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Awaits Help

By Nathan Mayberg
WESTBROOKVILLE — September 17, 2004 – It has been over two weeks since a state of emergency was declared in Westbrookville.
Over two weeks since people lost their homes, their yards, their basements, their bridges, their roads, their cars – and as some simply put it, their livelihoods.
Yet there has been no move by Governor George Pataki to declare the area a disaster zone. That declaration would pave the way for grant money and federal aid.
New York State Senator John Bonacic and state emergency management team officials assured an audience of over 200 people at the Westbrookville Firehouse on Tuesday evening that the team would submit its findings to the governor by Friday, who would make the declaration by Monday.
Even with that assurance, many residents of Westbrookville wondered why the process took so long. They said it took no more than a day or two for the proper declarations in Florida and other areas of the country hit by flooding.
With such a delayed response, many residents could be weeks or months away from any monetary aid. They don’t know how they will replace their homes, their cars or their property.
State Emergency Management Office (SEMO) workers defended their time-consuming process of collecting evidence.
“We want to put [together] the best package possible,” said one official.
However, several in the audience claimed nobody had ever been to their homes to survey the damage. They were told to take pictures and provide documentation of what they had lost. They worried they would not be fairly compensated.
Ed Gorgan declared what many had been suspecting – not all of the damage was caused by the 5-6 inches of rain that fell down in that short period of time over two weeks ago. He claimed there were many illegal dams built in the area. Some broke and damaged homes. He offered to take Town of Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna to see them.
Westbrookville Fire Company Chief Ralph Tunno had previously claimed that illegal logging was also to blame for the dozens of large, loose logs which had knocked into houses and simply flattened several structures.
Also appearing at the meeting was Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, Cjris White from United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey’s office, a representative of New York State’s Small Cities Grant office, the Town of Mamakating Board, and Sullivan County legislators Kathleen LaBuda and Jonathan Rouis.
Richard Martinkovic, who has been coordinating emergency response, said the flooding was caused by 5-6 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Gastone, which he called a once-in-50 years occurrence.
Lately, about 40 prisoners from the federal penitentiary in Otisville have been doing some of the hardest work, lifting logs and placing sandbags on properties. Penna said the prisoners had been working there 7 days a week.
One lady affected by the floods said it was time to use more prisoners.
“There are plenty of them,” she said.
Like others in the audience, she was afraid of the loose logs, rocks and other potential safety hazards which could cause further damage in the event of another storm, including the potential effects of Hurricane Ivan.
An official from the New York State Department of Health office in Monticello said he was concerned with the contamination of drinking water. Bacteria and viruses may have entered wells. Furthermore, he expressed worry that fuel tanks may have spilled into people’s water supplies. He urged people to have their water tested.
Initial water test results have found a lot of bacteria contamination, he said. Some people may be able to disinfect their wells themselves, but some may need help from plumbers. His department has instructions for disinfecting the water, and he urged anybody with concerns about their water to contact his office (794-2045).
Another official said the Army Corps of Engineers has surveyed the damage and will recommend changes to the creek in order to prevent future flooding.
One local citizen said a good start would be to address the area’s drainage system. He claimed one of the culverts stands three feet in front of his driveway. The recent flood “wiped out my property.” He said the water has “nowhere to go.”
Gunther, who received warm applause from the crowd when introduced, said she was “so sorry for the losses you have suffered in Westbrookville.” She said she was hopeful the Small Cities grant money would help the victims and also announced she was working on legislation to further aid them.
Several homeowners expressed concern about the loss of critical bridges to their homes. One individual had an idea for fixing the bridges with local resources, rather than waiting for months and spending tens of thousands of dollars on them,
A representative of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation told him and others to go ahead and not wait for official permits to address their individual crises.
One resident of Westbrookville suggested the Army Engineers Reserves in Newburgh could be of assistance. He used to serve with them and maintained that they had a lot of the resources necessary to help the flood victims. Officials told the man to get in touch with them.
Town of Deerpark residents, however, were stunned to learn they were not eligible for Small Cities grants, since they live in Orange County. They were told they would be eligible on the federal level, though. They were also advised to contact the Orange County Development Office as well as their county legislators.
One individual – who said much of her property, including her pool, was destroyed – expressed concern with a “massive block” of trees and rocks sitting on her road, which could cause extensive damage with another storm.
“I’m not going to make the winter. I’m probably not going to make this [next] storm,” she lamented.
Mark Lohr, among those hardest hit, said, “My life is destroyed. My home is gone. My children are devastated.”
He said he appreciated the hard work of many, including his “wonderful neighbors, but said, “I need to know who is going to put my home in place.”
A discussion over coverage by insurance companies stirred up a whirlwind of debate. Accusations flew about insurance companies who told homeowners they could not be covered by the flood insurance program, and those who had flood insurance but were not covered due to the flood being “an act of god.”
Gunther pledged to advocate for the concerns of the residents with their insurance companies.
Bonacic also suggested charitable organizations be asked to help.

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