Recovery: A job 'Well' done

Gwen Chamberlain
Chet Briggs and Beulah Decker led the way in one of the area's largest volunteer projects in recent memory.

With a few weeks to go before the end of the year, volunteers at The Living Well were wrapping up the final details of one of the largest community volunteer efforts in recent memory — helping hundreds of homeowners recover from flood damage that struck the area in May.

Faced with requests for help that would cost $430,000 this summer, Beulah Decker and Chet Briggs used a variety of volunteer help and other donations to make the $166,000 that was donated for their efforts stretch as far as they could.

Limiting each property to a maximum of $5,000 in assistance from The Living Well’s program, they paired homeowners with contractors where necessary, bought supplies at discount whenever they could, and assigned volunteer work crews to help with as much as possible.

While federal and state emergency funds are helping municipalities, schools and non-profits cover the cost of repairs, many private property owners were not eligible for aid other than up to $10,000 in state grants that have some strings attached. They soon found how quickly $10,000 can be spent.

The week before Christmas, Briggs and Decker took time to tabulate some numbers as they closed out the books on the big project.

In all, 78 homes that were damaged by the May 14 and 16 floods received some kind of help from the volunteers. Twenty-seven of the homes were repaired by volunteers alone.

The effort also took the work of 215 volunteers from all over New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as contractors who were hired to help at homes with the most severe damage.

Of the $166,000 in donated funds, $60,000 was spent on contractors and $70,000 was spent on supplies. When she thinks of the dollar value of the labor donated by the volunteers, Decker simply shakes her head in wonder.

“I didn’t realize how many good people there were out there,” said Decker, describing a local contractor who helped an Indian Pines couple who lost their entire home, even though his own business was nearly annihilated.

At another Penn Yan-based organization, Keuka Housing Council, another group of homeowners and businesses were assisted. Renee Bloom, KHC director, says 24 businesses, 38 homeowners and five landlords were helped through a total of more than $323,000 in donations from the Nord Foundation, Yates Community Foundation, Lyons National Bank, United Way and anonymous donors. A $95,000 grant from the William G. McGowen Fund also helped, says Bloom, adding, “We have very little money left. Some is being held for homes that were completely destroyed.”

Bloom says she is seeking grants to help replace damaged mobile homes and for septic and well replacements.

There are still needs

But there are still families in need, and properties that need repairs or demolition.

In December, the Penn Yan Village Board started the process to condemn a house at 112 Clinton Street that had been damaged by flood waters in Jacobs Brook.

Even as late as November, Decker and Briggs were learning about people who still had water in their basements, but did not want to ask for help because they felt there were others who were dealing with more serious circumstances.

Looking over their records, the pair say there is still much work to be done, and some of the owners of the most affected properties haven’t decided what they are going to do with them. “This will be an ongoing project and solutions are being explored,” promises Decker.

Both Decker and Briggs dedicated most of the last seven months of 2014 working to help others, putting their own lives on hold for most of the summer. Briggs, who in previous years could be found fishing at least once a day, didn’t get a chance to cast one lure into Keuka Lake. He had planned to power wash his deck May 15, but that chore was put on hold, and still hasn’t been done.

Decker didn’t take an annual vacation she had planned, and she put repairs to her own driveway and time with her grandchildren on hold. “But that’s minor compared to what others had,” she said, admitting she did take a week off from The Living Well so she could help with Christmas for the Needy.

Decker said there are many organizations and individuals who deserve credit for helping with the recovery effort.

Established by local churches to fill the community service gap left when the Red Cross closed its Yates County office at the end of 2013, The Living Well was about six months old when the May 14 flood hit. The Well’s East Elm Street storefront was not spared from damage, so its headquarters were moved into the Penn Yan United Methodist Church Memorial Building. It became the hub for distributing food and cleaning supplies and for people to report damage and coordinate volunteers.

Other organizations became involved in the recovery process as well. The Assembly of God Church on Gibbs Road donated the use of their vacant church to house out-of-town volunteers. Penn Yan Central School opened its locker rooms so volunteers could have a place to shower at the end of each day. Officials at Camp Corey also offered to house volunteers, but the space was not needed.

The American Baptist Men’s tool trailer was available with tools to loan for repairs, which Decker says saved thousands of dollars, enabling the limited resources to reach more families in need.

“Local businesses throughout the area were extremely cooperative in getting things done on a timely basis, including contractors, furnace and appliance installers and hardware and lumber suppliers, making it possible for us to complete most repairs before winter,” adds Decker.

The pair credit the quick action of emergency responders who answered so many calls for help during the height of the flooding. “Thanks to those who responded in the first hours, including firefighters who pumped basements, teams and individuals who went into homes and removed items from basements, and removed damaged dry wall and insulation before the water could wick higher, says Decker, adding, “Hundreds of people stepped up to help their neighbors and our thanks and blessing to all of them.”

Decker and Briggs mention some specific individuals who added their expertise to the effort: Ralph Senese, who spent many volunteer hours to help evaluate properties for needed repairs and John Hoffman and Nick Vander Weide who installed pumps, dehumidifiers and made electrical repairs on demand. Bob Kenville helped oversee volunteer work, managed jobs, and gathered needed supplies.

“We’re very proud of the cooperation during this disaster. The Living Well, Keuka Housing Council, Pro Action, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and the Finger Lakes Times have cooperated from the beginning to take care of the people of Yates County who were hurt by the storm. Each entity has had their own part, but all have coordinated their work to be sure that no one was overlooked, or that no one was able to receive the same services from multiple sources,” adds Decker.

The cooperation has worked so well that Catholic Charities moved to the Living Well, and will have a representative there through August to help those who need further assistance.

Decker and Briggs have learned so much about coordinating this recovery effort, they are writing a disaster recovery plan that can be used in future emergencies.