Students mobilize to help Owego flood victims

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Joe Schwartz

The biggest concern for Kaitlin Hardy '12 Sept. 24 was finishing a paper on time. One day later, she had a different perspective on what a real problem is.

She was one of 23 Cornell students who spent their Sunday helping residents of Owego, N.Y., who are still reeling from the destruction left by Tropical Storm Lee in early September. Heavy rainfall caused the Susquehanna River and nearby creeks to overflow their banks, and floods damaged or destroying 1,200 of the area's 1,400 homes. There could be $100 million in damage to public and private property across the county, the Elmira Star Gazette reported Sept. 17.

"It was devastating," said Hardy. "The entire town is shut down, all of the stores along the main drag were closed and without electricity, the streets are lined with debris, and people are struggling to gut their homes. ... People lost their possessions, homes and livelihood. Many people living in Owego are not planning on coming back.

"I feel like a lot of us spend most of our time living in a 'Cornell bubble,'" she added. "Owego is only about half an hour away, and most of us here go about our day without even realizing how desperate of a situation this entire town is in."

Hardy and other volunteers helped an older gentleman clear wood out of his backyard and gut his home, she said. The first floor of nearly all houses were under water and now have black mold.

"We had to remove drywall, insulation, carpeting and most of the framing," she said. "This man was so upbeat and positive despite his entire home being ruined. He had lost almost all of his possessions. The insulation that we removed from the ceiling was still soaked through."

The students helped with a variety of tasks, from getting a homeless shelter ready to open to organizing clothing and cleaning supplies at a temporary central distribution center. Students in the Department of City and Regional Planning are coordinating survey mapping systems to obtain information about residents' most pressing needs, which will help organizers place volunteers more efficiently.

Joyce Muchan, assistant director of student programs at Cornell's Public Service Center, will continue to help coordinate with Owego officials and individual volunteers and Cornell student groups to make the best use of the young people's energy and abilities. The Cornell organizations range from the Cornell Public Service Center to the women's gymnastics team, Black Students United and the Interfraternity Council.

"Everyone at Cornell is busy, and I'm not trying to take away from that or say that school isn't stressful, or even that students here aren't dealing with a lot of heavy issues on a daily basis," Hardy said. "But I do wish people could see the devastation taking place just 30 minutes from school."

There's still plenty of work to do, Muchan said. "It's an aged community, and many people don't have the capability to move large debris," she said. And their houses will need plumbing, electrical work and painting to make them habitable. "Winter is close," she pointed out.

To volunteer, contact the Public Service Center at 607-255-8851.


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