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December 2011

After the Storm

On August 28, 2011, Irene tore up the East Coast and ripped into the Adirondacks, changing lives and landscapes

Keene Valley after Irene flooding. Photograph by Carl Heilman II

I set out in my pickup truck just before dawn, the morning after Tropical Storm Irene careened through the eastern Adirondacks. I had been wrestling with her wind and rain in the long night as the gale pushed water through a wall of my house in Westport, caving in a ceiling and swamping the dining room. I drove wearily through the mountains, passing so many storm-wracked trees that the highway looked like a logging road.

None of that prepared me for what I found in Keene. The Ausable River and two smaller brooks, usually docile this time of year, had erupted with astonishing force, jumping their banks. “You could hear the rocks tumbling down before the river got here,” said Brian Marshall, who scrambled out of the way as his own backyard and a neighbor’s foundation were sucked away. “It sounded like an earthquake or big trucks going by, and then a wall of water came down.”

Fiona Burns, co-owner of the ADK Cafe, was standing on her porch across the street, looking at dunes of silt strewn along Route 73. A road grader was already working nearby, filling the air with the blue smell of diesel. “This was all a river,” she said. “Refrigerators were floating down and propane tanks exploded. It was surreal.”

In those first hours the scale of the damage was hard to grasp. Long stretches of highway from the Northway to Keene Valley had been shredded. One side of Keene’s firehall was gobbled up. A short distance away, a double-wide trailer lay on its side, like a discarded shoe box. All along the Ausable Valley, as far away as Keeseville, houses, trailers and RVs were simply gone, sent downstream or tumbled into Lake Champlain.

If the storm was profligate, it was also intimate, stealing into people’s lives. That first morning, Jim and Angela Murphy were walking along the highway, looking dazed. Jim was still wearing his Keene Valley volunteer fireman’s gear and said he had been out through the night helping with rescue efforts. But it turned out their own home was in ruins. “Ours was down there where the river is now,” Angela said, gesturing over her shoulder.

Miraculously, there were no deaths or serious injuries in the Adirondacks (Irene killed at least seven people across New York State), but there were harrowing close calls. Lesley Trevor, who owns a farm on River Road outside Lake Placid, evacuated her horses at dusk Sunday evening through waist-high floodwater with the help of the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department. “The water was freezing and I could barely keep upright. I was hanging onto the mane of my horse and nearly fell,” she said. A quarter-mile away, a three-story-high log jam groaned against the Route 73 bridge.

In the days that followed I navigated a tenuous network of back roads, detours and fractured highways that linked a dozen remote Adirondack towns. Again and again, I heard the refrain that Irene was different. Old hands who have weathered decades of North Country ice storms, floods and Nor’easters witnessed water surging with remarkable power into places once considered safe. Some neighborhoods were completely cut off, with no road access, no electricity and no phone service.

“We’ve got county bridges and roads beyond repair,” said Randy Douglas, town supervisor in Jay and head of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, who quickly emerged as a kind of field marshal for the regional clean-up effort. “The Jersey section [in Au Sable Forks] is total devastation. I wouldn’t dare put a price on rebuilding,” he said. County officials estimate that more than 100 homes were destroyed, with an equal number severely damaged.

The engine driving all that destruction was a tenacious downpour. Between six and 10 inches of rain fell during a 24-hour period, much of it channeled into steep valleys of the High Peaks. With the ground already saturated, the torrent catapulted into streams and rivers, swelling them with dangerous speed. The United States Geological Survey gauge at Au Sable Forks showed a surge of water nearly a third more powerful than any previously recorded. “I been here for about 80 years and I seen water on Sunday where I never seen it before,” said Bill Washburn, of Keene. “About four feet of water came across the road at my house. I got mud everywhere. It got so high it drowned my car in the garage.”

This, too, was a story told over and over. Cars were dragged downstream or pounded by drifts of debris. Homes and businesses were awash in sludge and silt. “Three feet of water went through the whole place,” said David McDonough, co-owner of McDonough’s Valley Hardware, in Keene Valley, who lost more than $50,000 in merchandise in a handful of hours. “There was about two feet of sludge mixed with inventory when I came in Monday morning. It was just—whoa!”

