by Ryan Price
On the morning of August 28, 2011, a dark, wet, spinning 747 wakes the mountains. After just missing New York City, former Hurricane Irene heads north toward the small towns of Adirondacks.
Rain. Wind. Mudslides. Water moves things that were never meant to move. Roads are washed away. Trees are uprooted from dense clay soil. Mountain trails erode. Water drives sediment down from the mountain, over down cliffs and into rivers. The gateway to the Adirondacks is closed.
AUGUST 28, 2011
Paula McDonough, owner of McDonough’s Valley Hardware, sits on her screen porch in her pajamas drinking coffee. She calls her kids in Manhattan, relieved to find out they hadn’t been hit by the storm.
Paula’s husband goes into town to open the store. A bridge, south of their store, is clogged with trees. The Johns Brook and AuSable River has begun rising right up into the main road that leads to their store’s entrance. Paula quickly dresses and together they head into town.
The river rises. In the store, bird seed, shovels, nails, and gardening tools sit barely a foot above the floor. Working with her family and staff, Paula began lifting everything to higher shelves.
The water keeps getting higher. In less than half an hour, water fills Paula’s shoes, soaks into the upper thigh of her jeans. The river is rising fast, and faster. Paula and her husband decide to leave the store. They aren’t too worried. They managed to move their products to dry areas high up against the wall.
The next day, they drive down to open the store. Everywhere there is sand, tree branches, and pebbles left behind by the flood. But the parking lot looks clear, and the outside walls of the store looked dry. When they open the door to the store, Paula breaks into tears.
Shelves have collapsed. Hammers and nails are scattered on the floor. A layer of black silt cakes up inches deep on the concrete floors. The river has etched the wall—the water line runs three feet high. Thigh high from wall to wall.
Paula’s husband doesn’t think they can fix it. But they have no choice. The people of Keene Valley offer help. With mops in hands they come to McDonough’s Valley Hardware to clean up the mess. The black silt left behind by the running water is glued hard to the floor, but people still scrape and mop to rid the store of the river.
The bottom two shelves of merchandise are shattered. Volunteers carry out products into the sun to dry. Bags of bird seed slump over the curb. Within hours, mold sets in. Much of what is salvaged has to be taken to the town dump. Neighbors form lines and load their trucks with ruined merchandise. Soggy cardboard, broken mason jars, cans of paint, saturated sand paper-- all thrown away. Fifty thousand dollars of merchandise gone. Another 50,000 dollars in sales lost. The day after the flood, one lady tries to return her bird feeder.
For days, volunteers continue come to the store to help. Neighbors take home muddy nails, wash them, and return them. Hikers, who can’t hike the high peaks because trails are closed, stop at the store to volunteer.
Paula contacts FEMA, but she doesn’t expect to get any money from them. “When the governor came he said ‘Well, your friends will help you.’ FEMA doesn’t help businesses.” Without a usable store, and inventory to sell, McDonough’s Valley Hardware quickly falls into debt.
Soon after Irene, Paula’s husband is diagnosed with cancer.
APRIL 1, 2017
I get out at McDonough’s Valley Hardware and step directly into a deep puddle of melted, murky, dark snow. My socks are soaked. The words “Thank You Friends” are painted on the window of the store. Just to the left, someone has drawn clouds with a sad face and a sun with a happy face. Inside the store, Paula sits hunched over her desk amid scattered papers. She waves me in and walks me through her store. An orange piece of tape still stretches across one wall. Written across the tape in bold black is the word “IRENE.” The tape runs even with my upper thigh.
Above the entrance to the store office is a picture collage of images from the storm. Paula proudly points out the pictures of her husband talking with the governor. She is still remodeling the store. Sinking walls are still being reframed, and sludge buried in nooks and crannies of the store is still being scraped out. Paula currently runs the store alone – her husband died after a long battle with cancer.
The shelves were never moved after the storm, but mold never set in inside this one wall. “There was never any insulation there,” Paula tells me. “No mold can grow.” But I know that with enough moisture, even concrete grows mold.
The McDonoughs simply didn’t have time to clean everything out before they had to start to sell products. They had to make money -- they had to get their accounts out of the red. Today Paula freely admits, “If the flood happens again, I won’t stay.” The store was her husband’s thing – never hers. But right now she has no choice. She has to keep the store running to pay her bills.
AUGUST 28, 2011
Russ Cook, a kindergarten teacher, is home canning tomatoes with his wife and two kids. They are peeling tomatoes, boiling pots of tomatoes, spooning stewed tomatoes into Mason jars lined up along the counter. The rain is coming down hard.
At noon, Russ looks out his window and sees the Johns Brook and AuSable River flowing down the main road. The water level is 6 to 8 inches above the pavement. He phones a friend, then piles his family into the car, leaving the house as it is. A second car remains in the driveway. Lights are on in the house. Children toys remain scattered on the floor. Mismatched shoes in the mudroom are piled into a leather mountain.
The morning after, Russ hears that things are quite bad in Keene. But nothing prepares him for their home. Water lines mark the wall 4 feet up from buckled wood floors. Fine black silt cakes his rugs and floorboards, and a huge pool of water stands in dead center of his living room carpet.
Russ and his wife throw everything away. No point in fixing a flooded lawnmower – it’s only 100 bucks. The shoes are filled with mud. His lawn is overflowing with his neighbors’ hot water tanks, pooled-up upside down flower beds, branches and trash cans and plywood – and a “Welcome to Keene Valley” sign leaning crazily sideways against a stripped tree.
