Across the waist-deep lake that used to be the store parking lot, surging water had trapped Jim and Peggy Young, 56 and 52, respectively, inside the red barn where they kept the soil and feed. They had been coaxing their horses up onto a platform as the waters, flowing at a rate that was impossible to comprehend, pinned the barn doors closed. Jim and Peggy climbed up onto the landing and screamed for help.
Brian, wielding a large piece of debris, smashed a window and pulled his parents out. John threw Peggy over his shoulder and made his way—struggling with each step against the current—back to the store, while Brian helped his father. Once across, the four of them, plus their three dogs, bunkered down on the second story of the shop. They sat, panting in relief. At least we are all together, they thought.
Then the building gave way.
A large object, possibly a house plucked off its plot just upstream, barreled into the side of the Youngs’ store, knocking the 100-plus-year-old building off its foundation. The store jerked and moved six feet, no longer tethered to its concrete base. By this point, the Young parents had entered a zombie state, paralyzed with fear. John and Brian exchanged a look. They didn’t need to speak. If the family was going to survive, it was on them to make it happen.
Each son took a parent and went onto a side deck, away from the most violent current. Brian fired off a text to his then-fiancée to tell her the family was trapped, and to “pray for us.” John tied himself to a garden hose and stumbled into the water in an attempt to reach the firehouse a hundred yards away. Within a few steps, he was knocked off his feet. When he resurfaced, he screamed to his brother to pull him back. And Brian did—pulling the hose as hard as he’d ever pulled anything. Brian had nearly drowned in Brazil five years earlier. He couldn’t help but think of that day now.
Worried that the deck wasn’t safe enough, the brothers scanned the surroundings and saw only one possible refuge—they could climb to the top of a small pavilion where they stored lawn mowers. It was set on pillars anchored into concrete. And that’s where the Youngs made their stand, soaked and shivering on the steep metal roof as Prattsville collapsed around them.
The rain fell so hard that it was difficult to see, but the worst part, Brian thought, was the look of death in his parents’ eyes. They were pale as ghosts and clutched together as if each were the only thing keeping the other safe. To this day, Brian can’t forget the image. They looked like the couple from the movie Titanic—terrified and certain this would be their end.
Focus on the dogs, he told his parents. Hold them.
Betty O’Hara lives in the oldest house in Prattsville. She’s 83 and has spent more than 60 years of her life in a former inn that was built around 1785 to house tired settlers moving through the mountains. The O’Hara House, as it’s now known, was standing a half-century before Colonel Zadock Pratt founded Prattsville in 1833 and made it one of America’s first planned communities.
Pratt served two terms as a U.S. congressman, during which time he created the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, supported the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, and helped found the Smithsonian. Nearly every building on Main Street today dates back to Pratt’s time, and his former home now contains the Zadock Pratt Museum, of which Betty O’Hara is the president.
Betty and her late husband, Tom, raised four kids there while running the town’s most iconic business, O’Hara’s service station—directly across Main Street—for 47 years. When Tom retired, he passed the station on to his son Michael, who passed it on to his sons, Kipp and Kory; Kory is also the town supervisor.
Betty expected to ride out this flood the same way she had the eighteen others that had come before it: by sitting in her living room watching the rain. The few times the Schoharie had breached its banks, it flooded the service station and ruined some inventory. A mere nuisance, Betty always thought.
In fact, Betty had no plans to leave her house, even when the water threatened the hem on her dress. If her grandsons hadn’t insisted she evacuate, if Kipp hadn’t said that he’d never seen water like this, she would have been content to sit tight and safeguard her life’s possessions. Kipp helped her out the door and into his pickup truck, and plowed across fields to the fire station, where Betty and a dozen others crammed into the first and only ambulance to make it out of town before the roads were totally impassable. By the time they reached the Hideaway Hotel, two miles up the hill from town, even the firemen were helpless, trapped on the second floor of the station.