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Memories of Irene

Recalling the destructive events of Aug. 28, 2011

September 1, 2012
By CHRIS MORRIS and JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writers (cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Most residents of the North Country remember where they were when Tropical Storm Irene swept through on Aug. 28, 2011.

Irene was one of the biggest storms the region has ever seen, and one of the most destructive. What follows are memories of Irene, as told by five of those who experienced it first hand or were there to help in the storm's aftermath.

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Article Photos

Gov. Andrew Cuomo inspects flood damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene at Anne Shaw’s home in Keene.
(Enterprise file photo — Nathan Brown)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who saw Irene's aftermath on Aug. 30, 2011, as told at a press conference in Keene on Wednesday:

"If I were a painter, if I had any artistic ability and I could depict that day, that moment, there would be two very different images.

"One image, that I will carry with me forever, is the image of ... the devastating power of Mother Nature, and how streams and brooks just rose up and consumed buildings and streets and dams. People's lives literally just washed away. The old Keene firehouse cut in half. ... It was really breathtaking and frightening to see.

Fact Box

1 Year After Irene, a week-long series

-Monday: Lessons for the East Coast

-Tuesday: The story of Irene

-Wednesday: Work to be done

-Thursday: Rapid road response

-Friday: Backcountry impact, River restoration

"But there was another image. ... That was of our response to what happened, and New Yorkers' response to what happened. And how people came together, and the heroism of people, and the selflessness of people, and the spirit of community that was alive and well and present. And people doing one for another like you couldn't even imagine.

"I remember being in a basement, shoveling mud into a bucket, and then we had a chain of people that would take the bucket up and dump the mud. And I had been working with one woman, and we were covered in mud from head to toe, and you remember that mud. It wasn't even mud; it was a silt that was very fine, and it got everywhere, and you couldn't get it out, and we were just covered. And we're shoveling this mud in this low basement, and it was sticky, and it was hot. And she had been there even before I was there, and we started chatting. I just thought it was such a beautiful thing that she was doing: killing herself in this person's basement. And she said as we were chatting, she said, 'Well, this is my neighbor, and I live up the block.'

"Eventually, we finished, and we walked out of the house, and we were walking up the street and I said, 'Well, show me your house.' And we walked up a ways, and we walked into her house. Her house was just as bad as the house that we had just spent all of that time in shoveling. And she hadn't even started shoveling out her own home. It was mud - the whole first floor, right up the wall, every piece of furniture. And I remember being taken that this woman, who had so much work to do in her own house and her own place, was so giving to go help her neighbor rather than worry about herself. When you look at this house, you didn't even know where to start, it was so bad.

"And the woman looked at me and said, 'We will find a way. We will find a way. And we will find a way together.' And those words were so profound, and so powerful, and so true. And we found a way together. And in many ways, that was the story all across the state."

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Henrietta Jordan, Keene Valley:

"I was at my house with my friend John. The most memorable observation was just the sound of Johns Brook, which is probably about 150 yards from my house. It sounded like cannon fire - artillery fire - because of all the rocks that were colliding into each other.

"We walked up to the bridge that crosses Johns Brook, below the Garden trailhead, and the water was just leaping. ... It was coming over the bridge, and the sheer height of it was just astounding. I'd never seen anything like that in the Adirondacks. It was beginning to erode the abutment to the bridge and the roadway. You couldn't cross the bridge; it was too much roadway eaten away. That's when I understood how much water had come down. When we realized that, we walked back down to the (East Branch of the) AuSable (River) and of course everything was flooded on both sides of Keene Valley.

"The next day, when I got up, it was a bright, sunny day - just a beautiful day. I was curious to see what had happened. My first excursion was up toward the AuSable Club, south of Keene Valley. It was just apparent that there had been horrendous destruction of property in St. Huberts. The roadway was just totally eaten away.

"We were fortunate in having a diversity of talents working on the flood relief fund. The ability of people to be flexible and responsive - I've never seen something so productive come together so quickly. I think we were just fortunate here in Keene to have the right people at the right time. It was very much a group effort."

