OWEGO — There’s no real need to wipe one’s shoes before entering the Donovan residence — or just about any other nearby home, for that matter. It’s hard to create fresh dirt tracks when filth is already so pervasive.
On the Donovans’ soiled living-room floor lay two pairs of boots caked with dried mud. A couple of Christmas photographs remained on an otherwise bare wall. The kitchen, stripped of all its appliances, had a wheelbarrow in the middle. Muddy puddles covered the basement floor. An outdoor wooden deck sagged to the ground.
This chaotic scene was provided courtesy of a five-foot surge of water in the house’s ground level five weeks earlier. With only the top floor escaping complete devastation, Deacon Michael Donovan, parish deacon and a pastoral associate for Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes, was scratching his head over the structure’s future.
"I really, truly, have no idea what to do with it," said Deacon Donovan, whose family members have lived at the house since he purchased it as a second home in 2006.
Though noon was approaching on this mid-October Friday, it was eerily quiet near the corner of Fulton and Main streets where the Donovan house is located. Traffic was light and nobody was out walking except for a cat that appeared lost. A hammer could be heard pounding in the distance.
Piles of uncollected debris in neighbors’ yards affirmed that many additional homes were affected. In fact, Main Street residents Ron and Ellen Pasto were among the few still occupying their abodes, living in their home’s upstairs because it’s the only usable part.
Ron Pasto said he strives to keep a positive attitude, reassuring himself that "we’re going to come through this."
"Or else," he remarked, "you just sit down, say, ‘I give up,’ sit there and cry."
Through all these woes, there’s been one constant bright spot: the outpouring of help throughout Tioga County and other parts of the Southern Tier in the aftermath of historic flooding.
Angela Klopf, director of Catholic Charities’ Tioga Outreach in Waverly, said donations of cash, supplies, physical labor and moral support have been abundant regardless of whether they emanate from families, individuals, nonprofit organizations, businesses, schools, government agencies, Catholics or people of other faiths.
"The way the community pulls together is just so rewarding," she said.
Sirens in the night
The Donovan and Pasto homes are a quarter-mile north of the Susquehanna River, a centerpiece of civic pride in Owego — that is, when it stays within its banks. In early September, the Susquehanna was a downright nightmare.
Trouble had begun brewing Sept. 7, courtesy of heavy rains that exacerbated a long stretch of wet weather stemming from tropical storms Irene and Lee. Flooding occurred over the next two days, and by Sept. 13 a major disaster had been declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Tioga County, neighboring Broome County in the Syracuse Diocese and many other surrounding communities. Portions of Chemung and Tompkins counties in this diocese also were affected.
The Pastos were awakened around 2 a.m. Sept. 8 by sirens and bullhorns signaling it was time to evacuate. They moved to a friend’s house, and after that facility began to take on water, relocated to a temporary shelter at St. Patrick Parish, where they are members. They returned to the upper part of their home Sept. 11.
Deacon Donovan, whose son Kevin was living in the family home at the time of the flood, lost nearly everything as well.
"Did you know refrigerators float?" he remarked, adding that his car had to be sold for scrap after becoming submerged in water. His difficulties didn’t stop there: While making a flood-related repair at the farm house just outside Owego where he and his wife Linda reside, Deacon Donovan fell off a ladder and broke his shoulder and ribs.
"And that was during the storm," he said, "so it was four days before I could get to the hospital" due to area roads being shut down.
Nearly all of Owego incurred damage, as the Susquehanna crested at a record 40 feet with a flood level of only 30. That was four feet higher than the flooding — which itself was rated a major flood — that besieged the village in 2006. According to Klopf, 3,028 Tioga County households had applied for FEMA assistance as of Oct. 24 compared to 800 five years ago.
Meanwhile, St. Patrick School had only completed one day of its new school year before flooding ravaged the basement and ground floor, forcing students and staff to a temporary facility in Endicott. Diane Snyder-Bell, Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick business manager, said cleanup efforts have proceeded quickly enough that a goal of Nov. 7 was set for reoccupation of the school.
Yet she warned that the timetable is tentative at best: although new heating equipment was installed in mid-October, a musty odor still permeated the building, a five-foot mud line remained visible in the basement, and bare walls and floors existed where there had once been children’s drawings and carpeting.
