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A Conversation With: John Gratto

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By Claire Walla

Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto who, before coming to Sag Harbor, worked in the Windham-Ashland-Jewett School District in upstate New York. The area, including the school, was decimated by floodwaters in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and earlier this month, he went back to visit. Now, he’s hoping the Sag Harbor community can help the school there rebuild.

Having lived in Windham and been a vital part of the local community, what was it like seeing all the pictures of the aftermath of the storm?

I felt so sad. I almost cry when I see those pictures. In Prattsville, the entire main street is gone. A lot of people don’t have their livelihood anymore.

Was there still a lot of floodwater within buildings when you were there, or had it mostly dissipated by then?

Mostly you could just see watermarks on buildings. When I went into the movie theatre it was so stunning to me. I’m six feet tall and the watermark on the white screen was higher than I was.

It looks like the majority of the damage happened right in the center of town.

Well, [in a mountainous region] people tend to live in the valley near the river. And when that river floods it affects all those homes and businesses. My [former] guidance secretary: her home got washed away.

What was Windham like before the flood?

Windham was a beautiful town, much like Sag Harbor. As you’re driving in, there’s a sign on the side of the road that says, “The Gem of the Catskills.” And it really was…

It’s no longer the gem of the Catskills.

Did you visit the home where you used to live?

I did. I actually lived at a bed and breakfast not far from a trailer park that had 23 trailers in it. Now, there are no more trailers. Those 23 people are all homeless.

I asked [the three families now living at the bed and breakfast] if they needed any help with anything and they said they didn’t.

But, of course, I was there two weeks after the flood.

I’m trying to put the situation into terms I can try to imagine, like what would it look like if there was comparable flooding here on Main Street in Sag Harbor?

It is so difficult to imagine. In Windham, the school must be about 400 feet away from the river. So, the water was 20 feet above flood levels. You look at a river and you think, how can that river ever be so big? Think how high the water would have to be to leave mud in the windowsills. It was at least six to eight feet high.

With floodwaters destroying so many small businesses, I imagine many residents are now unemployed.

I would bet that about one-third of the people right near Route 23 are unemployed. Everyone related to the ski mountain is likely unemployed, too. I rode my bicycle to the mountain and there’s a big sign that says, “closed.” Many, many people in the town work there. After the school, the mountain is the biggest employer.

Were you able to visit the school at all?

There were signs outside the school that said “do not enter/hazardous area,” so I tried to stay away. But [of what he was able to see], the superintendent’s office didn’t exist anymore. It was just metal studs in the wall. They’ve been working feverishly to open the school and they’re hoping to open next week. [An update on the school’s website indicates the school will officially be opening September 26.]

With buildings washed away and classrooms completely flooded, there’s a lot the town needs to do to get back to normal. Do you know how the town aims to tackle this recovery effort?

When I was there, the school had a restoration company doing some of the cleanup. I noticed these trailers called “quick-response team,” which deal with flood and mold issues. With wet studs and wet walls, mold can quickly develop.

Do you think many of the kids will have left the school district because of all the damage?

No. There are two big differences between that school district and ours. It’s much more geographically sparse, and there aren’t any good private school choices in the area. Plus, the school is the center of the community. I don’t think people would want to leave the district, there’s a lot of affinity for that school.

So, did this event cause the community to band together?

Yes! There’s a picture that was taken of a woman on Main Street [in front of the town’s historical society/library] holding a pot of coffee. She went out there the first day and made coffee for the people who were working. The next day, a man came out with a gas grill and it all just grew from there. Lots of food was donated.

What does the school need in terms of supplies?

I talked to the superintendent this morning [Friday, September 16] and he said they’re most in need of money. The piano, percussion instruments, marching band uniforms: they all got flooded. Also, ski equipment. Skiing’s big up there, it’s part of their physical education. So, more than anything else, they need money to buy all that stuff.

We have some surplus supplies that we can donate to them, like library books. But the superintendent asked me to hold off on donating things until late October because they don’t have anyplace to store it yet … their storage building and their bus garage got washed away.

When you talked to him, did he sound optimistic?

Yes, he’s a very positive, get-it-done type of guy. He used to be in the military. But, at the same time, he acknowledges that they need plenty of help.

The Pierson High School National Honor Society is working to organize a fundraiser for the Windham/Ashland/Jewett School District. For anyone wishing to send money to the school, you can send checks directly to: Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School, Main Street, P.O. Box 429, Windham, N.Y. 12496.