Local help heads to flood-ravaged towns

County residents deliver what’s needed most to Greene County communities

LIVINGSTON — The Columbia Ice Factory on Route 9 has become a hot spot in the effort to help Greene County families struggling to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene. While Columbia County was spared the brunt of the storm that swept the area on August 28, Greene County suffered uncontrollable flash flooding that dragged houses off foundations, and sucked away horses and automobiles in its wake, leaving a thick coat of mud on everything it touched. While few deaths were reported region-wide from the storm, many of our neighbors across the Hudson lost everything, their homes, their belongings and their jobs.

Almost a month later, the immediate crisis is past and the usual federal and private agencies have ramped down their initial response presence. It’s now up to the community to recover as best it can. More than a few are homeless or living in condemned buildings. As they struggle to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives, they are receiving help from neighbors, including many in Columbia County.

“Jeff had been to the mountain and saw firsthand what was going on,” said Claverack resident Cyndy Hall, referring to contractor Jeff Johnson and his wife, Kim, who have many family members and friends in Prattsville. The Johnsons are her neighbors and friends, and they joined forces in the effort to mobilize help from Columbia County residents.

The Johnsons lived in Greene County until just a few years, and Prattsville, along with Ashland, Lexington and Windham, were among the communities hit hardest by the storm.

Mr. Johnson joined forces with his brother-in-law Jody Jackson, who manages the Columbia Ice Factory. The two had traveled to New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina struck and spent several months helping in that recovery effort. Now they and Ms. Hall are finding out what people need, getting it and delivering it directly to them.

Ms. Hall, who learned early about relief work from her mother, an executive director for the Red Cross in cities around the region, offered to use the Internet to recruit volunteers and solicit donations. She has used the local listserv, Claverack Neighbors, to reach out to people.

On a trip to drop off supplies, she was shocked by the devastation she saw including a school bus stranded in the middle of a corn field, parts of houses floating in pools of water, acres of cars covered in mud and impaled by branches, and public roadways completely obscured by inches, sometimes feet, of mud. What she found most upsetting was the large number of houses with X’s taped on them marking them for demolition, the smell of rot hovering over everything and the sound of chain saws everywhere.

Mr. Jackson, who manages a cold storage facility used by local farmers in addition to running the ice business, found his contacts in the agricultural community were quick to respond. He used the company’s largest ice truck to move thousands of pounds of donated meat across the river.

“He has been the phone contact person with Windham and Prattsville. If he finds out about a need, we get right to work on it,” said Ms. Hall.

Mr. Jackson was quick to point out all the local merchants and farmers who stepped forward to help.  Williams Lumber in Rhinebeck donated cleaning supplies. Theodora Budnick, owner of Wheatley Beef, donated over 1,000 pounds of hotdogs and steaks. Foxhill Farm provided hamburger meat. Feather Ridge Farms donated chicken and eggs and has continued to donate 30 dozen eggs daily. Ronnybrook Farm provided milk, cream and butter. Migliori’s donated tomatoes and pears.

“My heart broke, when I heard,” said Katie Bogdanffy, whose family has farmed at Feather Ridge Farm in Elizaville for three generations. “Our customers are there. We were shocked.”

Columbia Tent Rental set up a tent with tables and chairs. Many individuals provided clothing and toiletries, like tooth paste. Currently the group is asking for donations of winter clothing, boots, socks and gloves, furniture, tools, kitchen utensils, sheets and towels. And battery run radios are a popular item. Local radio stations have provided an information lifeline to the many who still don’t have electricity restored.

Since basements were hit hard, washers, dryers and water heaters are welcome, along with construction materials, including sheetrock.

A lot was lost in basements, said Mr. Johnson. “Not just in Greene County but here too, in Germantown and Columbiaville. We’re willing to help whoever needs help here too,” he said.

They are looking for others with storage space. The Ice Factory is storing the contents of Prattsville’s Zadock Pratt Museum, including its archives and antiques, and all the records of the Prattsville Town Hall are in its freezer. The warmer part of the ice factory’s 60,000-square-foot space will soon fill up with local apples.

Some contractors are donating services to help make homes safe enough to move back into. “A large truck to transport donations costs $100 to drive over to the mountain. We don’t want cash but gas cards would be welcome,” said Mr. Jackson.

One visitor to the Ice Factory on Tuesday was Kenny Baio, who arrived with Anne Waarncke and Jason Johnson, Jeff’s son. All lost their homes at the Ashland Trailer Park. Kenny had lost everything including his job.

“He needs boots in the worst way,” said his friend Anne. “He’s going to be digging ditches tomorrow.” They are staying with family and the three of them are working on an unfinished structure nearby, which the landlord has promised to rent to Mr. Baio when it is finished.

Two of his neighbors, newlyweds who just finished paying for their used trailer, expect their first child in October. They lost all their baby clothes along with their home. Kim Johnson, Jeff’s wife, is asking for baby clothes and accessories for the couple.

Jeff Johnson drives up the mountain two or three times a day with supplies, said Mr. Jackson.  Mr. Johnson’s phone continues to ring throughout the morning. While volunteering his services and gas, for which he expects nothing in return, he is managing his contracting business at a distance. He and Kim, a traveling security specialist, lived in Prattsville most of their lives before moving to Claverack.

Kim’s friends and family lost just about everything. “My kids used to fish and swim in the Prattsville Creek. It’s personal,” she said.

The volunteers remain impressed by the resilience of the storm victims, many of whom are determined to stay put. “A lot of people are still smiling, but some are angry, said Mr. Jackson. We’re talking a year-long recovery period.”

Anne  Waarncke, who also lost her home in the Ashland trailer park praised the volunteers, calling them “ absolutely amazing,” and adding, “If it wasn’t for them, a lot of people wouldn’t have anything. They took the time to care.” 

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