The Ausable Valley was particularly hard hit, but Irene also triggered se­vere flooding along the Boquet River and in steep creek valleys around Lake George. “They estimate as many as a hundred boats sank in Lake George, so there’s probably a certain amount of fuel leakage and things like that,” said Lawrence Eichler, of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, in Bolton Landing.

Environmental impacts of the storm were enormous, with many towns issuing boil-water orders or forced to shut down their water supplies entirely. Hundreds of basements were flooded with sewage, chemicals and oil. “We’ve responded to a record number of spills,” said Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner Joe Martens, as state officials urged residents and first responders to sign up for free tetanus shots because of the risk of infection.

Irene was unprecedented in her power, and the response was also on a scale unlike anything the Adirondacks has seen, kicking into gear even before the storm began to subside. “Getting people out of these low spots was challenging, especially after it got pretty dark,” said lieutenant forest ranger Brian Dubay, whose crews joined evacuation efforts. “The water came up so fast.”

On Tuesday, two days after the storm, Governor Andrew Cuomo arrived by helicopter for the first of several visits over the next few weeks. Walking through the backyards and mud-strewn streets in Keene, he promised that the Adirondacks would receive the aid necessary to rebuild.

Later that afternoon, I stood on a bridge in Upper Jay with fire chief Jeffrey Straight, watching as the first National Guard unit rolled in, their Humvees pulling wagons crammed with emergency supplies and clean-up equipment. “We’ve got outside agencies coming now,” Straight said, sounding relieved. “Fire crews from Franklin County are coming in to help us pump basements. The guard is going to help clear roads.”

In those first days, it seemed that backhoes, bulldozers and chain saws growled and rattled everywhere, as neighbors worked side-by-side with Department of Transportation and town highway crews, clearing debris, piling garbage, filling in endless gullies and ravines. People drew comfort from the outpouring of support. At McDonough’s Valley Hardware, more than 100 people turned up to scrub floors and shelves. “They tell us they love us,” said Paula McDonough, beaming at the progress already made. “They say we need to be open so that other people can be helped.”

The number of volunteers swelled day by day—an incredible showing from churches, nonprofits and individuals. The Red Cross opened a shelter in Au Sable Forks and dispatched aid crews to the park. Recovery funds and benefit concerts were organized to offer financial aid to families left homeless or needing basic necessities. A firewood drive was held in Upper Jay to help people whose winter woodpiles had washed away.

If private citizens and charities shaped the heroic spirit of the response, local, state and federal first responders provided much of the muscle and backbone. As I trudged through Keene, a FEMA official ran across the street and handed me a flyer announcing that federal disaster relief offices were opening in Au Sable Forks and Moriah. A few doors away, a family posted a sign that read, “Thank you, New York.”

“Sometimes when you’re way up here in the North Country, you think you’re being forgotten. But we are not forgotten,” said State Senator Betty Little, as she helped organize a pile of donated clothing in the Keene town hall.

But even as the clean-up rolled ahead, the list of Adirondack landmarks lost grew with every mile I traveled. The town of Jay’s new $4 million recreation area had washed away, along with the remains of Arto Monaco’s Land of Makebelieve amusement park, which operated from the 1950s through the late ’70s. “All of Arto’s buildings that have survived flooding for years and years and years are just gone,” lamented Upper Jay fire chief Straight.

“We’ve had a lot of tears,” said Marie-Ann Azar Ward, president of the Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay, which was swamped by the storm. In the days after the water receded, volunteers built a heartbreaking mound of soiled and moldering books on the front lawn.

Farms and businesses, pushed to the limit by the national recession, were left teetering. “It’s a huge loss,” said Rob Hastings, owner of Rivermede Farm, in Keene Valley, as he surveyed wrecked greenhouses and cherished fields now buried under mounds of trash. Harvest-ready crops, equipment, fencing and tubing for his maple-syrup operation were destroyed, and the place had already been laid to waste by spring floods. “It won’t make me quit farming, but it hasn’t been a fun year. This is my sole income. This is huge. We’re still trying to digest what is happening and what is going to happen.”

