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ON THE SCENE: Irene: Remembering and developing resilience

Volunteers help clean up flood damage from Tropical Storm Irene at McDonough's Valley Hardware in 2011. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 18, the Keene Valley Congregational Church, in collaboration with the Ausable River Association, organized and hosted “Tropical Storm Irene: Respect Our River,” a series of presentations that commemorated the impact of Tropical Storm Irene 10 years ago, reviewed Ausable River remediation efforts, and discussed the moral imperative to shift our relationship with nature.

Flood waters from Irene devastated the rivers and infrastructure of the region on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, and the town Keene seemed to be the epicenter of Mother Nature’s destruction in the Adirondacks.

The trifecta of 10th anniversary events began with a panel discussion at the church. Opened by the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the church, and moderated by Peter Slocum, Marcy Neville, Kelley Tucker and Marie-Anne Azar Ward, they shared the impact of Irene on their lives and communities. Their presentation was followed by a question-and-answer discussion and a short film illustrating Irene’s destruction. Produced by Jim and Carol Blakeslee-Collins, the film was screened in two settings across the street at the Keene Valley Library and followed by a reception.

“It rained, and it rained, and it rained,” said Rivermede Farm owner Rob Hastings in the documentary. “We watched the pumpkin crop float by. We were fully planted in harvest mode, and it just devastated the farm. There were full-size trees that went in and bent up the sides of the house and also the high tunnels, but mostly it was silt and filth.”

The impact of that rain was echoed by Azar Ward. She shared how the rising East Branch of the Ausable River engulfed the first floor and basement of the Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay, destroying thousands of books, including their entire children’s collection, plus their computers and much more. A similar level of water poured into Cedar Run Bakery and Market in Keene.

At left, Kelley Tucker, executive director Ausable River Association, leads a discussion of the river remediation effort. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“I couldn’t fathom that in my head,” said Christy Deyo, owner of the Cedar Run Bakery. “There’s been a building in the spot for a hundred years, and that’s never happened before.”

“Propane tanks were floating down the middle of the road,” said former Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee. “This was destruction you’re not accustomed to seeing, and I’ve seen some floods in my time here. It was a total shock.”

The shock and devastation quickly turned to a volunteer relief effort that began before rain stopped falling and the rivers rising and flooding. In Keene, the Nature Conservancy quickly turned its conference room and offices into the central command and planning post to organize unprecedented fundraising and distribution efforts. Mike Carr, then head of the Conservancy, Jim Herman, Dave Mason, Henrietta Jordan and others recognized how the growing media attention on Keene posed an opportunity to promote such an effort.

Fortunately, many in Keene have experience raising money, serving on foundation boards, or with state agencies that give out grants or public relations. Their goal was to support local businesses and individuals to address their needs not covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and protect people’s privacy. Keene being small, the organizers quickly learned who had been hit the hardest, sending out volunteers to educate people about the application process and assisting them in filling out forms.

As the waters began to recede, people showed up at businesses like McDonough’s Valley Hardware, organizations like the Wells Memorial Library and private homes. They did what they could to salvage what could be saved, haul out debris and clear roadways.

The Aug. 18 panelists, from left, are Marcy Neville, Kelley Tucker, Peter Slocum (moderator), and Marie-Anne Azar Ward. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“When we got home, we saw this huge hole and nothing holding up the back of the house,” said Keene resident Martha Gallagher. “And we thought, ‘Oh my god, nothing is holding up this room. We’ve got to get to work.”

“The volunteer response in Keene was so immediate and so organic,” said current Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, then the town volunteer coordinator. “There was a need, and people showed up. That’s what happened to me. I came into town and saw the wreckage, the mud, the debris. I went home, got my tractor, and started digging places out.”

On one level, a godsend was Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He helicoptered in, witnessed the destruction, become frustrated by the lack of significant progress, and cut through red tape. For example, when told it could take nearly until Christmas to reopen the roads, Cuomo eliminated blocks such as competitive bidding giving contractors three weeks to get the job done.

“If tires don’t roll, heads will roll,” Cuomo stated, also getting cellphone service activated within 24 hours.

Another aspect of Cuomo’s emergency order, giving the state Department of Transportation unfettered access to rebuilding stream beds sans input from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other river restoration experts, compounded problems created by past non-science-based efforts. Activities that ranged from digging gravel out of river beds to extensive riprap use between St. Huberts and Keene had already resulted in Rivermede Farm having lost acres of farmland.

Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, coordinated the second part of the Respect our River presentations and led a tour of their river restoration efforts on Friday, Aug. 20.

“A river is like a 5-year-old boy; it’s always going to take the easiest path to wherever it’s going,” said Tucker. “We need to protect our human and natural infrastructure and think about the blending of the two of them.”

Taking the easy path means if a brook turns into a raging river and meets a too small bridge or culvert, there goes the bridge, culvert and road as it carves a new path to freedom; too bad for any houses or building in the way. To protect our human infrastructure means putting in culverts and bridges that can handle once-in-a-500-year storms and not building in and removing places already in flood plains, letting these natural features do their job. Protections also require helping the rivers rebuild deeper channels through installing weirs, not mining riverbeds for gravel, or straightening them with riprap.

Tucker praised the town of Jay for being aggressive in developing an overall plan for river restoration and seeking federal and state grants to implement. Keene is just now following Jay’s lead. Tucker urges other communities to do the same, as had Hurricane Henri landed a few degrees west, we could have been underwater once again.

The Respect our River initiative concluded with Rev. Sampson addressing our moral and spiritual relationship to nature during the worship service on Sunday, Aug. 22. Sampson began his refection by saying the Universal Church of Christ expresses one of its guiding principles as “God is still speaking.” Instead of beginning his remarks with a reading from the scripture, he invited three from the congregation to share what they learned by experiencing Irene, what still “sits in their hearts even today.” Collectively, they experienced God’s presence through people coming together during Irene to help those in need and continuing to do so through the river restoration effort.

“We in this community know the power of nature, which reflects God’s majesty,” said Sampson. “But the other side of the coin is just as powerful. It’s the story that each of our speakers has shared, the power of the human heart, the love between neighbors, and the love among strangers — those who overcome differences, apathy, and loneliness to reach out and support one another. I agree with Monique; this power is in this valley at all times. But during Irene, this love was given a chance to shine in a way that it hadn’t in a long time.”

The pastor described that power as love, God’s love, which is unshakeable. An unshakeable love for not only us humans but all aspects of nature, a love that calls upon us to renew love and care for nature with a love as deep as we’ve ever had for another.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)