KEENE VALLEY - Tropical Storm Irene hit the town of Keene hard Sunday, causing the greatest recorded damage since the mid-19th century.
Monday morning, residents woke to find their fire station ripped in half, at least five bridges washed out, homes destroyed and every town road suffering damage, primarily caused by flooding. No lives were lost, but the cost to restore public and private property is generally expected to be in the millions.
"I just started assessing the town," Tony Lavigne of the Essex County Highway Department said while climbing back up on Beede Road after inspecting the Phelps Brook Bridge. "The flooding is way worse than this past spring and much more widespread. All 18 towns in Essex County have suffered damage."
An aerial photo, taken from an Adirondack Flying Service plane, shows flooding damage in Keene Monday, including the firehouse, which is seen in the lower right corner.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
In Keene Valley, the northern half of the hamlet, beginning at The Mountaineer outdoor gear store, was underwater, with state Route 73 turning into a branch of the AuSable River. Many homes were flooded, and people had to be evacuated Sunday afternoon. McDonough's Valley Hardware suffered severe flood damage. The Ash family again lost livestock and propane gas tanks, as they had in the spring flood. Most of lower Beede Road was underwater.
An attempt to evacuate town Councilwoman Marcy Neville, who lives out across from Airport Road, ended with the rescuee rescuing her would-be rescuers. Their air boat conked out, and she had to ferry them back to higher ground in her shell.
Monday morning found the approaches to John's Brook Bridge washed out, leaving those living in Adrian's Acres and up toward the Garden trailhead stranded until a side wood road could be opened after the river subsided.
"The river came up at least 20 feet," said Norm Reynolds, who lives near the John's Brook Bridge. "The water was up and over the bridge. I have never seen it like this. It came up mid-morning yesterday. It sounded like thunder. All the rocks rolling down the river sounded like the final of a Fourth of July fireworks."
"This is the worst damage I have ever seen," town Highway Superintendent Bruce Reed said. "Remember when you were asking me last spring if that flood was worse than the one in '96? This is much worse. This was the size of those disasters you see on TV. Now we know what the people in the South went through.
"The John's Brook Bridge survived as well as it did because it was a wooden bridge pinned to the ledge; otherwise it would be gone.
"The firehouse in Keene is gone. Five feet of water went through the new coffee shop in Keene. The roads to Placid, south to the Northway and north to Jay are all closed. We lost five bridges that I know of so far. The St. Hubert's Bridge collapsed. The old Iron Bridge on Hulls Falls Road is gone. One or two of the camps on Styles Brook are gone. East Hill is impassible.
"How do you pinpoint where to start?" he said a little later. "You start closest to whatever gravel pit you have and work out from there. Lacy Road Bridge is gone. (Route) 73 South is washed out in two places. If you got to get out of Dodge, go to Westport and head south. All town of Keene roads are closed."
"The water came up fast," said Jeff Smith, who lives on the Adrian's Acres side of the bridge. "In the morning the water was about 4 feet below the bridge, and then 30 or 40 minutes later it was over the bridge. Then the logs hit. I could feel the vibration in my house. The water looked like the Colorado River coming down. It was this dark brown. It sounded like thunder."
"To sum it up, we have a mess," town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said. "We are trying to get a handle on it. ... Fortunately no one was hurt. ... The water plant is good to go, and the power stayed on. It was out only briefly."
If Keene Valley looked bad, Keene looked worse. Most dramatic was the gutting of the firehouse as the expanded Gulf Brook took off the backside, chewed up sections of East Hill and ate a path of destruction through the center of the hamlet, destroying yards, homes and bridges in its path. At the firehouse, the raging torrent overflowed its banks with one fork cutting through backyards, houses and then down Main Street (Route 73), buckling and twisting a home off its foundation.
"What a mess," said Frank Owen, looking at what once was the Keene Fire Department. "What a shame, what a loss."
A bit farther down, a young woman climbed up a ladder from the riverbed to stand on the edge of embankment where a bridge once stood. It was Julie Baird Holbrook, whose front lawn had been washed away.
"We were lucky," Holbrook said. "We have our house, and we didn't have any water damage. We don't have water, power, a lawn or a driveway, but it could have been much, much worse."
"The back of my house is gone," said Ann Shaw standing on a now-dry Main Street. "First the water took away the garage, then it filled the basement with water, and then the basement walls just burst.
"How am I feeling? I don't know. I still think it is going to be OK. All you could do was sit and watch. There wasn't a thing you could do to stop it.
"See that stove hood over there? That once was in my house. I do believe that's my propane tank down there (near the Elm Tree Inn). Those are my Venetian blinds over there, and that hat stuck to the Dartbrook sign used to hang inside my door."
"We lost our shed, but both of our neighbors got hit bad - they lost their houses," said Keira Baker. "We were saved by the Keene firehouse. It was taken out but diverted the river away from us."
Back in Keene Valley at McDonough's Valley Hardware, a makeshift platoon was hard at work. Inside this store that prided itself on having just about anything one needed, several people used water vacuums, shovels, brooms and brushes to clean the floors and the lower shelves. One or two were working in every aisle while others carried all manner of merchandise out. Outside, other willing hands washed what could be washed, straightened what could be straightened and decided what could be sold and what simply was beyond repair.
Others took what needed drying up the hill to be laid in fields, placed in barns or sheds as appropriate. Still others searched along the roads, neighboring yards and woods to retrieve items that had been carried off by the floodwaters. Bill Reid plied his tractor along the highway, bringing back what was found, which included many small propane canisters for barbecues.
"One person after another just started showing up," Dave McDonough said. "I was so surprised. They must have come by word of mouth. When I heard the weather report I expected at the worst 6 inches of water and prepared for that by lifting everything at least that high off the floor, but we got over 2 feet. It came within a half-inch of going into my house. I nearly had a heart attack. In a normal flood, the water stays high for about an hour.
"This time the water rose much higher and stayed high much longer."
He figured more than 50 people came out to help the store.
"It is incredible," he said. "It's amazing. People are so helpful."
One of the volunteers, Jim Sams, got married just a week ago to his now-husband Mason Snyder.
"This is a disaster," Sams said. "If we were to lose this hardware store it would ruin this town.
"I drove by, saw the mess and people out helping, turned around, went home and got my mud shoes."