Irene also left her mark on some of the park’s most beautiful backcountry. For weeks after the storm many of the most popular trails in the High Peaks and Dix Wilderness Areas were closed, and it remains unclear how long it will take for famous trout streams to recover. “The rivers have taken a terrific beating,” said DEC commissioner Martens. “Many of them have been realigned.”

Privately owned attractions were also hit hard. The Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adirondak Loj, near Lake Placid, was cut off for days after a section of road to the popular wilderness hostel collapsed. High Falls Gorge in Wilmington was sideswiped by the flood, with so much of the riverbank eaten away that the main structure was at risk of collapsing into the water. Though most businesses plan to rebuild, this will be challenging. The vast majority of families and businesses in the park don’t have flood insurance. Federal officials have promised emergency aid—in the form of grants and low-interest loans—and New York State earmarked $15 million in immediate aid for farmers who lost crops. But local leaders, business owners and residents say the long-term recovery will be complicated by the fact that so many Adirondack communities were already reeling from devastating floods just last spring.

It seems certain that this storm will leave towns permanently changed, as painful decisions are made about how and where to rebuild. “It’s overwhelming; we need help with everything,” said Michael Bowen, a homeowner in Au Sable Forks, who said he hoped to move after seeing mud and water swirling through his house. “It was scary, obviously. We don’t have any furniture. We don’t have anything left.”

“Some people have had enough,” acknowledged Jay supervisor Randy Douglas, exhausted after days of wrestling with Irene’s aftermath. He pointed out that Essex County already faced a $7 million deficit and may now have to borrow money to pay for vital infrastructure repairs. “Homeowners are asking me already about the federal flood buyout program. But these are people that for generations and generations have lived here and raised their families. So it’s sad. If they’re forced to leave, the community loses its identity.”

But for most people who manage to hang on, I can’t help but think that Irene will form a new part of the Adirondack Park’s identity. A storm like this—as historic as the blowdown of 1950 or the ice storm of 1998—leaves scars, but it also leaves remarkable stories of shared sacrifice and community. And it deepens the sense that our mountain towns are shaped by the crucible of a natural world that can be beautiful and savage in equal measure. This special section documenting Tropical Storm Irene’s impact on the Adirondacks has been made possible by Lane Press, in Burlington, Vermont, Adirondack Life’s printing partner for 25 years.

Tom Messner
WPTZ Meteorologist
As Hurricane Irene approached, WPTZ’s weather team watched the storm’s track by the hour. The Plattsburgh-based station’s original plan involved sending me to Boston, where the storm was expected to hit hardest. But hurricanes don’t play by newsroom rules, and that plan changed as the storm turned in our direction and it became clear that Irene would hit harder than Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999. We didn’t need to go to the storm. The storm was coming to us.

I went to work early Sunday, August 28th, braced for a 20-hour on-air shift of storm-tracking and flood warnings. By 8:30 Sunday morning, just an hour into my broadcast day, it was clear the Adirondacks was in big trouble. The weather radar was showing very heavy rain from just west of Albany, south into eastern Pennsylvania, and it was all heading north.

The heaviest rains were falling on the west side of this tropical storm—bad news for our region. With Irene now forecast to track up the Connecticut River Valley, the Adirondacks was directly in the storm’s cross hairs.

Hour by hour, as the storm moved north, our most dire predictions began to come true. The rain was coming too fast. Pictures of flooded rivers, washed out roads, and homes underwater soon con­firmed what we already feared: this would be the most devastating weather event to hit the region since the Great Ice Storm of 1998.

By the time the storm began to pull out later on Sunday, many in the Adirondacks had seen more than 6 inches of rain. Whiteface Mountain measured 7.5 inches, enough to turn normally peaceful rivers and streams into raging torrents.

Martha Spear
Upper Jay

Pleasantly in denial, I watched the river roll slowly across our road, watched my garden gnome float gently away. I had been Facebooking all afternoon, giving glib up­dates on the swelling East Branch of the Ausable. We had decided not to evacuate despite several warnings, be­cause we’d been told our 1832 farmhouse had never flooded. The old-timers next door once said their plan during bad floods was to boat to our house, which would stand like a dry castle in its moat. Those same neighbors now called and said tersely, “Get out, we’ll meet you in back with the truck.”

