TOWN OF HIGHLANDS — While heavy rain was expected in the Hudson Valley on the afternoon of July 9, no one foresaw a storm that would drop more than 8 inches of rain over several hours and change residents’ lives forever.
But that’s what happened in the Orange County Town of Highlands, home to the Village of Highland Falls, hamlet of Fort Montgomery and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Primarily built on a hill, the town faced dangerous flash flooding that had homes rapidly taking on water, saw roads and bridges crumbling and took the life of a Fort Montgomery woman.
The aftermath has been devastating. Many CSEA members helped lead the quick response to the storm, which has helped this close-knit community move toward recovery.
Putting training into action
When the storms hit, our union members kicked into action.
At the Orange County 911 Center in Goshen, CSEA members fielded emergency calls and dispatched first responders, including swift water rescue teams, to areas in need.
Complicating the response was limited road access caused by several main roadways washing out, including the Popolopen Bridge, a main access point to Fort Montgomery.
While heavy rains hit many Hudson Valley communities, it quickly became clear that the impact here was extreme.
Local media interviewed CSEA Town of Ramapo Unit member Evan Humphrey, who responded in his role as training officer for the Stony Point Ambulance Corps.
Humphrey was part of an emergency medical services crew that risked their lives to rescue more than a dozen stranded hikers, including a perilous rescue of a father-son duo who fell nearly 100 feet in nearby Bear Mountain State Park.
CSEA members working in emergency management coordinated services and helped first responders access the town, despite multiple road closures and limited access.
CSEA members employed by local highway departments, including Stony Point, Cornwall and Cornwall-on-Hudson, worked to ensure storm drains were clear and dealt with initial recovery as the rain finally subsided. Those communities weren’t hit as hard as the Town of Highlands, but still sustained serious damage.
New York State Department of Transportation workers also responded to flooding, and several state roads sustained catastrophic damage.
In the Town of Highlands, numerous residents were forced from their homes and into shelters.
People donated bottled water to residents to help offset a boil water notice that lasted several weeks for some areas.
State Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services and New York Department of State representatives conducted hundreds of damage assessments at homes and buildings throughout the community.
CSEA members employed at Orange County Emergency Management coordinated the tremendous nonprofit flood response outreach from across the country.
Volunteers trained in flood response, including some from nonprofit organizations, spent weeks cleaning out residents’ homes of belongings ruined by water and ripping out mold-infested drywall and other materials.
CSEA-represented sanitation workers from many area municipalities headed to the Town of Highlands to assist with the vast bulk pickup from these demolitions.
While local government workers helped repair affected local roads, state DOT workers began repairing state roadways to help increase access. Other state roads remain closed, including Route 218, which was so badly damaged by rain that the road collapsed, and a huge chunk remains missing.
CSEA members working for the Orange County Department of Social Services and Department of Health are also helping residents. While Social Services workers are helping displaced families find temporary housing, Health workers are helping ensure water safety, including conducting water testing for several weeks after E. coli was found during private well water testing.
Helping the community
“I am grateful to all of the CSEA members who have answered the call to help,” said Southern Region President Anthony M. Adamo. “When the rain first hit, so many CSEA members were responding because they volunteer with our local fire departments and EMS. Since then, they’ve been repairing roadways, ensuring people have safe housing and clean drinking water, and trying to help restore a semblance of normalcy for people who’ve had their lives upended. The way in which people have rallied around the greater Town of Highlands community and neighboring areas has been nothing short of amazing.”
Orange County Unit President Denise Fuchs said the expertise of CSEA members working for the county has been on full display.
“Members have been working around the clock to ensure that the residents of the Town of Highlands and neighboring communities receive every possible resource,” said Fuchs. “Many of these workers spend their careers training for disasters, but never imagined they’d encounter one like this right within the county. They’ve been a huge part of helping take those first steps toward healing.”
— Jessica Ladlee
A personal experience
Editor’s Note: CSEA Communications Specialist Jessica Ladlee, a Highland Falls native, shares her personal and heartbreaking story about the July 9 flooding. Here is her account, in her own words:
We’ve all seen scenes of catastrophic flooding on the nightly news but don’t often see it here, so a forecast for rain didn’t seem out of the ordinary on a summer day.
As my family was driving south to Rockland County via Route 9W the afternoon of July 9, we encountered the roadway quickly rising with water while passing through my hometown of Highland Falls.
I’m grateful that my husband’s first responder experience kicked in and he and other drivers strategized, moving vehicles to allow for drivers to begin making U-turns away from the flooded roadway.
In the time my kids and I were waiting, the water was quickly rising. We turned around and were able to make it home before Route 9W was shut down.
I hoped that was the worst of the storm. It wasn’t even close.
My phone rang later that evening. I received the heartbreaking news that a childhood friend, Pamela Nugent, died after being swept up in the floods in Fort Montgomery. She was only 43, was engaged to be married and had so much to look forward to.
Pam was one of the smartest people I’ve known and was incredibly knowledgeable on environmental issues. The fact that our changing weather patterns, regardless of one’s opinion on their cause, contributed to her passing still leaves me at a loss for words and makes my heart hurt for her family and fiancé.
While media coverage of such a tragedy can seem invasive, I’m grateful that numerous outlets ran feature stories showing the compassionate and accomplished person Pam was. Her eagerness to continually learn new things and embark on new adventures resulted in her making friends wherever she went.
I pray for peace and comfort for them and healing for the community where I was fortunate to grow up. Thank you to everyone who, whether in professional or volunteer capacities, has been there to help.