Sullivan County Democrat
O n l i n e  E d i t i o n National Award-winning, Family-run Newspaper
  NEWS ARCHIVES Established 1891 Callicoon, New York  
home  |  archives
Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

DELAWARE HIGHWAY SUPERINTENDENT Bill Eschenberg surveys the damage to the h’wy dept. while standing in a crater created by the water washing through one of his equipment sheds Saturday morning. The ground in front of the shed was level just the day before.

River Towns Hard Hit

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — September 21, 2004 – The expression on Bill Eschenberg’s face said it all.
The normally stoic highway superintendent in the Town of Delaware looked to be near tears as he surveyed the damage to his home base – the town barn on Route 17B in Hortonville.
The flood waters that quickly rose up over Sullivan County Saturday morning and dropped just as suddenly later that night had decimated the town’s barn, as they did to properties across much of western and northern Sullivan County.
Eschenberg literally watched about $40,000 worth of sand stockpiled for the winter wash down the Callicoon Creek.
“It just disappeared,” he said helplessly.
And along with it went pipes, brushes for the equipment used to clean the town roads, and giant chunks of blacktop on a once-smooth parking lot.
Joe Brook, which flows out of the Beechwoods to meet the Callicoon Creek right next door to the highway barn, had washed right through each structure on the property.
Eschenberg struggled to open the doors to the main office just to watch water flowing out at his feet.
Monday morning, with his wife at his side, he looked over the tree trunks deposited on his grounds, the sinkholes in the middle of his parking lot, the piles of boulders in each of his equipment sheds.
Asked to estimate the damage, Eschenberg shook his head. A highway superintendent known for speaking his mind, he was, for once, nearly speechless.
“I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” he said. “You just don’t know . . .”
The County Responds
The county’s director of emergency management, Dick Martinkovic, said they are just starting to survey the damage to the towns across the county.
The county’s emergency management office first got notice that there might be trouble on Thursday when a warning was sent in by the National Weather Service that Hurricane Ivan was headed this way.
They advised county emergency workers to prepare for “possible flash flooding.”
By Friday, they were telling Martinkovic that the hurricane was probably going to hit the Finger Lakes.
“But Delaware County was going to get a lot of water, and that would affect the Delaware River,” Martinkovic said.
To say the least . . .
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, water was lapping at the bottom of the bridges in Roscoe, and Twin Island Campgrounds had to be evacuated immediately.
That, Martinkovic said, was just the beginning.
The next call came from Livingston Manor, where the Willowemoc had already risen to the top of the bridge by the school.
The Rock Hill and Wurtsboro fire departments offered the use of boats to help with evacuations in the downtown area, but by the time they arrived at 5:30 a.m. they couldn’t make it down Main Street past Peck’s Market, Martinkovic said.
Meanwhile, water was rising in Jeffersonville where the residents of the “island” across the Schadt Memorial Bridge were told to get out as soon as possible.
And there was much more to come.
Martinkovic got another call around 10 a.m. from the National Weather Service saying the Delaware River in Callicoon was already at flood stage – the water was washing over the New York-Pennsylvania bridge.
They warned the river was still rising – it had a possible 17 or 18 feet more to go.
An emergency meeting with County Manager Dan Briggs brought out one decision – evacuations all along the river corridor.
Folks from Hankins to Barryville were told to get out as soon as possible.
There were shelters set up at the Sullivan West High School and in the Town of Highland, but most evacuees went to visit family for the night.
Kevin McElroy and Erin Burgess saw many of them, their faces worn, pouring into their pizzeria on Main Street in Callicoon that evening – flooded out of their kitchens, they turned to the couple for dinner.
“We heard so many sob stories,” McElroy said. “People were feeding their kids dinner in their cars because our dining room was full, they were just thanking us for being open.
“I felt so bad for people.”
Evacuee’s Stories
Bill Eschenberg’s brother, Steve, was making dinner when he heard a motor running in his backyard.
Callicoon Firefighter Frank Hahn was riding an ATV down the tracks calling out the warning to residents of River Road in Callicoon.
Eschenberg has lived on the river for more than a quarter century, and he’s never had to leave.
He’s never seen anything quite like Saturday’s flood.
“The last time there was this much water I was a year old, and I’m 50,” he said.
Even in 1996, when rains combined with run-off in mid-winter to ravage the river, there wasn’t nearly as much water.
“We were very lucky it stopped raining when it did,” he said. “Another couple of hours of rain, and it would have flushed the place.”
Eschenberg said he didn’t really plan to leave, but he heeded the fire department’s warning just in case.
“I figure if you don’t, and anything happens, you’d be a fool,” he said.
But he didn’t really know what was going on much of Saturday.
