By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON, Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — When the water started spilling over the embankment separating Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh’s Lakeside Apartments, Jackie Prairie had a bad feeling.
“I knew it was going to get worse,” she said.
Prairie had lived at the 460 Margaret St. complex for 20 years, and, like many other residents, she had seen the level of Lake Champlain rise and fall over the years.
But in spring 2011, with the runoff from melted snow and heavy rains gradually pushing the shoreline closer and closer to the Lakeside property, Prairie knew the water posed a real threat.
“I kept telling people, I said, ‘You’ve got to go ... this water is going to go right up to your back doors, and then you’re going to have water in your apartment.
“I used to say, ‘You’re not going to stop Lake Champlain. It’s going to wash everybody out of here.’”
But many of Prairie’s neighbors didn’t take her advice.
“They didn’t really see what was coming,” she said. “They knew the water was just high. That’s all they knew.”
And the water continued to rise.
When her small boat could float on land, Prairie said, “that’s when I knew I had to go.”
She packed up her second-floor apartment, loaded her belongings into a U-Haul truck and went to stay with friends, but others remained in their apartments until they were finally forced to evacuate.
“I wanted to stay,” said Evelyn Beshon, who lived at Lakeside for 10 years, “but it got so bad that the water was just rising, and then they closed (the building).”
By then, however, the damage had been done.
As several inches of water crept across the floors of the complex’s first-level apartments, people’s belongings became soaked and covered in mold, and electricity to the building was shut off.
“A lot of people lost everything they had,” said Reginald “Reggie” Defoe, who lived at Lakeside with Beshon.
A second-floor resident, Beshon was able to save most of her possessions; however, much of her food perished after the power was shut off.
Her father, then 83, lived on the first floor of the complex at the time of the flooding.
“He lost everything,” Beshon said.
Lakeside residents, many of whom were recipients of public assistance, were forced to take up temporary residence at the American Red Cross shelter set up at Crete Memorial Civic Center in Plattsburgh until they could figure out what to do next.
Many had pets, and the Red Cross accommodated them, too.
Beshon said area motels — which also tailor rents for those reliant on help from Social Services — became homes for many after the shelter closed. And some some of them still reside there.
She, on the other hand, bounced around to the houses of various family members until finally securing another apartment in Plattsburgh with Defoe.
“In a way, I think it’s better, and in a way I don’t,” Beshon said of her new abode.
At Lakeside, she paid $500 a month, which included rent, utilities and even cable television.
“One person can afford that and then have enough to make it the rest of the month,” Defoe said.
Now, the couple, who rely on their Social Security incomes to get by, pay $625 a month for just their rent.
“It’s hard now for, you know, a single person to find a place in this town that’s cheap enough to live,” Defoe said. “You can’t.
“If we’re not together, then forget it,” he said of himself and Beshon. “Neither one of us can afford an apartment.
“Us poor people, we’ve got to get people to combine together just to survive.”
MAYOR SAYS RAZE IT
For that reason, Beshon said, she hopes Lakeside, which suffered two fires and has remained shut down since the 2011 evacuation, reopens in the future.
“The rent was cheap there,” she said.
But City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak told the Press-Republican in an email the apartments need to come down.
“The property needs to be demolished and redeveloped, and the owner hopefully will bring a legitimate project to the city for Zoning and Planning Board review,” he said.
“It cannot remain as it is now, however, for much longer, as this is not fair to the residents and businesses of the North End.”
A rather notorious location, Lakeside was often the address on the scanner for police calls and had been cited for numerous building-code violations.
Owner Collin Niemi didn’t return turn calls this week from the Press-Republican.
LOVES THE LAKE
Prairie, who has also found a new apartment in the city, said she is comfortable in her new home but has fond memories of the two decades she spent at Lakeside.
“It was the scenery that I loved about it, with the lake,” she said. “I used to put my boat in the water and stay in the water all day long, every day.
“I do miss it. I really do because I miss being outside.”
— News Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.