Surviving Irene in Prattsville: Three families, three stories

Above: The ruined Victorian house owned by David Rikard that became an international symbol of the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene. Photo provided by Larry Gambon.

An internal resolve: That is what unites five people who endured the historic flooding that Tropical Storm Irene brought to the Greene County town of Prattsville in 2011.

Five summers have passed since David Rikard, Pam Young and her son Joey, and Tony Carr and his son Conner were all stranded by the 2011 storm, which devastated the Catskills region of New York and hit Prattsville particularly hard.

Across the Catskills, Irene destroyed Main Streets, caused millions of dollars in damage and killed three people.

In Prattsville, the Schoharie Creek rose seven feet in about an hour on Sunday morning, August 28, 2011. The creek crested at over 24 feet that day, and roared down Main Street with more force than Niagara Falls. Most of the town was destroyed.

The Youngs and a nephew spent hours on their roof in relentless rain as their house, on the west end of town near the Route 23 bridge, was partially uprooted by the raging floodwaters. The family clung to its roof as the house tipped terrifyingly toward the creek.

Simultaneously, less than a half-mile east in the heart of the drowning village, David Rikard refused to allow himself to imagine the worst when he was cut off from his daughter Anastasia, who was trapped in their house, literally a stone’s throw away.

Tony Carr and his 6-year-old son Conner, along with Conner’s 9-year-old sister Richell, were also trapped, right next door to Anastasia Rikard. They were not only imagining the worst, but awaiting it.

“This isn’t God. This is the devil”

Above: Pam Young and her son Joey have happily relocated away from the banks of the Schoharie Creek. Photo provided by Pam Young.

Pam and Joey Young live in Rotterdam now, in Schenectady County, far away from the creek that turned treacherous on August 28, 2011, undermining their home and leaving it leaning haphazardly to the left.

The structure is gone now, one of 20 or more residences and businesses torn down throughout the town of Prattsville since the flood.

Young did not rebuild, and probably won’t.

“I can’t say I never will, but definitely not as my primary residence,” she says. “I’ve just gotten to the point where I can drive by there without crying.”

Like everyone in Prattsville, Young was caught off guard by the flash flood rise and unprecedented power of the Schoharie Creek, which rose seven feet in an hour between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. that day. She was forced to flee to the second story of her family home. 

“That was my grandmother’s house since 1947 and I’d moved in there in the early 1990s. We’d had floods before but the water never came in the house. Ever,“ Young says.

“Once we realized this was something we’d never seen before, it was too late. I don’t scare easily, but when I saw water coming in the front door, I freaked. We went upstairs but then the house collapsed. All I could think was, ‘I’ve got to get these kids out on the roof.’ Who thinks that?”

Joey was nine years old at the time.

“I remember the house being sideways,” he says. “I saw the whole front porch rip off. I saw trailers [from the nearby trailer park] floating past [behind the house].”

“We were under blankets, and all I kept hoping was it would be over. I was just a little kid, but I remember thinking I didn’t know if this would be the end,” Joey says.

“My nephew was crying, saying, ‘I don’t want to die,’” Pam Young says. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to get these kids through this.’ I made them start singing, ‘rain rain, go away.”

“We were singing, and at the same time I was looking for things to jump on, just in case. I saw a trailer catch on fire at the trailer park,” she says.

“I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? This isn’t God. This is the devil, and if I don’t cross over now I’m never going to cross over,’” Pam Young says.

Joey is in the top 10 in his class scholastically and is playing football these days, doing well.

His mom says that she will never be the same, but that’s not a bad thing.

“I was offered a house with stream in back and I said, ‘No thanks,’ but otherwise I’m doing pretty good,” she says, laughing.

“I was young enough to start over financially,” she says. “It still hurts, but instead of being angry, I look at all the good that’s happened with Joey. He loves his football. I still get PTSD around the anniversary, but I try to help people as much as I can now. Negative energy is no good for anything.”

“I take a Buddhist outlook toward it”

Above: David Rikard has rebuilt his home and successful law practice in Prattsville, and is also serving as a town judge. Photo by Michael Ryan.

David Rikard is a lawyer and volunteer firefighter in Prattsville. His flood-ruined house became the international symbol of Irene’s destruction, appearing on television, in newspapers and online around the world.

When word that the creek was rising went out over the radio waves that morning five years ago, Rikard went to the firehouse, which is less than a three minute walk from his home, to join his fellow firefighters at headquarters.

It was the last time he saw his daughter Anastasia for several excruciating hours.

“I figured we’d be pumping out basements, as usual,” Rikard says.

Instead, within minutes, Rikard and the rest of the firefighters were stranded by the creek, which was over eight feet high on Main Street, gushing through the rural community with the force and fury and sound of Niagara Falls.

When he left home, Rikard suggested to his daughter that she leave the house.

