When our newsroom staff sat down to vote on the top 10 stories of 2011, everyone knew from the get-go that the top two would be the two huge floods that beset the North Country: one in spring, one in late summer.
Only briefly did we consider combining the floods into one story; they were too different. The spring one came on slowly as snow melted and rain fell gradually. While the mass of water quickly washed through mountain river systems like the AuSable, it stuck around for weeks on the Saranac and Raquette, which are backed up by many large, slow-draining lakes. Downstream on Lake Champlain, the flooding started later, stuck around longer and did even more damage.
Mold, rather than wreckage, was the calling card of this natural disaster.
An aerial photo, taken from an Adirondack Flying Service plane, shows flooding damage in Keene on Aug. 29, the day after Tropical Storm Irene hit.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
On the side of Little Porter Mountain in Keene Valley, the sogginess caused a huge patch of the slope to slump beneath the Adrian's Acres housing development. It is the largest landslide in state history, wrecking one house and prompting another to be moved.
The spring flood showed us water's slow, creeping ability to overwhelm - but Irene had another dynamic entirely. On a single day of torrential rain, Aug. 28, this hurricane-turned-tropical-storm showed off water's raw power.
Rainfall was measured at up to an inch per hour that Sunday by Johns Brook Lodge staffers in the High Peaks Wilderness. The gushing runoff created more than two dozen slides on mountain sides and then collected into brooks, concentrating its force as it rushed downhill. It swept away trees, boulders, bridges and dams in the High Peaks. It did the same in the valleys, but there it also took out roads and buildings in the hamlets of St. Hubert's, Keene Valley and Keene. As the brooks merged, they raised the East Branch of the AuSable River to a level never seen in living memory, doing horrible damage to buildings in Upper Jay and Jay. The AuSable's West Branch, as it barreled through Lake Placid, piled trees 20 feet high and 50 feet deep against a highway bridge and peeled the pavement off River Road. As the East and West branches merged in AuSable Forks, the river swamped whole neighborhoods.
Although the rivers receded the next day, people in these parts have been putting the pieces back together ever since. State Route 73, an essential connection, was destroyed in St. Hubert's, but the Department of Transportation rebuilt it at an amazing pace. Houses, businesses and public buildings were devastated, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to help manage and fund a rebuilding effort. Rivers and streams were rerouted and filled with debris, so town crews got in there with bulldozers and excavators during a temporary suspension of state environmental permitting. The re-sculpted waterways were controversial, but environmental agencies and the DOT have already started the second phase of improvements, which is satisfying critics.
Looking at the aftermath, it's clear Irene changed our world more than any other event in 2011, which is why the Enterprise news staff voted unanimously to make it the year's number-one story.
But so much more happened as well. Like every year, our staff puts a lot of work and care into re-examining the events of the last 12 months, sometimes seeing the big picture in new ways as we write about them again. We hope you enjoy reading this section as much as we do.