September 18, 2011

Owego Struggles to Rebuild

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The residents of Owego, a town less than an hour from Ithaca, are calling for help as they attempt to reconstruct their houses and lives in the wake of historic flooding on Sept. 8 and 9.

Representatives of Cornell’s Public Service Center — which held a fundraising drive with members of the Student Assembly on Saturday to raise money for the area’s residents — traveled to Owego to help victims of the flooding, which destroyed property and left scores without electricity.

On Wednesday, the University announced that employees affected by flooding would receive two additional paid days off and said workers could receive emergency funding through Cornell’s CARE Fund.

Forty-six students traveled to Owego this weekend to volunteer, but more help is still needed, said Joyce Muchan ’96, assistant director of student development at the PSC.

Kevin Millar, the deputy mayor of Owego, said that of approximately 1,400 homes, 1,200 were affected by flooding.

“If you weren’t affected by the flooding, you have people [who were] living with you,” said Romona Bensley, an Owego resident and a Cornell Care of Buildings employee in Carpenter Hall.

Owego received approximately six feet of rain, and the destruction left by the flood is still evident. Tall piles of discarded furniture, wood flooring and drywall scraps line both sides of neighborhood streets, while residents in gloves and masks gut their homes.

Karen Ward, whose husband died last year, worked on her first floor and garage on Saturday.

“It’s hard,” Ward said. “[My husband] used to work in the garage, and now the garage is gone.”

Bentley added that Ward had been struggling to keep from breaking down in the aftermath of the flood.

“All that she worked for her whole life is over there in that pile across the street,” Bentley said of Ward.

Another Owego resident, Janice Godfrey, had much of her home destroyed in the rain.

“It happened so fast; we really didn’t have time for anything,” she said. “We’re waiting for FEMA and our insurance to first get back to us … You know, you have to laugh. If you don’t laugh, you’ll sit down crying.”

Cynthia Conti-Cook, an Owego resident who has helped in the repair efforts, said the aftermath of the flooding was “like a really weird dream where you’re walking to a huge landfill that has vague remnants of your hometown.”

“People here are very self-sufficient and independent, so it’s very hard for this town to ask for help. But as much as we think we can do it by ourselves, this mess is huge,” she said.

Conti-Cook said she worked with 10 Cornell students who came to Owego last weekend, calling their work “really great.” Students produced spreadsheets on the most damaged houses and relayed information on what houses had been most affected by flooding, she said.

Elias Barber ’13 and several of his fraternity brothers traveled to Owego this weekend to help one Cornellian, a recent graduate, clear out his flooded basement.

Barber’s family lost its home in flooding in Schoharie, N.Y., earlier in September. He said they would probably not rebuild it because of an increased frequency of flooding in the area, but that volunteers had been essential in helping the family reconstruct its 500-acre farm.

“The streets are just totally lined with junk from people’s houses … with huge piles of garbage lining the street waiting to be picked up,” Barber said. “It’s really pretty overwhelming.”

Muchan, of the University’s Public Service Center, said she hoped students could provide person power to the town, which consists of many elderly people.

The town is in need of school supplies, clothing and other resources the University could contribute, she said. Additionally, Muchan said students who volunteer their time are needed to go door-to-door compiling information on houses affected by flooding and to help remove mud, among other physical tasks.

“They need hundreds of volunteers to gut homes because winter’s coming,” she said.

Muchan partnered with the Student Assembly to hold a fundraiser outside the Homecoming Weekend football game on Saturday, but she said “we didn’t get the results we would’ve hoped for.”

Still, S.A. Rep. Roneal Desai ’13 said he and other students would be working this week to raise awareness of Owego residents’ plight.

“It’s especially important because people who need help are so close to us, and there aren’t many other people who can help them right now,” Desai said, adding that students would be placing drop boxes for food donations at Noyes and RPCC.

Like Desai, S.A. V.P. Adam Gitlin ’13 was involved in Saturday’s fundraiser, and he stressed the importance of helping Cornell’s neighboring communities.

“[The S.A.] wanted to show that the student body supports and cares about our neighbors and nearby counties,” he said.

Original Author: Sophie Lin