“She said, ‘Big deal, it’s raining’ and decided to stay. She was 21. What could I do?” Rikard says.

While no one could have predicted what would happen, Rikard says that he knew something was unusual when, looking down the street through a firehouse window, he lost sight of his house chimney.

Moments later, he got a cell phone call from Anastasia.

“She said the house was moving,” Rikard says. “She said the people next door [Tony Carr and his children] were hanging out of their windows.”

Paternal thoughts pervaded Rikard’s mind, to no avail.

“I couldn’t have gotten to her if I tried,” he says.

Rikard had just watched two Greene County sheriff’s deputies attempt a boat rescue on Main Street. Their craft quickly capsized in the frothing waters, nearly killing both men.

There was nothing he could do.

Phone connections eventually went dead. Rikard says that before the disconnection, he told his daughter that if she had to jump, she should jump out the back where hopefully she could grab hold of a tree.

“It was an awful feeling of helplessness,” Rikard says. “Obviously, it was a thought in the back of my mind that . . . well, you know. But I wouldn’t let myself go there.”

Anastasia survived, as did everyone in Prattsville. She was rescued after the floodwaters receded, and told her story to the New York Times the next day. 

David Rikard has rebuilt, replacing his ruined Victorian house with a building that has a 12-foot high concrete foundation, up out of harm’s way.

“My family has been here for generations. We were part of the original woodchucks,” Rikard says with obvious pride. ("Woodchuck" is a Catskills term for "longtime local.")

“That’s partly why I came back. I also came back because of the generosity of the American people I experienced after the flood. It seemed like the patriotic thing to do.”

“I’m not all that convinced it won’t happen again, but I take a Buddhist outlook toward it,” Rikard says. “It is what it is.”

“My wife liked that table”

Above: Tony Carr with his son Conner at the simple folding kitchen table given to the family in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Michael Ryan.

There are new flood warning sirens in Prattsville today, but nothing was available to warn Tony Carr of the danger surrounding his house on that saturated Sunday morning five years ago.

“My son noticed it first,” he says. “We went school shopping the day before, so I was sleeping late. Conner woke me up and said he heard a car alarm. I told him to go back to bed, but he said there was a lot of water too.”

The car and its blaring alarm was belonged to the Carrs’ neighbor, Dave Rikard. Just like Anastasia Rikard next door, the Carrs quickly became trapped as the creek rose.

Carr is a self-described “Navy brat” who moved from base to base as a kid with his parents. Once, he slept through a hurricane. But he didn’t this time.

“There were propane tanks floating past the house like torpedoes, hissing,” Carr recalls. “I knew we had a problem when I got hit in the back with a dresser.”

The family had retreated upstairs, believing they were safe. Then the house shifted grotesquely, slamming them into a bedroom wall, causing muddy, debris-filled water to reach spots that made no sense.

Carr, finding strength he did not know he had, tore out a window frame, providing access to the roof for his family. He shouted across the watery abyss to Anastasia Rikard next door.

“We couldn’t understand each other because the water was so loud. I was calling 911 like crazy. I’ve never been so scared in my life, but I couldn’t let the kids pick up on that,” Carr says.

Conner and Richell, his sister, were too busy to notice, gathering a suitcase of clothes for their impossible escape and praying.

They had laughed earlier, seeing a mannequin from a downtown store whiz past in the floodwaters.

“I was little then, but I remember asking my dad if we were going to die,” Conner says. “He told me, ‘I’m your daddy and someday you’re going to get married and be a dad too.’”

“Actually, I think it was worse for my mom,” Conner says.

Colleen Carr was not home that morning, but she was with her family on the phone. She understood that they were in peril, and was joyous when they were eventually rescued by special teams that arrived in the community later that day.

The Carr house was one of the first in Prattsville to be ripped down, along with the Rikard residence, after the flood.

The family resettled elsewhere. They were given donated clothing and furniture, including a simple wooden folding table.

“My wife liked that table,” Carr says.

Some months after Irene, in the spring of 2012, Colleen suffered a brain aneurysm. Shortly afterward, she slipped into an induced coma and never regained consciousness. She died soon afterwards. 

“One day, she got a bad headache, and it sort of spiraled from there,” Tony Carr says. “That kind of put things about the flood and all that in a different light for the kids and me, you know what I mean?”

Today, the family lives directly opposite their former house.

“Looking across the street, I can’t say I don’t get nervous when it rains,” Tony Carr says. “I gotta admit I check out the streams.”

“I just got new bedroom furniture for the kids, so we’re doing okay that way. I want this to be a home for them, not like with me when I was their age. I moved here when I was 13. I love this town.”

“Once in a while,” Tony Carr says, “we have these moments, like with Richell, when we’re driving to the mall in Albany or something, when the radio is down and we just talk. Those talks are what mean the most.”