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Third place winner Michaela Johnson Schoharie Central High School

Home is Where the Love Is

Tears were flowing, my heart was racing. The rain was falling faster and harder than I’d ever seen before in my sixteen years of living here. I remember everything like it was yesterday: the squeal of the sirens echoing throughout the picturesque valley; the thump of rain pounding on the metal roof of our home; the fear that had overtaken my entire body and seemed to increase with each tiny rain drop that fell from the darkening sky; I remember it all. As water gushed into our basement, we tried to salvage what we could before we were ordered to evacuate. We headed to the hills, towards safety. August 28, 2011 is a day that changed my life forever, when Hurricane Irene hit my hometown of Schoharie, New York.

As we evacuated our beloved house that was built so close to the furiously flowing creek, I looked back, not knowing what to expect. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever open my closet door again and pick out my outfit for school, or grab the milk out of the fridge and pour myself a glass to enjoy with some cookies.

Once we reached safety upon the hill, we had no power, no flushing toilets or running showers, no television to watch the news on and try to see when this horrible storm was going to end. We passed time by playing board games late into the night, using lanterns for light, and talking. We never seemed to talk about what was happening outside. I think we were all too afraid to think of the future and the what-ifs. Buckets of rain continued falling; the winds continued howling; my heart continued racing; and inside, the tears continued flowing.

Two days later, we loaded into cars and headed toward the village to see what the storm had done. As we approached Main Street, I could see everything was wet and covered with a thick, sticky mud. Sheds had been uprooted and plopped in parking lots. The bank windows had shattered, a canoe sat on the front lawn, and panic alarms were still squealing. The air was filled with the odor of fuel oil and flood mud, something with which we’d all become familiar soon enough. Trucks from the National Guard lined the streets, and National Guardsmen buzzed about, ready to help. But we weren’t allowed any further than the end of the street, leaving me to feel completely helpless.

When I was finally allowed in the village, I worked many long days to help rebuild my hometown. I cried with strangers as I cut soaked sheetrock from the walls of flooded homes; I helped one of my best friends pack away what had remained dry in his room as he sat there helplessly; I helped his weeping mother look through picture albums and boxes filled with memories, unable to take inventory of what had survived and what was destined to the side of the road.

G.H. “Babe” Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” Schoharie could have let this flood be the last straw, the third strike. And even though we were scared, we haven’t allowed our fears to keep us from rebuilding. We’re not hitting homeruns; we’re hitting nails into the framework of new houses, and we’re on our way to a victory.

Irene had threatened my two favorite traits of this little, rural community: our love for each other, and its beauty. I’ve never lived anywhere else, so, with some bias, I consider the valley to be one of the most beautiful and loving places on earth. I think the flood made a lot of people realize just how blessed they are to live in such a strong, loving, beautiful community. Irene’s fury ignited fires within me, fires that are still burning over eighteen months later, and despite the losses, I am thankful for that. I have been inspired to help others in every opportunity that arises, and I have learned one of my biggest life lessons: home is where the love is. And I’m blessed enough to have one of the strongest, most loving, and most beautiful places to call home.