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Colchester comes together after devastating 2007 flood


By Adam Bosch

Times Herald-Record

June 15, 2008

The memories are fresh, though the evidence of destruction is almost gone. People are still coping with the effects of a massive thunderstorm that stalled over the Delaware County town of Colchester one year ago this week, dropping 11 inches of rain in only three hours. Eyewitnesses say the storm created an 8-foot-high wall of water that rumbled down the mountain last June 19.

The water picked up houses like bath toys, tossing them miles away from their foundations and breaking them into splinters. Trees and telephone poles snapped against the water's momentum. Route 206, the main road through town, crumbled like pie crust. The flash flood killed four people, and one body was never found.

Meteorologists say it was among the deadliest and most destructive storms ever to hit a concentrated area in New York state, but today you can barely find a trace of its aftermath. That's because neighbors vigorously fundraised to rebuild houses, construction workers gave windows, heaters and their labor, and Colchester has inched toward restoration, one donation at a time.

In fewer than 365 days, a community has lifted itself from the depths of a watery nightmare.

A snapshot of the disaster

It was roughly 7 p.m. when a pocket of thunderstorms — so small that it was unable to be predicted — formed over Colchester. The rain fell at almost 4 inches an hour. In the Sullivan County hamlet of Roscoe, only 4 miles away, thunder rumbled in the distance but the ground was dry.

Rainwater whooshed down the mountain in Colchester, filling the Little Spring Brook and dumping it over an 8-mile stretch of Route 206. Four houses were picked up and destroyed. Water damaged 30 other homes and tossed cars against trees. Miles of road were washed away. A 2-ton steel garbage container was picked up and dumped miles away. Roughly 300 people had no electricity.

Some were stranded in their cars overnight. Four people — Fred Shutts and his wife, Marjorie; Barbara Clarke Cooper; and Gertrude Maxine Melvin, most in their 70s or older — were swept away by the water and killed. Gertrude Melvin's body was never found.

Emergency responders struggled to rescue victims that night. A bridge on Route 206 was largely destroyed, stranding vehicles that had gone over the bridge during the storm, and forcing other rescue workers to walk miles to save victims, who were taken out in small pickup truck loads.

After the water receded and day broke, firefighters and police were confronted with a disastrous landscape that resembled something from an Armageddon movie.

"There were trees all over, cars all over, water running everywhere," said Steve Chesney, chief of the Roscoe Fire Department. "The debris was houses, they were just smashed. I'd never seen anything like that around here."

For days, search and rescue crews scoured the area looking for bodies, and other workers cleaned piles of debris off roadways.

Then there were the living victims who lost their homes and every possession inside, including their clothes. No crews could fix that. Restoring their lives — a process that is ongoing — would take effort and time.

Fundraisers to the rescue

The donations came only days after the flood — enough food, clothes and furniture to fill the Rockland firehouse. But at a public meeting the week after the flood, state and federal emergency officials told flood victims they wouldn't qualify for government assistance to rebuild their homes. Compounding the dire situation, none of them had flood insurance.

That's when the community realized it would have to revive itself alone, because these were not mere flood victims. They were neighbors who chatted on the phone with each other, friends who fought fires together, bus drivers who shepherded generations of kids to school and people who had been high school sweethearts in their younger years.

A group of community fundraisers established a fund at the local bank. The fundraisers sold extra donated clothes at a tag sale, auctioned off furniture, organized a poker run, horseshoe tournaments and swim-a-thons and hosted benefit dinners.

The events were all free-will, which meant people paid what their wallets would allow.

"If you could afford $1, we took $1," said Lisa Chesney, a fund organizer. "And if you could afford $50, you gave $50."

One anonymous donor wrote a $40,000 check. By autumn, the flood fund had raised about $120,000. That money has been used for construction supplies to repair and rebuild homes. The Roscoe Lumber Yard sold wood at cost and gave free delivery. Other companies donated windows and boilers, insulation and electrical supplies. Laborers from outside the area donated their time and handiwork.

So far, the flood fund has doled out roughly $100,000 to repair more than a dozen homes, completely rebuild one, and frame another.

"We had to help these people because they're part of us," said fundraiser Karrie Jara.

"This community has always helped people in need," Chesney said. "You learned that growing up here, when you were old enough to help mom stir the brownie mix for a bake sale."

A family's loss and comeback

Elaine Finkle watched floodwater lift her double-wide trailer house and dump it, piece by piece, along Route 206. Finkle's mother, Gertrude Melvin, 67, was inside the trailer when it washed away, and her body has never been found.

The Finkles' loss was indicative of the disaster and how it affected families along Route 206, and now the Finkles are evidence that Colchester is on its way back. With monetary help from the flood fund, the Finkles built a new house on the same land where their trailer home used to sit. It's a two-family house — one half for Elaine and her husband, George, and the other for George's parents, who also lost their trailer in the flood.

Community fundraisers chipped in roughly $56,000 to help build the house. They also recruited free labor. In the months ahead, the flood committee hopes it can finish the few houses still in need of repair, achieving its goal of putting every displaced family back into a home.

"Without the flood fund, I don't know where we would be right now," Elaine Finkle said.

The Finkles paid for the other half of construction, buying wood floors and cabinets at a local auction, and using bits of their weekly paychecks to purchase light fixtures and other household items. They often slept in a camper near the house while it was being built. They were happy to step out of the camper every morning and see progress on their new home.

Now that they're moved into the house, George Finkle is starting to work in his wood shop again. Elaine tinkers with a puzzle depicting white tigers, the pieces splayed out on a wooden desk. Life is returning to normal in Colchester, even for the Finkles, who are still missing a piece.

"Sometimes I hear my mom's voice — I can hear her laugh or giggle," Elaine said, tears welling in her eyes while she talks about her missing mother. "The flood has changed my outlook on life. My husband and I spend more time together because you never know what tomorrow might bring."

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