I’d always wondered what I would grab in case of an emergency: artwork, jewelry, laptop, backup drive, cats? That afternoon, with superhuman speed, I grabbed my iPod and a handful of diapers for our child, two sets of clothes for each of us and my medicine for the week. (I now know what my essentials are!) We stumbled into the car and my spouse gunned the motor around our house, across the lawn and under the great, spreading maple trees. The river rippled through everything, invading the land, and the car seemed to float forward. In minutes we were up the hillside behind our property, sharing a small steamy trailer with three other evacuated families. Rain dripped, the river roared below us, doing damage we could hear and imagine but not see. As the evening progressed, other neighbors took us in and we slept on their couch. Thank you, neighbors.

The morning after, I walked down the hill and into Upper Jay in awe as I stepped under enormous felled trees piled like firewood across the road and into neighbors’ yards. Trees through houses, houses flung into fields, silt everywhere, dazed people and glorious sunshine only 12 hours after the deluge.

Sierra Serino
Au Sable Forks

My husband, Cory Hanf, and I and our children, Sky and River, own the Hollywood Theatre and live in the Jersey section of Au Sable Forks. The following are my recollections of August 28th:

5:00 p.m.: We are informed that Jersey is on a recommended evacuation order. We decide to investigate the river and find that it is high but not threatening enough to merit evacuation.

7:00 p.m.: We heed the advice and move the TV upstairs and the dog, vehicles and kids to higher ground at my mother’s house just up the block. Cory goes to the theater and shuts off the breaker box. The river is now over its banks but still within normal flood stage.

9:00 p.m.: We go down the street to check the river and are shocked. The entire section of lower Jersey is underwater. It’s a raging torrent of filthy, disgusting rapids with trees, mud and enough construction debris to build a town. I can’t see my house but decide that’s probably better. The water is 6.5 feet deep on the street. Because we’re completely isolated I call my friend, Bobby, for a report of Main Street. He walks to the theater and says the water is up to 4 feet against the back of the building, but hasn’t come in the front door. In my state of shock I think that’s good news. Most likely it’s just in the basement, and because I can’t see my house I’m sure by some miracle the river decided to pass that by.

9:20 pm: Bobby calls back. “Oh, my God,” he says, “the river’s coming down Main Street!” The Ausable Riv­er’s West Branch has jumped the bank on the other side of the Jersey bridge and now extends to the Grand Union parking lot where it meets the East Branch. The West Branch, normally 2 feet deep by 60 feet wide is now 40 feet deep and a third of a mile wide.

11:00 p.m.: My neighbors start to disperse. We’ve stood at the edge of the river, backing up periodically, for 3 hours now. We’ve been chatting amicably but are careful not to make eye contact to keep from breaking down and weeping. I can’t watch the river rage through my neighborhood any longer and go to bed.

Monday, August 29th, 5:00 a.m.: As I walk down the street I’m hit with the stench of mud and fuel oil. Every surface is covered with 2–3 inches of mud. I take off my flip-flops to walk in the street and don’t put shoes on again for 3 days. My front porch steps are gone, carried away to a neighbor’s yard. I go in the back door and fight the mud to get it open. Everything on the first floor is a sodden, muddy mess. The waterline on the walls is at 2 feet. Cory and I don’t know where to start so we go for a walk. An entire forest is stuck in the trusses of all three bridges in town. The townspeople are wandering around in complete shock, hugging us and asking, “What can we do?” “We are so sorry.”

7:00 a.m.: Friends and neighbors begin showing up at the house to help us. Over the next 3 days 40 people come to our aid. We are totally overwhelmed by the compassion shown by the community. Within the first week workers from the town of Jay; volunteers; Fuller Excavating; Moriah Shock inmates; the National Guard; and area volunteer fire departments put in very long days to try to restore my neighborhood. My family and I are amazed at the amount of helpers our town supervisor Randy Douglas amassed in such a short time. As I watched my son, River, playing with some other kids in the vile puddle made from the basement pump-outs on the street, I knew that with a community like this we could get through it.

