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In small town hit by a storm, hope, despair and a mudfest

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PRATTSVILLE, N.Y. >> One house on Main Street here is not like the others. It seems to twist, stretch and taunt the fine line between hope and despair that has inextricably woven itself into the town fabric over the past year.

This house with its dormer windows still intact looms tall — too tall — over everything around it. It has been gutted and raised 10 feet in the air on wooden blocks — an arm’s length or so above the high-water marks that linger on several surrounding buildings, a year after floodwaters overwhelmed Prattsville early on Aug. 28, 2011.

Its owner, Connie Briggs, is uncertain where it fits in the town’s emerging landscape. Some other residents often feel that same uncertainty about the town’s future, and their own.

In Prattsville, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo labeled the place hardest hit by Tropical Storm Irene, and in other towns dotted across the remote Catskill Mountains landscape, everyone has a flood story: the generations-old business that washed away; the new trailer that was split in half; the family dog that disappeared; the museum whose collection was practically erased.

Increasingly, the story line includes frustration over the money that ran out, but there are also cries of hope, even celebration, as evinced in Prattsville over the weekend.

The town held its first Mudfest, a smattering of fundraising events that drew hordes of people from beyond this small enclave, whose pre-storm population peaked at about 600. Children streaked down slides into mud pits. Bands played at barbecues. And dozens marched to the Schoharie Creek for a Native American blessing of the very body of water that a year ago jumped its banks and devastated the town.

There was reason to celebrate.

Cuomo announced last week that more than $574 million in state aid had been distributed in the past year to help communities recover from Tropical Storm Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which throttled the upstate region a week later. Up to an additional $1 million would go to businesses and homeowners in Prattsville, he said.

And the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it could, pending the completion of an application process, allocate an estimated $1.3 million toward the demolition and acquisition of badly damaged properties.

Briggs’ house, which predates the 1833 establishment of the town, is one of about 30 vacant homes out of some 140 on Main Street. Insurance money and initial aid from the federal agency helped her strip the house bare and move it back from the road. Now it appears to float above Main Street on stilts, waiting.

“The rest is for me to figure out slowly,” Briggs, 46, said with a hopeful shrug as she prepared to collect donations on behalf of the town during Mudfest.

Briggs said she dreamed of restoring her home with hemlock siding — the type favored by Zadock Pratt, the town’s founder — milled in her sawmill across the street, which itself is struggling to rebound.

Kevin Piccoli, who chairs the nonprofit Prattsville Relief Fund and the town’s Economic Development Corp., said securing aid was tricky.

“Every town is going after this one pot of money, so it’s extremely competitive,” he said, noting that the relief fund had raised $310,000 for about 90 families and that he had filed paperwork for up to $3 million in grants.

“We’re trying to keep a stiff upper lip and every day just get a little bit further,” he said.

Of course, Prattsville, in Greene County, is but one of many upstate New York towns with post-flood problems.

On Saturday, nearby Windham held its own event to mark the somber anniversary of the storm. The town supervisor, Stephen J. Walker, compared his constituents to a sculling crew. “Everybody pulls together,” he said, noting that he was pleased and proud of the recovery but that the town had “a lot of work left to do.”

Walker acknowledged, though, that Windham “might’ve been in a better position before” the storm than towns like Prattsville, which has no ski slope or active Chamber of Commerce to fuel and promote its economy.

Mayor William H. Stanton of Margaretville, in Delaware County, which hosted its own festival over the weekend, recalled the “big gouge right down the middle of the village” left by the storm. He said that 90 percent of the businesses in his town had been damaged, along with about 10 homes, and that he had been disappointed by what he considered the slow response by FEMA.

“There’s a lot of problems in the country right now,” he said. “They got forest fires, earthquakes — but don’t put it on the back burner because we’ve got another storm coming in.”

Dan Watson, an agency spokesman, said, “We’ve seen a partnership between federal agencies, the state of New York, volunteer agencies, the private sector and many others.

“Recovery from a disaster takes time, planning and coordination,” he added, “and the commitment from state and local government and the various nonprofit agencies has made a difference” for the affected communities.

Jennifer Kabat, a writer, editor and Margaretville resident who has written extensively about the region’s recovery online and in local newspapers, pointed to “a sort of tentativeness” among residents who have been forced to navigate a bureaucracy.

“It’s hard to express it without using an expletive,” she joked.

Still, Kabat, 44, said she was encouraged by a sort of revival that was afoot.

On Sunday, she toured the Prattsville Art Center, a project by a New York University art professor, Nancy Barton, who obtained a vacant space on Main Street and invited 12 artists from around the world to an improvised summer residency.

Barton, 56, stressed that the art center was “not a hoity-toity Woodstock thing,” but a way “to do really contemporary art and mix it up with people who wouldn’t expect it.”

She added that she had been delighted by the enthusiastic residents who had turned up for the workshops the center had offered. “The minute you give them a chance they do really wonderful things,” she said.

The Prattsville town supervisor, Kory O’Hara, said the town had just begun a slow rebirth but that he appreciated the efforts of people like Barton.

“A lot of people dream of a small town like this,” he said over pancakes and coffee at the Prattsville Diner on Sunday, one of the 21 of 22 businesses that had reopened since the storm.

Down the street, Mudfest attendees took in an exhibition at the Zadock Pratt Museum featuring post-storm photographs from the past year.

The photographer, Larry Gambon, who normally photographs wildlife, said he had not initially planned on capturing close to 3,500 images of the devastation in Prattsville.

“That’s like photographing a corpse to me,” he said. “It was the most emotional shooting I’ve ever done in my life.”

Many of Gambon’s 24 photographs on display, in frames milled from wood salvaged from the wreckage in Prattsville, could have been taken in any number of towns and hamlets touched by Tropical Storm Irene — from Catskill to Maplecrest, Lexington, Middleburgh and beyond.

He said he hoped the photographs would foster a more powerful connection among residents, tourists and the town as it revives.

Briggs said she found hope in her skeleton of a home, balanced above Main Street for all to see.

“I see hopefully that I will be safe, and that the house can stand a chance to be there for many, many more years,” she said.

“Our town’s full of hope,” Briggs went on. “We have a good town here.”

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