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Natural forces

September 1, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

There wasn't really much more people could have done to prepare for Irene as the hurricane-turned-tropical-storm barreled toward our area from the Atlantic Ocean.

OK, everyone along a mountain creek or river could have evacuated, but imagine what a production that would have been - and for what? Up here, people weren't in danger of being swept away or crushed by the storm itself, and the buildings and roads the storm-swollen rivers thrashed couldn't have been moved. The communities along the branches of the AuSable River, which surged in a fury unknown in living memory, were settled way back when people needed rivers to turn their mills.

Thankfully, no one here was hurt, although Irene has been blamed for 45 deaths in 13 states. Hypothetically, people in the midst of evacuating Sunday might have run higher risk as rivers ate up roads. Battening down the hatches, stocking up and sitting tight, as people here did, was probably the best policy.

Still, the damage to public works and private property is terrible. Homes, shops, firehouses, roads and bridges were wrecked. Rivers flowed through neighborhoods and farms, sometimes waist-deep.

It has changed how we get around. Forget I-87 Exit 30; state Route 73 from there to Keene Valley is wiped out, and so is U.S. Route 9 toward Elizabethtown. For points south, use Exit 31 through Elizabethtown and Keene, or Exit 23 through Warrensburg, Blue Mountain Lake and Tupper Lake. Also, don't expect town roads to be open in Keene or Jay, and plan extra driving time since many roads are down to one lane at spots.

Our elected leaders will try the federal government for disaster aid, drawing on the tax contributions of all Americans, but we can't expect to be able to replace everything that was. This storm changed the landscape in ways that can't entirely be repaired. We must adapt. Nature is bigger than we are.

The former Land of Makebelieve theme park in Upper Jay, which was mouldering but historically and artistically important, is no more. Yet flower gardens in AuSable Forks survived just fine, despite having the river run over them at a depth of several feet.

All told, Irene was one heck of a teacher about the stupendous power of water. The next time we wash crumbs of food off our dishes, watch children build sand castles at the beach or see rain carve little rivulets in our garden soil, we'll imagine the scene in miniature, like in "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" - as if those crumbs are houses, trees and boulders, and the tap's stream is the East Branch of the AuSable.

Kids do this kind of imagining naturally. It's healthy. As adults, we tend to get stuck in looking at things only from our own perspective. When natural forces remind us of our place in this world, it sometimes jolts us into thinking like children again, which is kind of thrilling. It's exciting and scary to realize how small we are, relatively - how one day of steady rain can wash away much of our hometown and leave us stranded.

Here's another lesson in perspective: We news gatherers quickly learned the names of a lot of brooks this week. Gulf Brook, Dart Brook - those little guys don't usually make the paper, but when little old Gulf Brook jumped its banks in Keene, it demolished the firehouse, damaged the library and some shops, and dug holes in the highway.

Our two huge floods this year, in April-May and now Irene, clearly illustrate our local rivers' radically different personalities.

The AuSable's East and West branches (and their tributaries) are fast mountain rivers, racing right out of the High Peaks with almost no lakes or ponds to slow them down. They rise up quickly and subside quickly. The East Branch rose 22 feet during the storm Sunday - think about that! - but by Monday afternoon it was mostly back in its banks, except for places where it had carved a new course.

The Saranac and Raquette rivers, on the other hand, are slower, fed by many lakes. The three large Saranac lakes and the St. Regis Canoe Area ponds hold massive amounts of water at the source of the Saranac River; Blue Mountain, Raquette, Forked, Long and Big Tupper lakes do the same for the Raquette River. While late-April rain and snowmelt flooded the AuSable for a day, it took several days for the flood to crest in Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake villages, and weeks for all that water to drain off. Farther downstream, Lake Champlain had even later and longer flooding.

Latent rivers like that are now causing new flooding in New Jersey.

As we've seen, rivers and even brooks can move a lot more than a mill wheel, especially when they're roused. Maybe our towns should use that power more than we do.



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