Brendan Wiltse
Johns Brook Lodge, High Peaks Wilderness

When Irene hit I was in the middle of the eastern High Peaks Wilderness at Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) Johns Brook Lodge. There were three of us in the Johns Brook Valley at the time: assistant forest ranger Logan Quinn at the Johns Brook Outpost, and Seth Jones and I, both working for ADK at its lodge.

The day before the storm we knew Irene would be bearing down on us, our guests and the hikers in the valley. By early morning on August 28th we had evacuated all of our guests from the woods. We stayed be­hind to keep an eye on the lodge.

The rain steadily increased until noon, when its intensity peaked. We heard the indescribable racket of boulders being pushed in the brook. Over the next hours the waters continued to rise, far beyond spring runoff levels. By 5:00 p.m. the Phelps trail bridge over Black Brook was washed out, precluding our escape from the property. The waters peaked around 6:00 p.m. with Johns Brook and Black Brook over their banks and a stream behind the lodge threatening our woodshed. By 8:00 p.m. the waters receded.

The next day revealed several bridges washed out, including ADK’s big span over Johns Brook. From the lodge’s roof we could see new slides on Saddleback and Lower Wolf Jaw. In the following days we surveyed damage and cleared blowdown with the DEC to assess the state of the backcountry. The damage to the trails and streams was immense, especially along the Ore Bed Brook—imagine an entire mountainside getting washed down a stream. Boulders I’d have thought only glaciers could move had been scarred, turned over and transported. Debris was piled 30 feet above the streambed. The backcountry of the Adirondacks as we knew it is no more.

Linda Kissane
Fran Cove Motel, Lake George

The first sign that this would not be an ordinary storm came on late Sunday morning, when some of the guests in our 36-room motel asked me, “Should we be concerned about the brook?” In the 48 years since my parents opened the Fran Cove on Route 9, English Brook had always been a gentle ribbon of water tumbling between the motel and our family home, providing a scenic spot for a picnic. Now it was spilling over its banks. I grew up in this house, with the sound of the babbling brook. By late afternoon it was replaced with the sound of colliding boulders. It was awful.

I watched my old refrigerator float by, along with other items from storage. Who knows what ended up in the lake. My husband, Tim, and I moved the guests to the less vulnerable side of the property, and brought my 77-year-old mother, who still lives in the house across the brook, to our home nearby.

In the morning we assessed the damage. Water had seeped into more than half our guest rooms. The bridge between my mother’s house and the motel had been washed out. Since then my mother has been crossing a make­shift wooden plank bridge until a better one can be rebuilt.

Members of the community have been wonderful. They pitched in right away, helping to clean the flooded rooms and remove the furniture to dry in the sun. With new carpeting, all but two of the rooms are now usable. My husband and I joked that we wanted to replace the carpet anyway. My mom just kept saying, “I’m lucky, I’m lucky. I didn’t lose the house.” —As told to Lisa Bramen

Matt Stanley
Santa’s Workshop, Wilmington

Tropical Storm Irene tore through Santa’s Workshop, in Wilmington, just before Labor Day—normally our busiest weekend of the summer.

Within hours, churning water had crested the banks of Stephenson Brook, a tributary of the Ausable that runs through the park, twisting train tracks, slamming basketball-size rocks against bridges and cascading down rows of outdoor theater seats. Floodwaters opened a 15-foot-wide, 4-foot-deep ravine in the animal park, which had only just reopened after heavy springtime flooding. (Luckily, the reindeer stayed safe on higher ground.)

Despite extensive mud and water damage we were able to reopen most of our rides and attractions within a week—Santa’s little elves work really fast and really well. But we still stand to lose somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 in repairs and lost revenue. It’s a hard hit, especially coming on the heels of a not-so-great season. —As told to Niki Kourofsky

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One Response to “After the Storm”

  1. Adirondack Life Blog Archive » A Good Year at the IRMA Awards Says:

    [...] magazine’s special section on Tropical Storm Irene, “After the Storm” (November/December), written by Brian Mann, received gold in the General Feature category. [...]