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Marlene Prescott, owner of the Brookside Motor Inn, Upper Jay:

"I was here at the Brookside Motor Inn. I had guests coming in for the evening, and I remember going down to the end of the motel and watching the water rise higher and higher and higher, and I realized that it was going to end up in the basement of my motel.

"I came back to my house, and I knew there was nothing I could do until the rain stopped. All the firemen were here and kept an eye on it, and we were in a situation where they would let me know if I had to evacuate.

"I didn't think about what would happen to my property. I said to myself, 'Whatever happens, happens.' I wasn't thinking that anything really drastic was going to happen.

"I remember seeing one of my neighbors who got flooded out completely, sitting in her car, trying to put her shoes on. She was cold, she was wet, and needed a place to stay.

"It was a wonderful feeling to be able to help my neighbors - to help the victims and the volunteers have a place to come for food and shelter."

(The Brookside Motor Inn served as a shelter for flood victims and a hub for volunteers who helped in Irene's aftermath.)

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Vinny McClelland, owner of The Mountaineer outdoor gear store, Keene Valley:

"I was at home, and I noticed it was raining rather hard. And I got a call from the store, and they said, 'You better come down here right away.' I came down, and water was just cresting the (Little Johns Brook) Bridge. So I had everybody evacuate.

"I was worried about New York City. I wasn't the least bit concerned (about the storm hitting this area). ... We've had big floods down here before. In the '60s, we had a huge flood. ... But nothing like this. This was the biggest one I've ever seen.

"You were just in shock. It's like, 'Where do you start?' And then, 'Who needs help more than you do?' It's one thing to be a business. It's another thing to lose your home.

"We really got slammed. The big store got wet. Everything underneath it got whacked. We lost a furnace. But the biggest impact was the loss in business. When you lose the biggest weekend of the year and two or three weeks of fall leaf-peeper season, it's a significant impact.

"The way the community pulled together, the way the Adirondack Community Trust worked with the Keene Community Trust to help people financially, the way people showed up from literally all over the country to help clean up. ... National Sports Academy sent a whole crew of kids down here for a whole day and helped us mop out. ... I was very impressed with Gov. Cuomo and the attention he paid. ... It was really enlightening to see people helping people, both physically and financially.

"We live in the mountains. These things are going to happen. So anytime you're in the mountains on a river, you're going to have flooding. Hopefully it doesn't happen again in my lifetime, because it really had a major impact on every business in the AuSable Valley - not only the business but the people that lost their homes.

"The impacts are not over and done with. Keene is pretty much back together again. Most of the people who lost their homes are back on their feet, but Jay, Upper Jay and AuSable Forks are still feeling the impacts."

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Brian Mann, Adirondack Bureau Chief, North Country Public Radio:

"My own camp in Westport got hit really hard. We spent the whole night basically trying to keep the flood out of our house. But I didn't realize how intense the storm was for the whole region until the next morning.

"Early, when daylight broke, I got in the truck and drove across the pass to Keene. Coming down out of the pass, there were emergency vehicles and people talking about just how devastating the river rise had been. ... I didn't realize, until I first started driving along by the Adirondack Cafe and those businesses down by the bridge, that the river surge had just been incredible.

"We've all seen events in the North Country that got the heart beating. But I had never seen anything like what we saw down along the AuSable River Valley in the next couple of days. It was absolutely beyond imagining: whole houses shifted or gone. It was dramatic.

"I've covered big disaster stories before. I've been on the ground for the Gulf oil spill. I've been in places where hurricanes have struck. This was more localized. ... This was sort of this one series of river corridors where it was just like a freight train had barreled through, knocking things out of the way. That was really different.

"I remember standing on the bridge in Upper Jay, watching the National Guard rumble in and seeing the relief on the faces of the local responders, who by this point were exhausted, and realizing at that moment just how important it is when these big crises hit, the interconnectedness of New York state. ... It really mattered to people that folks in other parts of New York, folks in Albany, all over, were saying, 'We care about this. We're going to send troops in, we're going to send supplies in.' That was a huge lift to peoples' spirits. ... There are times when you really want the cavalry to arrive, and that was one of those good moments."

 
 

 

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