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Please God Stop the Rain

Pam Young and her son, Joey, on the land where her home once stood.  

Next door, large portions of her neighbor’s home were torn away by the same detritus that was hitting hers, exposing its insides as if it were a giant, decrepit dollhouse. Fifteen mobile homes from a nearby trailer park floated past, one of them on fire and spinning wildly in an eddy of muddy water. Every so often, the house would shake as another object struck it. Slam. Pam sensed that whatever was holding her home to the ground wouldn’t hold for long. The current was so loud, it sounded like Niagara Falls.

When the boys began to scream awful things like “I don’t want to die!,” Pam tried to distract them with song (“Rain, rain, go away”) and then prayer (“Please, God, stop the rain”). Even the dogs were quivering, and they stuck close to the boys when Pam went back inside the house to call her daughter’s boyfriend and—because she refused to break down in front of the children—to cry. It had been a terrible year already. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had only recently finished her final chemotherapy treatment. She was weak, physically and emotionally. When it dawned on her that she had some Valium in her purse, she took one.

Pam called 911 to ask when a boat was coming and was told that the first one had been dispatched. It never arrived. She later learned it had capsized, tossing its rescuers overboard. When she called back, she asked what she should use as a flotation device if she had to do the unthinkable and jump into the raging waters. The man replied that he would have someone call her back with an answer. No one ever did.

Before her phone finally died, well into the afternoon, Pam Young posted a message on Facebook: “Somebody please save us.”

Prattsville, which is roughly 140 miles north of New York City, exists on a thin finger of land boxed in by the Schoharie Creek to the south and Huntersfield Mountain to the north. Like many Catskill creeks, the Schoharie often floods, a reality the town is well accustomed to. But on August 28, 2011, Prattsville bore the brunt of a second channel of angry water—the Huntersfield Creek, a smaller tributary on the eastern edge of town that runs down the side of the mountain before emptying into the Schoharie.

In an area as jagged and wet as the Catskills, the rain doesn’t just come down and soak the ground, seeping into the soil until it reaches an aquifer deep in the earth. It pours onto the steep, rocky slopes of the mountains, filling streams that follow the land downhill until they empty into larger streams that empty into creeks that empty into reservoirs that provide water to places like Manhattan. During a hard rain, the typical mountain stream will swell from something you could cross on foot to a surging channel of white water. In extreme conditions, like those during Hurricane Irene, even the banks can’t hold the water as it chews away at the dirt, yanking down trees and sucking chunks of granite out of the mud.

Which is what happened to the Huntersfield last August. Of course, all of that slop and water should have poured into the Schoharie, as it had for eons before. But the creek had been pinched, its bank lined with boulders to guide the water into an already clogged pipe that became even more jammed once the trees and rocks came barreling downhill. Instead of emptying into the Schoharie, the Huntersfield Creek, running as heavy as it ever had, emptied into Prattsville, joining the larger creek’s overflow. And it didn’t stop until the rain did.

At about 8:30 a.m., before the Huntersfield Creek blew its banks, Brian Young (no relation to Pam) was assessing damage from the rising Schoharie waters. He opened the door to the basement of his parents’ house—just upstream of AJ Young & Son, the family’s home, garden, and feed business—and saw water pouring through a hole it had ripped in the foundation. Brian, 32, hadn’t thought for a moment that Irene posed any kind of threat, and even after the water started running down Main Street, he assumed everything would be fine. That is, until he opened the basement door.

Brian raced to the store and with the help of his younger brother, John, 28, scrambled to save what they could of the family business. The two began to move computers and generators to the second floor, where a stuffed black bear stared out at the clothing showroom. They were assessing plans to shore up the shop’s defenses when they realized that they hadn’t seen or heard from their parents since they’d left them in the barn to look after the horses.