Russ makes phone calls and applications to organizations like FEMA, NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program (NYPRC), and Housing Assistant Program of Essex County (HAPEC). His requests are denied: He is told it could take a year and a half before they can even decide whether he can get money. So Russ takes out a 15,000-dollar loan, dips into his savings, his wife’s 401k, his 403b, and starts to rebuild his house with some help from Habitat for Humanity and the Keene Valley community. “You know, what the fuck, I’m not going to wait with my family in limbo.”
Russ and friends set out on a mission to dry out and ventilate his home. Carpets are ripped up, the bottom half of walls and insulation torn and thrown away. But the flood has compromised the foundation. He and a friend tear off the back section of the house, remove soaked insulation and sheetrock, jack the entire house 6 feet into the air, pour and cap a new foundation, cut the old floors out of the house, and finally put the house back on the new foundation.
APRIL 1, 2017
Less than 2 miles down the road I pull into an unplowed driveway. The two-story blue house in front of me sits abnormally high off the ground. The surrounding area is flat and covered with a foot of fresh snow. The Johns Brook streams quietly behind the house. At the door, a young boy offers me a chocolate cookie.
As Russ leads me through the house, he points out all the things he did when rebuilding his house. New paint, trim, flooring – everything that he has done himself. Russ is calm as he talks. Perhaps rehashing the work is second nature at this point, or maybe he just wants to move on.
But five years after Irene, Russ still isn’t out of the ditch. He is currently in an appeal process with NYPRC over the aid he finally did receive. They claim that they overcompensated Russ and he needs to pay them back. “I lose a lot of sleep over that because it’s 37,000 dollars that I don’t have.”
AUGUST 28, 2011
Dick’s wife, Nancy, leaves the morning of the storm to stay with one of their children, but Dick decides to ride out Hurricane Irene alone. His house sits 50 feet away from Trout Brook. A few hours into the storm, the power goes out, and Dick’s generator is now partially underwater. The sump pumps in his basement are now useless.
Dick decides to rescue his tools from the shed. Once outside, with water already over his boots, he walks back and forth from his shed to house carrying boxes of tools, old collections, and construction and lawn equipment. A big wishing well that sits on his lawn is carried away by the rush of the water. He counts fourteen trees flow down the brook, tearing up the edges of shore already eroded by the storm. A bridge 150 feet down the road from Dick’s house breaks when the trees pile up. But when the bridge breaks, the water runs freely, and Dick’s house is just barely saved.
Eventually Dick realizes the water is just going to continue to rise. He settles into his dark house for the night. “Kind of quiet and peaceful, just me and the cat.”
Dick remains trapped without power for two days. Nobody knows he’s alive. With no cell phone service, and no power, nobody can get hold of him. On the third day, somebody finally shows up.
Dick begins cleaning up after the storm, raking the sand accumulated on his lawn. For 10 days, he drives his wife back and forth to a neighbor’s house, on a four-wheeler so she can go to work while the roads and bridges are being rebuilt.
Dick piles up 25 garbage bags in front of his house – all filled with things destroyed during the storm. The Town of Hague announces they will pick up the trash everywhere. But the water-damaged sets of Louis L’Amour westerns and Lee Childs’ mysteries – the many trash bags in front of his property sit rotting for two weeks – baking into mold inside black bags. Dick eventually takes the junk to the dump himself.
Dick contacts FEMA to ask for help, but everything is cleaned up before FEMA officials finally arrive.
MARCH 19, 2017
When I walk into Dick’s house, I am smacked by a wave of heat. Dick’s wood stove is roaring. “Nancy wasn’t happy with me ‘cause I stayed,” he tells me. “But you know, it’s kind of like a captain – you can’t leave the ship.” He stirs the fire. “Besides,” he says, “I knew I was fine until I see the turtles and the frogs coming out of the brook and they always know – they’re the smart ones. Then I worried.”
Dick’s neighbor on the other side of the brook saw him moving stuff, and they started yelling to each other. “He scared me,” Dick says. “Chunks of the bank just took right off. We had to yell at each other to hear us talk. I wanted him back off that bank. If that bank went, he’d go too.”
After Irene, laws that protected scenic rivers and wetlands were shelved so that roads and bridges could be reconstructed. Bulldozers and excavators drove into these pristine waters to reshape the rivers. More channels were dredged, banks re-created, rivers deepened, straightened, widened, narrowed, manipulated. The re-construction caused the Johns Brook and Au Sable river to flow differently. The speed of the current changed.
The bridge that broke was reconstructed larger to prevent future flooding and clogging, but Dick says they narrowed the brook behind his house and were supposed to deepen the channel, but never did. “We worry now because the brook will come up faster, but so far so good.”
Dick shows me a video his neighbor Pat had shot from the bank. The sound of the storm is a pure angry roar. The brook is dark and murky with sediment and eroded soil. A red oil canisters flows downstream with the current.
Before I leave, Dick tells me he still sometimes goes looking for things that were taken by the flood waters.
The brook outside is higher than normal. The spring snow melts into it pulling specks of mud, twigs, and rocks with it. Inside Dick’s sheds, cords of wood are piled on top of cords of wood. Each piece split and stacked in a uniform square line. The top of the rows perfectly level.