AuSABLE FORKS - Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in town to kickstart the process of planning for reconstruction in Keene and Jay in the wake of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.
Cuomo announced in July, at a conference in Albany, his plan to make more than $500 million available to communities throughout the state if they can create sufficient plans for reconstructing their communities in ways that will make them more resilient to extreme weather events in the future. The New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program will distribute money from a federal supplemental appropriation Cuomo pushed for earlier this year.
Jay and Keene are the only two towns in the area that are eligible for such funding. Each town can get $3 million if it submits appropriate plans, Cuomo said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, talks about his plan to distribute money to rebuild more resilient towns in AuSable Forks Wednesday, surrounded by, from left, state Assemblyman Dan Stec, Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee and Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
The committee that will plan Keene and Jay’s rebuilding efforts meets for the first time Wednesday. Committee heads, from left, include Mountaineer owner Vinnie McClelland of Keene Valley and Scott McDonald of Jay.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
They are also eligible for bonus funds, which will be given to a few plans that propose the best regional collaborations in the state, Cuomo said.
Cuomo said every generation has a major challenge to overcome, and he said ours is to find ways to manage the new weather patterns that are emerging. He stopped short of blaming recent extreme weather problems on global climate change, a touchy subject if he's going to run for higher offices in the future, saying he'll leave the discussion of why it's happening to smarter people.
But he said the weather is definitely changing, and extreme weather is becoming more the norm.
"For me, it's been a constant cycle of these situations since the day I was sworn in," Cuomo said.
It's how everyone prepares for future problems today that's important, he said.
He said the two towns now have an opportunity to not just replace what was lost but to build the communities back stronger than they were before.
Cuomo said he likes the idea of the communities working together on plans rather than the state or federal governments dictating them because every community has different needs.
A number of first responders, including firefighters from AuSable Forks and Upper Jay, attended the event in the Jay town community center in AuSable Forks. Cuomo congratulated them on a job well done in helping other residents when their own homes and fire stations were at risk. He also thanked local government officials, saying they needed to take the lead and stand tall in those emergency situations.
"They didn't disappointment," Cuomo said.
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee and Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, all sat at a long table with Cuomo as the governor talked about his plans for rebuilding the state Wednesday. Each thanked Cuomo for all the support the area saw from the state since Irene hit Keene and Jay hard in August 2011, wiping out houses, roads and other infrastructure.
"The state has been there every step of the way for communities like Jay and Keene," Stec said.
They were also joined by Vinnie McClelland and Scott McDonald, who will head up the committees from Keene and Jay, respectively. But since the two committees plan to work together to try for bonus funds, they are being called co-chairs of the regional planning committee.
Since the 1970s, McClelland has owned the Mountaineer outdoor sports equipment store in Keene Valley, which sustained serious damage in Irene. He said he was born in Keene and he intends to die there, "hopefully not in a flood," and he looks forward to working with the committee.
"This is a real opportunity to help make our communities more resilient," McClelland said.
McDonald, a lifelong resident of Jay, recently retired as director of the Essex County Probation Department and is a former member of the Jay Volunteer Fire Deparmtent. He said his community continues to feel the impact of the storm's destruction every day, and he thanked Cuomo for giving the community the chance to identify its own needs.
"There is no doubt in my mind that with Scott McDonald and Vinnie McClelland, the governor has selected two wonderful candidates to lead this charge," Douglas said as he introduced the two men.
Committee starts work
After Cuomo headed out, the committee got down to the real work of starting on the plan.
Members of the committees introduced themselves and talked about how the storm had impacted their lives. About half of them were directly impacted by the storm, and the rest said they had friends and family who dealt with damage from it.
Committee members include community members, former members of the communities' planning boards, a representative from the Essex County Planning Department and the head of the AuSable River Association.
Several state Department of State representatives and consultants from the firm Ecology and Environment, which was selected through a request for proposals process, lead the meeting. E and E's Chris Rohner told committee members they should keep in mind ideas for building the economic resiliency of the communities in addition to their infrastructure.
He discussed with them a variety of things the committee will want to look at, including the geographic scope of the project, potentially forming subcommittees and coming up with timeline for implementing the plans.
Several community members also attended the committee meeting, providing some feedback along the way. They included the owner of Adirondack Mountain Spirits and Adirondack Mountain Coffee, two businesses that were nearly wiped out by the storms.
Ron Konowitz, the wilderness rescue coordinator for the Keene Volunteer Fire Department, said he's seen more need for water rescue in recent years.
Douglas' brother Kevin Douglas, who runs a business in one of the oldest buildings on Main Street in AuSable Forks, has seen more than his share of flooding.
"When I hear it's raining, I can't sleep," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen."
Chris Garrow, director of the Jay Department of Public Works, talked about how he and his workers couldn't believe the destruction as they started to help clean up the town after Irene.
"We didn't know where to begin or where to end," Garrow said.
Michael Cross, a chief with the AuSable Forks Volunteer Fire Department, said he would like to see the rebuilding effort not just focus on Irene damage but look at other issues with flooding, too. He said his hamlet's Jersey neighborhood was evacuated several times the year Irene hit.
"This shelter was open more times that year than just Irene," Cross said. "The river is an issue, and that need to be taken a look at."
McClelland said he and McDonald hope to make the planning process as transparent as possible and to get plenty of feedback from the communities.
Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.