Hurricane Irene 2011: Damage, Destruction, Rebuilding, and Before and After Photos

On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene slammed into the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, causing devastating floods and other storm damage. One year later, the cleanup and rebuilding continues



It was one for the record books. When Hurricane Irene roared up the East Coast last August, it instantly became one of the top 10 worst catastrophes to ever hit the U.S. At least 44 people in 13 states died in the storm; more than nine million people were without power at one point or another, and one federal agency estimated that Irene caused as much as $15.8 billion in damages. Then there were the Catskills. When the monster storm approached New York on the morning of August 28, all eyes were on the low-lying coastal areas. It wasn’t until two days later that reports of unprecedented flooding began pouring out of the Catskills. There were stories of main streets transformed into raging rivers, bridges knocked out, cars and houses literally floating away, and vacationers trapped in homes without food or water.

main street phoenicia nyMain Street, Phoenicia: June 23, 2012

Photograph by Christine Eschbach

Among the worst hit towns were Windham, Tannersville, Phoenicia, and Margaretville. But it was the tiny town of Prattsville — with just 700 or so residents — that became the national face for the devastation that Irene had wreaked. Homes and businesses alike were completely wiped out; one day after the storm, a New York Times headline summed up the situation: “In Catskill Communities, Survivors Are Left With Little But Their Lives.” But in the wake of this tragedy there has been a silver lining. Heroes have emerged and communities have come together to rebuild like never before. As the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches, residents look back at that fateful Sunday morning and how their lives have been forever changed.

 

 

prattsville nyPrattsville, two weeks after Irene hit, 2011

Photograph by Robert J. Near

The deluge begins

“It seemed liked everything happened in just a few minutes that day,” recalled Ginny Kennedy, 71, a lifelong Prattsville resident. “My sister had mentioned the weather reports and possible flooding; I figured it might mean a few inches of water in my basement. I remember looking out the window that morning at the rain, and thinking it didn’t seem so bad.” But just 10 minutes later, “I noticed water had started coming up across the way,” Kennedy said. The Schoharie Creek, which flows through the middle of town, was quickly morphing into raging rapids.

“It all started about 7 a.m.,” remembers Jim Eisel, owner of the Great American supermarket in downtown Prattsville. “The creek began to get higher. At first it was nothing serious; but then tree limbs and other debris got plugged up under the Main Street bridge, and the creek started to overflow. Within one hour, all hell started to break loose,” said Eisel, who rode out the storm at his home a few miles from town.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s brother-in-law showed up at her one-story Main Street home. “He had his four-wheel-drive pickup truck and he said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here — now!’ Then I knew it was bad,” Kennedy says. “I didn’t even stop to take my purse.” Other evacuating neighbors piled into the truck, and they all headed to a safe refuge.

» See why Irene hit so hard (page TK)

“We had no idea what was happening downtown; the phone and electric went out. We had a battery-powered radio and heard bits and pieces of news throughout the day,” says Kennedy. By about 5 p.m., the pounding rain had abated. It seemed like the worst was over, so Kennedy and her kin tried to head back downtown. “But we didn’t get far because the water was still high. I couldn’t get close enough to my house to see anything.”

prattsvillePrattsville, June 2012

Photograph by Robert J. Near

Charlie Gockel, a Methodist pastor, is executive director of the Huntersfield Christian Training Center, a 570-acre retreat site perched on a mountain about five miles outside of town. It became a refuge for many that Sunday. “By 6 p.m., we had about 88 people staying here,” Gockel said. “The irony was that lots of people came up here to escape from downstate, where Irene was expected to be worse. Instead, we got the brunt of it here.” Power went out at Huntersfield, “but we got some generators and raided the refrigerators in the four staff houses to feed people.”

» Irene’s blow to local farms and crops (page TK)

During that frightening day, rescue workers removed at least 87 stranded people from the Prattsville area. One mom and her 10-year-old son huddled for eight hours on their roof until rescue workers could hoist a cable to another house and pull them to safety.        

Even after the rain finally stopped — up to 13 inches had fallen in some areas — flood waters rose for hours as rivers and streams crested and runoff from mountain streams added to the torrents. The Schoharie Creek alone rose more than 15 feet in less than 12 hours, creating a monumental deluge of water with such enormous volume that Shaun Groden, the Greene County administrator, says it was greater than all of Niagara Falls.

