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In the wake of the flood

February 6th, 2013

In October, the world’s attention was drawn to the plight of thousands as Hurricane Sandy pummeled the states of New York and New Jersey. But, more than a year and half later in the town of New Windsor, some residents are still waiting for relief from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene.

Robert Kopman, 71, stands at the edge of his property on Butternut Drive in the Town of New Windsor. His house was condemned after flood waters from Hurricane Irene washed away the nearby embankment along Moodna Creek.

Robert Kopman, 71, stands at the edge of his property on Butternut Drive in the Town of New Windsor. His house was condemned after flood waters from Hurricane Irene washed away the nearby embankment along Moodna Creek.

“The trees broke like matchsticks,” said property owner Robert Kopman, recalling the day, in late August, 2011, when a huge chunk of land was washed out from alongside his house at the end of Butternut Drive in Butterhill Estates.

Severe flooding along the Moodna Creek devoured creek banks, ate a portion of the road and destroyed the bridge on Forge Hill Road, coming very close to carving out the land from under Kopman’s half-acre property at 345 Butternut Drive.

“The house was condemned that day,” he said. “I was told no building permit would ever be issued on the property again. It’s too unstable.”

Eighteen months after the storm, Kopman still hasn’t received a penny in compensation through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the arm of the federal government charged with the federal response to disasters and providing financial assistance to affected individuals, states and local governments.

On shaky ground
Standing creek side on a recent Sunday afternoon, Kopman peered warily over the canyon-like cliff which forms the edge of his property. Out of the steep 80-foot-plus drop of the embankment protruded dozens of tree carcasses.
Town Engineer Richard McGoey described the flooding as causing “major erosion and slope failure” along the creek.

“It resulted in damage and structural movement in the foundation of the house,” McGoey said. “It’s our opinion that the dwelling unit is in imminent threat of sliding down the embankment into the Moodna Creek.”

Part of the reason why the bank was so badly damaged is due to soil composition. According to town historian Glenn Marshall, the house is built on top of a former sand mine. “It was a sand and gravel mine in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

This made the bank more vulnerable to the force of the floodwaters, McGoey said. “The (soil) is a combination of silts, clays and gravel – all of which are erodible soils,” he said. “The force of the creek and the water working on the erodible soils resulted in the failure of the slope.”

At the time of the storm, the home was rented out to tenants, who had to be evicted shortly after the house was condemned. But, because he wasn’t living in the house at the time, Kopman explained, he could not apply for individual assistance from FEMA. “It was treated as a business,” Kopman said, and so, his compensation would have to come from the town.

“Individuals apply directly to FEMA for assistance,” said Bill Peat Jr., of the state Office of Emergency Management, which works closely with FEMA to disperse funding around the state. “Municipalities apply to FEMA for what’s known as ‘public assistance.’ It’s two separate types of assistance.”

So far, town Comptroller Jack Finnegan said, the town has received funding through FEMA for portions of the work needed along the creek: $30,000 has been funded for slope stabilization; $37,000 has been funded for the demolition of the house; but $2.5 million requested for “permanent repairs” remains under review by FEMA and the state.

“The $2.5 million has to do with rebuilding the slope, the embankment and road,” Finnegan said. “It also includes compensation for the owner for the property.”

The town is ready to move forward with the demolition of the house, said New Windsor Supervisor George Green. “We already have the approval from FEMA to do it, but first we want assurance that the homeowner will be reimbursed,” he said.

Green said phone calls by the town to FEMA had been made as recently as last week seeking to confirm the funding would be made available for a buyout of the home. Green said the calls produced no new information. To complicate matters, Green said, the road cannot be rebuilt until the house is torn down. “There’s nothing we can do before the house comes down,” he said.

Green acknowledged it had so far been a “tough and slow” process. “We’re all frustrated,” he said.

The wait ahead
Not far from the decimated property sits the Forge Hill Road Bridge, which remains closed and in a state of disrepair. Construction to replace the bridge is on track to begin in the spring, according to county Legislator Chris Eachus, who represents the town of New Windsor.

The bridge is expected to cost approximately $1.9 million to build and take two years to complete. “Ninety percent of the costs will come from the federal government, as it is a replacement (not fix) of a bridge…” Eachus wrote in an email to the Mid Hudson Times this week. The other 10 percent will be paid for by the county, he added. To help alleviate some of the traffic resulting from the closure of the bridge, the state installed a traffic signal at the intersection of Butter Hill Drive and Route 94 in the late fall.

Kopman paid approximately $165,000 for the property in 1991. Now retired and living in another home he owns across the street, Kopman said the loss of the rental property has had devastating economic effects for him and his family. “It was a major part of our retirement program,” he said.

Kopman said he’s grateful to the town for its efforts on his behalf. He’s not as understanding toward FEMA. “Why haven’t they done their job in a timely manner?” he asked.

Time, however, does not appear to be on his side, as month after month, the weather continues to erode the fragile creek embankment. “I’m just waiting,” Kopman said. “If I wait long enough, it will fall in.”

By Shantal Parris Riley

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