region. Kathy Pfaffenbach, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption and the supervisor for Catholic Charities Emergency Services, went to St. Leo the Great in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans this past spring to help with clean-up efforts there. While many parts of Broome County were relatively unscathed by the flooding, she said that the damage in Conklin and in Binghamton along the Susquehanna River was very similar to that suffered on the Gulf Coast. “It looks like it. It’s as devastated as the Lower Ninth Ward [in New Orleans],” she said. According to Pfaffenbach, Hurricane Katrina taught Catholic Charities that it needed a plan in order to deal with any potential disaster.

“We knew we had to be efficient, we knew we had to get information out to the community that help was coming and we needed documentation for all of the people we served,” she said. Although the Catholic Charities staff knew it had a plan in place, Pfaffenbach said she was quite moved by the manner in which people in the Broome County community reacted.

Nowhere was that spirit more evident than at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Lourdes president and CEO John O’Neill explained that the hospital had invested in a floodwall in the event of an emergency but that once the storm drains and sewers around the hospital had been overcome, the wall was insufficient and floodwaters surged into the hospital’s first floor. Hospital workers attempted to pump the water out but it was just too much and finally officials conceded that they would need to evacuate the premises. It took just two hours to transport 70 patients to the United Health Services facilities: Binghamton General Hospital in Binghamton and the Wilson Regional Medical Center in Johnson City.

Although there was a plan for the evacuation and subsequent clean-up efforts, O’Neill has been amazed at the effectiveness of the hospital team. “What we have accomplished over the last eight days is nothing short of extraordinary,” he said. Even just two days after the staff began to reoccupy the hospital, it was practically back up to speed. Many of the hospital’s employees were working to evacuate the hospital even as their own homes were being inundated. “In the midst of all this, we had employees who were experiencing their own tragedies and working while their homes were being flooded,” O’Neill said.

To help those employees get back on their feet, the hospital held a fundraiser, which generated $83,000. Gordineer, who attends St. Patrick’s in Owego (Rochester Diocese), said that the task set before Red Cross was daunting. “It’s been an overwhelming experience,” she said. “It’s taken all of our resources along with those that we’ve brought from the national level to meet the crisis.” Along with the other Binghamton churches, St. Mary’s asserted itself immediately during and after the flood. Father Catucci said the Catholic Church in the Southern Tier was on the forefront of disaster relief within a day of the flood. Catholic Charities of Broome County identified as flood relief centers St. Mary’s in Kirkwood, St. Mary of the Assumption in Binghamton proper and St. Ambrose in Endicott.

The home of St. Mary’s financial administrator Donovan Smith was among those that exploded during the flooding. Smith’s Conklin home is across the river from St. Mary’s in Kirkwood and, according to Father Catucci, the force of the explosion shook the windows and doors in St. Mary’s Church. The force was such that the faculty at St. Mary’s School needed to evacuate the students. Smith called the church within 20 minutes of losing everything, but it wasn’t to complain. According to Father Catucci, Smith said his family was safe and he called to find out if someone else was in greater need than him. That same spirit and camaraderie were infectious at St. Mary’s where roughly 150 people immediately volunteered for the flood relief effort.

Larry Chizak is the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse pantry coordinator at St. Mary’s. He noted that the flood relief efforts were empowered by the nature of Broome County’s community. “We have a very strong community here,” he said, noting that roughly 30 people per day were filtering into the flood-relief center at the parish searching for some kind of help. Gene Hayes, the coordinator for St. Mary’s flood-relief efforts, said that the community response in the face of the disaster was inspiring. Volunteers from throughout Binghamton had come to St. Mary’s only to be turned away because there were already too many assisting with the relief effort.

At St. Mary of the Assumption donations poured in. Janice Burchall is a parishioner at the church but she is also associated with the Salvation Army. She said that the church was serving roughly 40 people per day. The emergency relief center was stocked with diapers, baby food, canned food, sanitary products and cleaning supplies. Burchall said that many residents in the area surrounding Assumption were lacking power and their phones were still out of commission as late as five days after the floodwaters had receded. Most of those who were utilizing the center had only found out about it via word of mouth.

Of the parishes in the Binghamton area, Christ the King in Endwell and Blessed Sacrament in Johnson City were the only two to suffer significant damage. Blessed Sacrament suffered considerable water damage. Several days after the fact, muddy fronds on shrubbery outside the church showed that water had risen as high as one-and-a-half to two feet around the church. Within the church, convent, rectory and school, floodwater had filled the basements up to the ceiling. One week after the flood, clean-up crews were still power washing salvageable furniture while much more had to be abandoned to the dump trucks. Father Donald Bourgeois, the pastor at Blessed Sacrament, was still reeling a week after the flood had consumed his church. “I don’t know what I would do if I had to go through this again,” he said.

Although the damage at Christ the King in Endwell was less than that of Blessed Sacrament, it was still significant. The church hall in the basement was flooded with four feet of water and the carpeting along with many appliances now decorate one of the local dumps. As the water rose around his ankles, Father Thomas Hobbes was among those carrying appliances and other items out of the church hall.

Father Hobbes credited the recently ordained Deacon Tom Picciano as well as the parish community as a whole for their efforts in dealing with the flood. “Everybody’s been tremendously supportive. Tom Picciano has done a tremendous job getting people organized,” he said. According to Bill Doran, the claims manager for the Syracuse Diocese, projected estimates for clean up and restoration at both churches totaled $1 million.

Many of those impacted by the flood were the poor who were unable to afford flood insurance. In Endwell for instance, the flood had shifted homes in a trailer park from their foundations. In other instances, homeowners had declined to purchase flood insurance because of the technicalities of the policies. For instance, one policy offered to a Conklin man would not cover damage from floodwater that penetrated the house through the basement windows. Father Catucci is convinced that far from damaging the Broome County community, the flood will ultimately strengthen it. “It’s not a hope, it’s a fact,” he said. “The people are going to rebuild and we’re going to come out stronger.” Father Catucci also said that Catholics should draw inspiration from the church based on its response to the flood. “I think Catholics should be proud of the way that we’ve responded,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of the Catholic Church that we’re right at the forefront.”

During a Sunday Mass directly following the flood, Father Catucci used the Gospel in which Jesus heals a woman who is hemorrhaging and raises to life a girl who has died.
In his homily, Father Catucci pointed out that just as Jesus did not prevent the afflictions suffered by the woman and the girl in the first place, the flood was also permitted to upend the lives of thousands of Southern Tier residents. The priest believes that the people of the Southern Tier needed a miracle and they got it when they came together to rebuild the community. “As Jesus brings the community together, we’re finding miracles every day,” he said.

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