“We had no communication because the phones were out, as usual,” he said.
The Verizon box was, in fact, under water just 2 miles down River Road where the water had risen up over the road and was climbing the Norfolk Southern railroad bank.
Eschenberg said he owed a debt of gratitude to Hahn, Roger Widmann, Darryl Emmett and other firefighters and volunteers he saw out helping on Saturday.
“They all did an outstanding job of notifying us and helping us out,” he said.
A Concerted Effort
Martinkovic agreed – everyone truly worked together during the tough times, he said.
At least 1,000 people were evacuated throughout the county – including the folks in Roscoe, Manor, Jeff and along the river – and all were safe.
“I’m very proud to say we didn’t lose one person,” he noted.
Firefighters, EMS workers and local police all had a hand in that, Martinkovic continued.
The State Police volunteered its scuba divers and its MRT technical response team as well as a helicopter which swept up and down the river checking for stranded residents.
None were found, fortunately, Martinkovic said, but they were prepared not only to lift someone out of the raging waters but to assist with their medical needs – a paramedic, an MRT officer and other folks were all on board.
The county’s 911 center doubled its staff for the day and kept the emergency responses flowing, he added.
Now the key is to get the county’s roads and damaged properties back together.
Martinkovic said the town barn in Delaware is one of the biggest concerns, and a meeting with supervisors of the towns affected by the flooding brought out a number of issues which will be passed along to the State Emergency Management Office (SEMO).
Hopefully, he said, they’ll be able to present an estimate of the damages countywide in the near future that will be passed along to the governor.
“Hopefully we’ll get a [disaster] declaration from that,” Martinkovic said.
Town of Fremont Supervisor Jim Greier has already called a meeting for damage victims in his town, set for Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the town hall in Fremont Center.
Monday morning he said his road crews were out hard at work.
“We’re trying to get all the roads passable,” he said. “They’re working around the clock.
“We just have to deal with everything,” Greier added.
Hankins, Long Eddy, Acidalia and Tennanah Lake were among the spots hardest hit in his town.
The Red Barn Campground in Hankins lost at least 35 trailers, and 20 more were damaged, Greier said.
The Haberlis, the family which owns the campground, could only watch as the waters grabbed the vehicles and washed them away as though they were Matchbox cars and not big steel campers.
Steve Eschenberg said he saw at least 17 of those RVs floating past his house Saturday afternoon – many of which he bet came from Red Barn.
River Road resident Ken Palmer said he saw them too – he saw pieces of a camper float by, then turn around.
“Suddenly, it hit a group of trees and just exploded,” Palmer said. “What power the river has . . .”
The water’s power touched many lives Saturday.
Jack Diehl put out a call to his neighbors that he’d lost a cow – the farm animal just washed away as the water covered Diehl’s flats on Route 52A in Kenoza Lake.
Luckily, Becky Reddish had her wits about her, rushing outside with a bucket of feed downstream from the Diehl farm.
Coaxing the cow with the food, Reddish was able to bring her ashore a hundred yards below her family’s farm.
As it turned out, the heifer was pregnant, giving birth late that evening to a tiny calf with the help of local veterinarian Joe Nebzydoski.
“I think we’ll name the cow Miracle,” Reddish said.
Kohlertown resident Forrest Gorton was forced to postpone his wedding from Saturday to Sunday so he could help his fellow firefighters in Jeffersonville.
A Call for a Solution
Gorton has seen the waters ravage his section of the Town of Delaware time after time, and he’s had enough.
“This is a problem we really need to fix,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing my property flooded.”
It was a sentiment that’s been echoing in the farthest section of the town for weeks.
Just last Wednesday a petition with 60 signatures was presented by Kohlertown resident Matt Murphy to the town asking for help.
The town had responded, saying they’ve been working to get permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation to dredge the creekbeds.
Permits had finally been issued for Hess Brook, the North Branch Creek by LeCleres’ and Joe Brook – the very waterway which destroyed the town barn Saturday morning. They were still trying to get permission to do work in Hortonville, pulling out years’ worth of rock and silt that has filled the creek.
And work was set to commence as soon as Murphy and Bill Eschenberg could get permission from residents for the town’s equipment to access the Hess Brook via their property.
Murphy was distraught Saturday, watching water flood not just his home but the funeral home he owns on Route 52.
“We really have to do something,” he said, turning to neighbors and reminding them of his petition.
Murphy said he can only hope that the Saturday disaster will drive home the need to dredge these creeks.
Eschenberg agreed. Making his way over the thousands of stones deposited by Joe Brook in the town’s yard, he pointed to the sand and stone that were still piled up under the bridge over the brook.
“There’s nowhere for the water to go,” he said.
Publisher Fred Stabbert III contributed to this report.

top of page  |  home  |  archives