Spring 2012

High-water mark

Students bring hearts and hands to crash course on flood


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JONATHAN COHEN
Tsultrim Tharchin says he didn't have much experience being a volunteer until he took the Community in Recovery class, which exposed him to new ways of thinking, new people and the realization that one man with a pressure washer and a shovel can accomplish a lot.

Curiosity got the best of junior Lucy Volland and her roommate on Sept. 8, the day the rain stopped. Campus was safe, but classes were canceled as the rising Susquehanna River continued to swallow homes and businesses. They decided to see for themselves just how bad it was.

They drove east, where city of Binghamton neighborhoods descend closer to the river. The muddy water had spilled its riverbanks, crossed four lanes of parkway and turned MacArthur Elementary School into an island. Its students had been sent home early the day before — the first day of school.

“I saw little kids outside, looking at their school, and it was completely flooded. I said to myself, ‘What can you possibly do when an entire school is ruined?’ The water was almost 5 feet high, and in an elementary school, everything important is under 5 feet.

“I couldn’t fathom what their next step would be,” she says.

In Binghamton and surrounding towns, people were asking the same question: What do we do next?

How bad was it?

The rain started on Tuesday, Sept. 6, and, by the time it ended on Thursday, Sept. 8, more than 9 inches had fallen, according to the National Weather Service.

Five years earlier, record flooding destroyed more than 800 homes when 7.14 inches of rain fell over four days in June 2006. Hardest hit was the middle-class community of Conklin, which borders Binghamton. Nearly everyone assumed that Broome County would never experience another flood like that.

Suddenly, they were proved wrong. In 2011, 39 square miles of the county were flooded, and bearing the brunt were the urban poor in downtown Binghamton. Many were transported to the University’s Events Center, which sheltered 1,800 people at the height of evacuations.

In 2006, people had the summer to clean up; in 2011, autumn was already on the horizon. But there was a silver lining this time: Community leaders knew exactly what to do. They didn’t just have a plan, they had experience. And they had something else they didn’t have in 2006: a campus full of Binghamton University students.

We can do more

Donald Loewen, vice provost for undergraduate education and associate professor of Russian, was at the Events Center-turned-shelter the night it opened, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for evacuees. Forty-eight hours later, he was making plans.

While students were filling volunteer shifts at the shelter, Loewen realized the University was in an unprecedented position to do more.

Here was an opportunity to use Binghamton’s academic research in a real-time, real-world way to help a community blindsided by disaster. Who better to help, Loewen thought, than faculty who were experts in the critical issues: psychological trauma, nonprofits’ roles in disaster relief, crisis leadership and the geological impacts of flooding?

“It seemed if we could bring together the spirit of the student volunteers with the expertise of the faculty and help to focus those in ways that could engage the community in time of desperate need, it would approach the heart of what is best about Binghamton University,” he says.

Two weeks later, Loewen and Allison Alden ’80, MAT ’81, EdD ’02, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, announced a 2-credit course called Community in Recovery. Each Wednesday, for six weeks, a faculty member and a community leader with similar expertise would present academic and practical perspectives on flood-related topics. For example, Steven Lynn, distinguished professor of psychology, opened week 1 with a discussion of trauma and coping, and Keith Leahey, executive director of the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier, described his agency’s flood-related crisis counseling program.

Although 18 faculty and community members agreed to participate, Alden and Loewen admit they didn’t have high expectations for registration, given that the class was starting six weeks into the semester. Alden remembers saying, “Even if we get a handful, isn’t that worth it?” The first day of registration, all 40 slots were filled. More were added and filled in an hour. And community members were invited to sit in for free.

‘‘Cold, wet and disgusting’’

Volland was already volunteering with MacArthur School students when she registered. Her mission has been to give the students some of what the flood took away: stability, continuity and a sense of belonging. She helped set up classrooms in shuttered Catholic schools and spent time with students each week.

“Just thinking about my kindergarten experience, I had such confidence and loved school,” she says. “I can’t imagine these little kids, their first day of school was completely ruined. They have a week off, and then they go to these previously abandoned schools. It breaks my heart. This could affect their entire education.”

Some people came to the course out of a sense of duty, some out of curiosity.

Sophomore Tsultrim Tharchin says that during the flood, “I didn’t realize outside the campus such havoc was going on.” But when the course came along, “I just had to do it,” he says.

Margaret Salisbury of Endwell was among the handful of community members in attendance. Her home wasn’t flooded, and at first she “hid away” to avoid seeing other people’s tragedies. “But to empathize with people you should be aware of your surroundings,” she says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to come and learn.”

It’s unknown how many thousands of hours Binghamton students spent volunteering — many through athletic teams, residence halls and student organizations. The 45 Community in Recovery students alone provided more than 1,350 hours.

Every weekend, students were dispatched to shovel muck; to tear out waterlogged walls, flooring and insulation; to power-wash mold and mud.

“It was intense, hard labor,” freshman Shanee Peleg says. “I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t realize I’d go hands-on; I thought I’d organize something. It definitely changed my perspective, and I’m happy about that. I would have been like one of those ungrateful college kids who doesn’t know what’s going on 2 miles from my door.”

“I sent some of them into a mess, and they did fantastic. It was cold, wet and disgusting,” says Greg Jenkins, co-chair of Broome County Community Organizations Active in Disaster, coordinator of Conklin Presbyterian Flood Relief and a speaker for the course.

Making connections

Each week, students looked at the flood through a different lens. They learned that post-traumatic stress disorder is relatively rare … that dredging the river to make it deeper may cause more problems than it solves … that when raw sewage backs up in basements, you’d better have a good working relationship with the guy who owns the pumper trucks.

David Campbell, associate professor of public administration, was discussing the role of nonprofits in disaster relief when he asked students: “If you aren’t from here, what makes you feel you have to help?”

“I thought a lot about that,” says sophomore Joe Garrant, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer. The question was answered the day he and two other students went to muck out the basement of an elderly couple, who invited them to stay for lunch. “We sat on their back porch and just talked for an hour. She wrote down her number for all of us. That was the first time for me to get out in the community besides downtown.

“It wasn’t the flood that created the connection,” he says, “it was after the fact. The community kind of connected to me.”

“No doubt attitudes have been changed,” Jenkins says. “We don’t need animosity. The more walls we break down, the better. Students have said they have a bond to Binghamton now. And community members who might have had an ‘us vs. them’ attitude are realizing this army of students does not fit the stereotype they have in mind.”

Peleg agrees. “I don’t blame them sometimes for not liking college kids. We swarm their town, we seem ungrateful and just go party. But there are thousands of kids … we live here and, if we have time on our hands, we should help.”

Credibility and compassion

Alden and Loewen say the course was a success by many measures, but two are likely to have lasting impact.

“It put the Center for Civic Engagement on the map,” Alden says. The center, established in 2010, is a conduit for educational and service opportunities between the University and the community. Its website, http://www.binghamton.edu/cce was t,he go-to source for flood volunteers.

“As people heard about the course and saw real engagement — that this wasn’t just a press conference with a sound bite — I think it helped us earn real credibility,” Alden says.

For Loewen, it’s more personal.

“It doesn’t matter why you go out and shovel mud in a house; what matters is when you see what the impact is on human beings and you start to think, ‘what if this was my house?’

“Just getting people to confront their own privilege, their own levels of comfort and to recognize that that could all disappear — it helps people to think about big questions, and I think everybody, to some extent, had to grapple with that.”