PERRYSBURG - When a member of Congress offers a fistbump, it is customary not to leave him or her hanging; especially if said fistbump has been initiated for celebratory reasons.
Gowanda Central School students who were in Mrs. Samarra's second-grade class last year were well aware of this stipulation Thursday as they collided fists with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who thanked the children for letters they had written asking him to help save Tri-County Memorial Hospital.
"As you get older, you're going to know people whose lives you saved because of what you did," Schumer said to the students.
After more than a year marked with periods of anticipation and uncertainty, Schumer joined
state, local and health care officials at a field slated for the re-construction of Tri-County Memorial Hospital. After the original facility was condemned following the August 2009 floods, obtaining funding and a better location for rebuilding was a struggle, but now both pieces appear to be in place.
The 42-acre field lies at the intersection of Route 39, Jolls Road and Stafford Road in the town of Perrysburg, at the top of two hills that lead down into the village of Gowanda. Flooding should be much less of a concern at the new location, which was donated by a former resident who now lives in Florida.
OBSERVER Photo by Tim Latshaw
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer talks Thursday with third-grade students from Gowanda Elementary School before a press conference declaring the future site of Tri-County Memorial Hospital. Last school year, in Mrs. Samarra’s second-grade class, the students wrote letters asking the senator to help save the hospital.
"This land we now stand on has been made available through the extraordinary generosity of Bertha Hiller and her family in what I call an inspired act of kindness," said Jonathan Lawrence, president and CEO of Lake Erie Regional Health System (LERHS). "This is an act of selflessness that will endure as a lasting contribution to the people throughout this region."
Federal funding to rebuild the hospital was initially stonewalled by FEMA, saying the project did not meet a certain damage threshold or criteria for relocation.
"They were saying they wouldn't provide the necessary money if the hospital were built in a different location," Schumer said. "It was sort of a catch-22: They said you couldn't build the hospital where the flood occurred because another flood might occur, and that made sense, but they weren't going to fund it if you moved it away from an area that was susceptible to flood. It was typical Washington catch-22 bureaucratese and we were all very frustrated because what they were saying made no sense."
Schumer said he received petitions containing more than 3,000 signatures from Gowanda and surrounding residents requesting help for the hospital, but the handwritten letters from Mrs. Samarra's class especially stood out. The students' pleas accompanied the senator to a meeting with FEMA Director Craig Fugate, whom Schumer called a "decent man."
"I brought him into my office," Schumer said. "I talked to him about the need for the hospital; I talked to him about the catch-22 that the bureaucrats and FEMA were putting in and then, as the final, final push, I showed him the letters of the kids. I told him that someone down the food chain at FEMA was making a foolish decision that would both cost the taxpayers money and put life at risk. He saw the twisted logic and he said to me, 'Senator, I am going to try to straighten this out.'"
Fugate was true to his word and FEMA eventually agreed to supply around $14 million, or 75 percent, of the estimated $18.5 million project cost. Lawrence said LERHS would likely have to raise an additional $1.5 million to $2 million on its own, but would engage in any number of fundraising events to do so. Schumer, however, was repeatedly thanked for his intervention leading to the majority of costs already being covered.
"It is Sen. Schumer's efforts that give purpose to the Hiller family's donation and which will enable us to realize the addition of a new Tri-County Memorial Hospital," Lawrence said.
State Sen. Catharine Young and Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, who added their representative influences toward post-flood support, spoke highly not only of Schumer's efforts, but those of the communities who struggled to recover and support each other through the disaster.
"This really is an American story," Young said. "Our country was built on the fact that we always can overcome hardship, and that's what this community has done. It's had the tenacity to take extreme challenges and turn them into opportunities; and today is such a fantastic opportunity."
Giglio, a Gowanda native, called the acquisition of the site a silver lining following a cloudy time.
"You have to wonder about prosperity and you have to wonder about providence," Giglio said. "Who would have thought that somebody who moved away from our community and still owned property would have the kind heart to donate it to us and allow us to rebuild our hospital? Isn't that incredible?"
According to Lawrence, LERHS currently plans to construct an approximately 40,000 square foot facility and he hoped to see it complete in 18-24 months. The organization must first close on a line of credit and accept requests for proposal from design firms through a FEMA-approved process.
Once the money is spent, FEMA should then compensate the organization. Hazardous materials remediation, demolition and land restoration of the previous Tri-County Memorial Hospital site in Gowanda is included in the project costs.