Susquehanna flood, community organizing–underwater in East Sayre

My partner in Reinhabitory Institute, Judith Thomas, was visiting the Penn-York Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had told her my valley was a bioregionalist’s dream: in two states and three counties, between the Susquehanna and the Chemung Rivers. this community refers to itself as “The Valley,” and has a culture everyone who lives here understands. Judith was visiting here for a handful of days to let me take her on a tour to help her understand this community where I have been organizing for the past 26 years. Our organization is in the earliest stages of starting Project GROW! to involve young people from both sides of the border to learn how to grow and process food, an art form that was widely practiced in East Sayre and throughout the Valley until just a decade ago.

We visited the Ukrainian Community Center in East Sayre on the last day of August. Judith agreed with me: the center is an ideal place to organize from. Our infant Project GROW!- for disaffected and unemployed young people not going to college–could have its first garden right in the backyard of the vacant lot that comes with the building. We’d call it The Grange Hall and share offices there with other 501c3′s working in the community like Carantouan Greenway, the river organization I founded 16 years ago.

We’d invite collaborators when we had a better grip on how to get control of the building and purchase it with the State’s help. “These deals can take years to put together,” I had told Dan Polinski, representing the Ukrainian church community in the sale of the building. “We’ll all have to be patient.”

Dance floor and stage on the first floor, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor, the center had allowed us, Carantouan Greenway, to host several successful spaghetti suppers there. We’d featured the gardens of East Sayre on our annual Garden Tours where men of Italian and Ukrainian descent raised vegetables in the rich soil at the foot of the levees, in their backyards, canning for big extended families.

I’d had my eye on the community center for a decade. When it came on the market recently, I began laying plans to acquire it for the community. The bricks-and-mortar project was admittedly down the scale of priorities behind, 1) getting at least one garden on the ground by summer 2012 and securing funding to put kids to work in it during the growing and harvest season, with paid jobs. Training a new generation of leaders was slated for the winter of 2011-2012, to take over from aging shrinking boards and pick up fresh ideas for the Valley and run with them. The dozens of people I had interviewed mentioning this piece of our plans will smile reading this. I was candid with them; that community center was a perfect place, in the old ethnic neighborhood of East Sayre with its gardening tradition, right next to the river. We’d reinaugurate the summer festivals that spilled out onto the side lawn: Christmas tree lights, tables, beer garden, music.

Judith and I toured the center with Dan Polinkski’s back up the last day of August. We stopped down to meet with Tim Phinney then, Sayre’s genius at packaging public private deals, who opening his calendar on his desk at the Enterprise Center suggested we see it Thursday morning 9/8, after Labor Day weekend.

A long Labor Day weekend passed. In the Valley, it started to rain and was still raining on Monday. Reports of flooded bridges and section of I-86 closing started to circulate.

I got a call from Tim Phinney early Thursday morning. The rivers and creeks were cresting; he had to watch the Enterprise Center to make sure it didn’t “spring a leak.”

If we had kept that appointment Thursday morning, we would have seen the dramatic change residents of East Sayre report.

Jerry Pryslopski told me on the phone that he was at his aunt’s at 10:15 am on Thursday.
The basement and yard had taken some water. But even during Agnes his family’s basement only took water to mid-calf. He called his cousin, asking whether he should come down with a van to move some furniture out. She said she wasn’t worried. The levees weren’t breached during Agnes in 76. By noon, an hour and a half later, the cousin and Jerry’s mother had water past the first floor windows.

A women reported opening her back door and finding the river, right there in her yard.

On Friday morning, the Covey’s–mom, dad and daughter–looked down the street at their house, covered–along with other neighbors’–with water that had fallen four feet back to the first floor windows after the crest. Coveys said they had been berating themselves yesterday, Thursday, for not taking boxes up off the basement floor. By late afternoon, the water was in their second floor, giving new meaning to a “house gone underwater.” (This term has been used exclusively to describe a house that is worth less than the mortgaged amount.) This is not the case with most of the houses in East Sayre, which were purchased in many cases after the turn of the century, and inherited by their current inhabitants.

Sitting on their front porch, in a part of the neighborhood that’s dry, looked across the street at the community center and said that it would be perfect if the center were opened to the community. Neighbors could meet there, both those who houses are drowned and those dry, have a cup of coffee, commiserate. Perhaps a cook out. A town meeting. Social services could be organized out of there, rebuilding efforts. Having access to the center would give Tim Phinney, Dan Polinski, and Jim Daly, part of Sayre’s Emergency Management team, a place to sit with residents to collect information.

I said that Reinhabitory Institute is ready to open the community center with coffee, tea, pie, chairs and tables, as soon as an agreement can be reached for its use.

It seems a perfect metaphor for our times: those of us in some parts of the Valley are high and dry while in the Cannonhole, downtown Athens and East Sayre, it’s New Orleans all over again.

Mid-morning I arrived and parked. I had tried to walk down River Road toward Tioga and Orchard. I stood gaping. Half the north side of the neighborhood lay partially beneath the water.

A young girl in rubber boots stood at the edge grimly looking. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said. “Neither have I,” she replied. As I rejoined the group back at the intersection, I realized she was the Covey’s daughter; she was looking at her sunken and foundering house.

Covey’s partner of 30 years told me, “They told us we didn’t need flood insurance. No one in this neighborhood had it.” I told her that my family in California couldn’t buy earthquake insurance either; you couldn’t afford it. “Why didn’t they use sand bags?” Covey quietly asked Pierce, a multigenerational resident of East Sayre, a young man working in his neighborhood in waders. Pierce shrugged. It had happened so fast.

Perhaps everyone was in denial.

Within an hour and a half, or twelve hours, or twenty four–whichever timetable had residents of East Sayre start their personal countdown–the river poured over the levee, claimed all the sweet apple orchards bearing fruit ready to pick, washed out the gardens getting one more day of ripening before canning tomatoes in earnest, moved decks and sheds a city block, and peeked into the attic windows.

“It going to be years,” said Covey’s partner, who had grown up in the neighborhood. “Years.”