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Looking back at damage done by Tropical Storm Irene: one year later

September 4, 2012

Irene was a hurricane when it hit the Atlantic coast but was widely seen as a dud since it did much less damage than anticipated. It had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit the North Country one year ago today.

But the higher ground is where it did its worst: the Adirondacks, the Catskills, Vermont - places where the intense rain dumped downhill in torrents. It overloaded mountain brooks and streams, which changed the character of the backcountry and devastated buildings and roads thought to be above the flood line.

"The river came up at least 20 feet," Norm Reynolds, who lives near the John's Brook Bridge in Keene Valley, said the next day. "The water was up and over the bridge. I have never seen it like this. ...

Article Photos

Lake Placid News file photo
Damage done by Tropical Storm Irene along state Route 73 in Keene Valley.

It sounded like thunder. All the rocks rolling down the river sounded like the final of a Fourth of July fireworks."

Unassuming brooks and streams turned into raging rivers and washed out roads and bridges, leaving locals and travelers stranded. Then they flowed into the branches of the AuSable River, which hit historically high levels.

In the Adirondacks, the towns of Jay and Keene saw the worst damage. Gulf Brook, a small tributary of the AuSable River, surged with such strength that it washed away huge chunks of the Keene firehouse, leaving behind just a portion of the frame and foundation.

Downstream, the Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay lost one-third of its book collection, and the neighboring Upper Jay fire station incurred significant damage. Farther downstream in AuSable Forks, the river spilled its banks and invaded entire neighborhoods, damaging homes that had just been repaired following flooding in the spring.

"This is the worst damage I have ever seen," Keene town Highway Superintendent Bruce Reed said at the time. "This was the size of those disasters you see on TV."

In Lake Placid, the West Branch of the AuSable River carried massive piles of debris down to the state Route 73 bridge next to the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex, piling tree limbs, rocks and other sediments where the river bends toward River Road.

Upstream in the High Peaks Wilderness, flooding washed out the Marcy Dam footbridge and damaged the dam itself. The Duck Hole dam was severely damaged, which caused the pond - a popular destination for adventurous anglers and paddlers - to drain. The heavy rains also formed new slides on backcountry mountains like Wright Peak.

Statewide, the storm resulted in 10 deaths and left more than 1 million people without power for days, sometimes weeks, according to the Associated Press.

No deaths were reported in the Adirondacks, although two people were killed when their vehicle plunged into a river in the Clinton County town of Altona, and local rescue crews and volunteers did make some dramatic rescues.

Just south of AuSable Forks, town of Jay highway workers rescued five people from a van that was pinned near the Stickney Bridge Road, which also had to be rebuilt after the storm. In Keene, stranded people and animals were rescued by boat to bring them to safety.

Although the storm came and went in a matter of hours, it took months for communities to pick up the pieces, and there's still work to be done.

Immediately after Irene hit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency across upstate New York, and soon after, President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster area declaration. But Cuomo didn't just sit in his office in Albany.

Two days after the storm, Aug. 30, 2011, the governor descended upon the Adirondacks, along with U.S. Reps. Bill Owens and Chris Gibson, state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, and a host of state and federal officials. Cuomo and his daughter Mariah walked door-to-door in Keene, speaking with business owners and homeowners.

To speed recovery efforts, Cuomo temporarily lifted state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation permitting requirements. He announced that during his Aug. 30 visit.

"I understand the regulations, I understand the permitting process, but I also understand we need businesses up and running tomorrow; we need homes," Cuomo said during a press conference.

Cuomo made other moves to streamline recovery efforts. State Route 73 in St. Hubert's, a main artery to the Olympic region and the eastern High Peaks from Interstate 87, was wiped out by the flood. Early estimates said it would take two months to reopen the road.

But Cuomo put the screws to the state Department of Transportation. Two months shrunk to two weeks to get one lane of traffic up and running. Days before that target date, both lanes reopened. That and related emergency work earned the DOT a state Public Service Excellence Award in May of this year.

"It doesn't happen every day where government actually exceeds the deadline," Cuomo said in September 2011.

Gibson, whose district's northern tip is the towns of Keene and North Elba, said he hadn't seen such devastation since his tour of Haiti following the earthquakes there. He said he also saw New Yorkers at their best after Irene.

Across Jay and Keene, neighbors pitched in to help neighbors, despite damage to their own property. Children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens put their lives on hold for days to shovel mud, deliver food and offer shelter to people displaced by the storm. Both communities established relief funds that gave flood victims much-needed financial support long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency began sending out checks.

People in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake - communities that were spared the worst of Irene's wrath - held concerts and bake sales, and heaped clothing and supplies into buses bound for AuSable Forks and St. Huberts.

Damages in Essex County alone surpassed $25 million. In December, Congress approved an appropriations bill with an additional $8.1 billion in disaster relief aid, but still, FEMA generally covers 75 percent of recovery costs, with state and local government each picking up 12.5 percent. With budgets already tight, towns had to borrow money to make critical repairs. Jay took out loans totaling $3 million, with its officials hoping for possible reimbursement. In April 2012, they got it; the state announced it would cover the local share statewide for recovery from Irene as well as from Tropical Storm Lee, which had hit downstate areas shortly afterward.

Local people were able to raise some recovery money themselves. Adirondack Community Trust, based in Lake Placid, stepped forward to serve as the clearinghouse for private philanthropy. It recently reported that more than 1,320 donors had given about $800,000 and that all of that had been distributed to Keene and Jay.

Despite the community reinforcement that came out of Irene, some controversy boiled to the surface. That fall, as town highway crews worked to dredge and re-channel rivers, some observers said the bulldozers and excavators were making the brooks look like urban drainage ditches, possibly leading to worse flooding in the future. Town officials, like Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee, said highway departments were simply doing the best they could in an extreme situation.

After just a few weeks, Ferebee and Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas were able to bring those different voices together at a well-attended forum at the Community Center in AuSable Forks, where local, state and federal officials, nonprofit organizations and citizens discussed the best approach to river mitigation. By December, state workers were back in parts of some brooks - under the supervision of federal, state and county conservation agencies - restoring critical fish habitats and reshaping river banks in ways that could protect communities from future flooding.

That consensus played out this year with Trees for Tribs, a government-led volunteer effort to plant trees so their roots can strengthen stream banks, and with the execution of a plan that had been around since the 1990s to reinforce the bank of the AuSable's East Branch by Rivermede Farm in Keene Valley.

Although a few people took a FEMA buyouts for their damaged property, most decided to stay and rebuild. In November 2011, Owens joined Douglas to inspect a ruptured water main, which has since been replaced, and as they walked back to the town offices, the congressman marveled at the resiliency of the townspeople that they wanted to stick around and rebuild instead of take FEMA buyouts.

Douglas said he wasn't surprised.

"It's their community," Douglas said. "They don't want to leave."

Despite the new construction, cleanup isn't finished. Debris piles left by Irene's floods remain, reminders of the power of water that can sweep trees and boulders down from the mountains, changing the landscape dramatically in a few hours.

It wasn't easy, so crisis counselors were around to help, as needed, through a state-county initiative called Project Hope.

"Residents of the North Country are strong, resilient, independent, proud people, and asking for help doesn't necessarily come naturally, easily," said Program Coordinator Gretch Sando. "What we're finding is that a lot of folks aren't asking for help."

And the rebuilding continued: The Keene and Upper Jay libraries reopened in January, and after a public vote on the location and design, a new firehouse is in the works in Keene.



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