By Ted Waddell
LIVINGSTON MANOR January 4, 2005 Linda Guinan knows a lot about floods.
As a 32-year resident of flood-prone Livingston Manor, she's seen her fair share of high water strand neighbors in their houses, wash oil tanks into the river. A couple of years ago, she watched a woman perched atop a car surrounded by roiling flood water rescued by local firefighters.
"I've been through a lot of floods and have been taken out in a boat," said Guinan.
In 1996, Sullivan County was hard hit by high water in the wake of a sudden January thaw "that wrecked the whole county," and the rural community of Livingston Manor along the Beaverkill got hammered.
Then came the flash flood of December 17, 2000 one week before Christmas, a natural disaster that left folks reeling from the damage and no help from the feds.
"We were all hurt bad, and our fight was with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). They said they couldn't help because we didn't have the numbers to qualify for assistance," said Guinan.
She said local flood victims spent the next few years putting everything back together, and on September 18, 2004, "boom, we were walloped again."
"Between 2000 and 2004, nothing was done to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again," said Guinan, pointing a finger at what many think is local, state and federal officials laziness and failure to take preventative action.
According to Guinan, in recent floods a lot of people suffered oil spills as outdoor fuel tanks were swept away.
In her case, she racked up huge expenses when her indoor tanks were knocked over and the fuel oil spilled out.
In the flood of 2000, she lost about 500 gallons of oil and one tank, and after calling the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Luzon Company, an environmental clean-up team arrived at her doorstep.
"The bill was close to $30,000, and it scared me to death," she recalled. "No sooner than it happened, I got a letter saying I had to have a check in the mail within 30 days
I was still smelling like oil, and was heading back from the post office reading this letter it was the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of."
She said FEMA helped out four years ago, and "it took three years, but my homeowners insurance paid for most of it."
After that disaster, Guinan took matters into her own hands and had the remaining tank bolted down to a new concrete floor.
Then in September 2004 it happened again: flood waters poured into her basement and toppled the fuel tank, spilling about 250 gallons of oil.
In a case of deja vu all over again, calls were made to the DEC and Luzon showed up, and although Guinan stayed in her basement to help with the cleanup to keep the costs down, now she's looking at a bill of approximately $9,000 and hoping for some governmental assistance.
In the Flood of 2004, Guinan and the two 80-some year old women she looks after listened to it rain all night, "and then you know it's time to get out."
So at 5:30 a.m., Guinan said she "got my ladies into my car" and headed for higher ground, only to return and spend the next week cleaning up her house with no heat and no electric "trying to get rid of the fumes."
Shortly after the Flood of '04 was recorded in local history books, scores of angry folks turned out for an emotional public meeting of the Town of Rockland board to get some answers and put the pike to officials for what many perceived as a lack of concern or inability to take action to prevent future disasters.
"You can't blame any of those people for what they were expressing," said Guinan. "Some people had to leave their houses and were saying it's never happened like this before."
She said that in her opinion, elected officials were complacent until the last flood, and the public outcry of fear started to rise to the surface almost as fast as floodwaters.
"Because we're afraid, now they say things are being done," said Guinan.
At public meetings, residents have raised the ongoing issue of folks versus fish: the welfare of people compared to not disturbing the environment and trout population by dredging local steams and rivers in an effort to reduce flooding as waters back up at constricted gravel bars.
"You can stand by the river and see the gravel beds that need to be taken care of," said Guinan. "The rivers aren't being cleaned out, and stuff is accumulating.
My feeling is that dredging needs to be done, but there seems to be a problem with that."
Complicating the issue is the public perception that DEC hands out permits for dredging selectively, while some folks reportedly have taken matters into their own hands and risked fines in order to do what they determine is saving lives.
"Some people say it can't be dredged because of the trout habitat, but I'm worried about my house, my family and my neighbors," said Guinan.
"There has to be a way to protect the natural environment, but you have to think about the people."
After the Flood of '04, among the things left stranded on her front lawn were an empty paint can and a carved wooden statue of an Irishman "that found the only Irish house on the street."
Although the statue was returned to its rightful owner, Guinan and her neighbors found a use for the old can, as they named a grassroots group of folks concerned about future flooding "The Paint Can Committee".
The new name of the citizen's organization is the "Community Citizen's Committee," and Guinan welcomes phone calls at 439-5379.
Once the flood hit, "anti-trout" signs sprang up all over town, while others read "Fix the Rivers...Help Our People.
"All of sudden, people took their signs down, but I wasn't ready to because it's not over," said Guinan.
She said that first off, she wants the DEC to show up at a public meeting to talk about "dredging or not dredging" and work to continue following the example set by the Elmira Project, a system of overflow ponds created several years ago after people died in upstate flooding.
"I do not have the power to fight government officials and a river full of trout," said Guinan. "But I'm a victim and my neighbors are victims.
We're looking to our town government and officials up the line to realize that we have a problem and it's gotten worse . . . that's why we voted for them.
"We're hurting, and I'm truly afraid we will have to wait until somebody dies before anybody takes action," she added.