At the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parish office, Snyder-Bell sighed at the piles of paper on her desk for contractors, insurance forms and the like. "It’s never-ending," she said.
A beep went off on Snyder-Bell’s phone. She explained that she has weather alerts programmed into it, and on this day rain had begun to fall.
"It’s scary. Every time, I check to see if there are flood watches," she said, adding that "every time it rains now, people are saying, ‘oh, it’s going to happen again.’"
She had just finished a call with a woman who was about to relocate to Pennsylvania with her two grandchildren; both were fourth-graders at St. Patrick School. The woman had moved the children to higher ground just before several feet of water gushed into their home, likely saving their lives. All three were rescued from their roof by airboat.
Amazingly, there were no storm-related deaths in Tioga County. However, Snyder-Bell said, "This town is not going to be normal for a long time. This is the ‘new normal.’" Indeed, a drive around Owego revealed not only vacant homes, but the same for several gas stations, banks, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses.
"A lot of people don’t have flood insurance, and FEMA aid is not enough," Snyder-Bell observed.
The Pastos said they feel among the fortunate because they can occupy some of their home and also are insured sufficiently for rebuilding. Ellen Pasto grieves for those who suffered both inconvenience and emotional trauma: "There are people for whom a house they may have owned, it was all they had."
Klopf said many families remain displaced and are staying with family and friends, sleeping on floors and couches, not knowing whether they’ll get back in their own homes before winter hits — if ever again. She added that this reality applies not only in Owego and Binghamton, which have garnered considerable media coverage, but numerous smaller communities as well. She predicted that recovery will take many months, perhaps years — an especially cruel fate for folks who had just started to get back on their feet after the 2006 flood.
"For so many people we thought that 2006 was the ultimate. And so, not anyone in the village could imagine anything worse than that," Ellen Pasto said. "This was unexpected, unimaginable."
"A lot of the personal stories are very sad," Klopf said. "I’ve had people come in just to rant and cry."
Keeping the faith
If there’s a silver lining to be found, it would be in the many instances of outreach showcasing humanity at its best.
For example, Klopf noted that Tioga Outreach has been inundated with donations of such items as clothes and shoes. She said many people and organizations were able to mobilize quickly thanks to the bonds they developed beginning with flood recovery from five years ago: "Before 2006 all of us didn’t know each other."
Examples of personal assistance have ranged from Fathers Bill Moorby and John Yaw Afoakwah at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick helping Deacon Donovan clear debris at his house; to more than a dozen people assisting the Pastos; to the Pastos themselves joining a slew of volunteers for a cleanup on the St. Patrick campus.
"If a neighbor needed help and you had some spare time, you tried to do what you could," Ron Pasto said.
Substantial assistance has come from the Diocese of Rochester through donations of cash and supplies. A special Sunday second collection, conducted mostly on Sept. 24-25 throughout the diocese, could well reach $150,000 by the time final totals are tabulated.
Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick and such organizations as Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross have worked together to provide meals, shelter, clothing, personal-care products, and cleaning supplies and kits. Spiritual support has come via public healing services held by all four Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick worship sites: Oct. 24 at St. Patrick; Oct. 26 at St. Margaret Mary, Apalachin; Oct. 27 at St. James, Waverly; and Oct. 28 at St. John the Evangelist, Newark Valley.
Deacon Donovan, despite his personal hardships, opted to accentuate the positive during his homily Sept. 25. He told congregations the flood serves as a reminder for the need to love God more than possessions — that the latter is temporary and life with God is eternal.
"You know, it’s only stuff," he remarked.
"We’re going to rebound," Ron Pasto added. "I still have faith that God will get us through this and take us forward."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For flood-relief assistance, call Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes at 607-687-1068 or Tioga Outreach Center at 607-565-7580. In addition, Tioga County Rural Ministry, 143 North Ave., Owego, has ample food available. Call 607-687-3021. To volunteer for cleanup crews, contact Angela Klopf at 607-565-7580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To make a contribution, send a check designated for flood relief to Tioga Outreach, 464 Broad St., Waverly, NY 14892. The outreach also is in need of cleaning supplies, gift cards to home-improvement stores, and dehumidifiers and heaters. Further information may be found at www.blessed-trinity-parish.org and www.rebuildowego.com.