 

 

The day after

Monday dawned bright and clear. By then, at least 190 rescues had reportedly taken place in the area — including a group of nearly two dozen visitors, mostly women and children from Brooklyn, who’d been stranded overnight at a motel near Prattsville. Fortunately, there were no storm fatalities in the town.

That morning, Kennedy finally made it back to her house. “Somebody told me it was ‘kind of off the foundation.’ I thought that would mean you’d just sort of put it back.”

As they drove down muddy, debris-strewn Main Street, Kennedy was aghast to see an empty spot where the house directly opposite hers had been washed away. It had come to rest four or five lots down the street — where it remains today. “At that point, I knew it was going to be bad,” she said.

» See why Irene hit so hard (page TK)

And it was. Kennedy’s house was askew, tipped off its foundation and partially propped up by some electric lines and a big maple tree in the front yard. “I was totally shocked when I saw the inside,” she said. “Ten to 12 inches of mud. Fumes from the fuel oil tank penetrated everything. I had to throw out all my clothes — even the furniture and the pots and pans smelled of fuel oil.” Eight feet of water filled her basement. Kennedy gathered up a few things and moved in with relatives nearby.

Eisel’s Great American supermarket was the first business to reopen. “By the time I could get back through the streets into town on Monday, power had been off for 15 hours,” he said. “We salvaged what we could and donated everything that was still good: hot dogs, hamburgers, canned food, supplies. We had the biggest parking lot in town, so we became a sort of command center. About 70 people came that first day; some lost their homes and had nowhere else to go.”

More people began to gather, according to Eisel, whose store was fully reopened 19 days later. “The town got us a generator. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) arrived and made food, along with the Red Cross and a lot of volunteers.”

» Irene’s blow to local farms and crops (page TK)

Gockel recalled that by day three, a tent was hoisted in the Great American parking lot, and the Salvation Army and more relief crews had arrived. “For a few days, people had breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the parking lot, and did all they could to help each other. It was like a family — tremendous how the whole town came together,” he said.

“The biggest immediate need was shelter and food,” said Tim Bachman, regional emergency services director of the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York. Red Cross volunteers lugged food, other survival supplies, and cleanup kits (“things like mops, buckets, cleaning supplies that were in great demand”) to Prattsville and Schoharie County, which Bachman says were the two hardest-hit areas in our region. The Hunter Foundation in Tannersville stepped in with funding, as did numerous other groups from near and far.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo toured the local devastation on August 31, along with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; they promised quick disaster relief aid. That day, too, President Obama signed disaster declarations for eight New York counties, qualifying them for federal assistance to individual persons and households. This helped speed funds to devastated towns like Prattsville.

 

 

Moving on

“Once people found places to stay — some moved in with relatives, some found apartments, and some left town — the next goal was to start mucking out the houses,” said Gockel. “We would mop out each house, then power-wash what we could, to get started.” Inspections were needed to determine if houses could be saved. If so, then came the rebuilding — with nearly all the sawing, hammering, and nailing done by volunteers.

Kennedy, like other Prattsville residents, received FEMA assistance; few residents had flood insurance. Support also came from grants and private donations that poured into town. “People would just show up at the building sites and donate,” said Gockel. “Some would give $500 or more, right there on the spot. Some even gave $10,000. It was remarkable.”

» See why Irene hit so hard (page TK)

Volunteers swarmed to town, some allied with the Huntersfield Christian Training Center, others from groups ranging from colleges to construction firms. “Sometimes 800 people would volunteer in a day the first few weekends,” Gockel said. “They came from New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Wyoming, California, you name it.” By November, volunteers had donated more than 30,000 man-hours of time, he noted.

The rebuilding team started work on Ginny Kennedy’s house the week before Easter. A former resident who now owns a construction business brought a crew, recalls Kennedy, “and they had the house totally framed in a day and a half.” She says the total rebuilding project cost approximately $150,000.

“There are tons of volunteers in town still. They have been phenomenal. We’re coming up on the year mark, and still they are here every day” — Annie Hull

As we go to press, Kennedy is hoping to move back into her house this summer — almost a full year after the storm.

“We’ve got about 25 homes back in good enough shape so that the families could move back in,” said Gockel. “Some aren’t quite finished; they still need things like siding. And we have about 15 more houses to rebuild. But by the end of all this, the town will definitely be better off.”

» Irene’s blow to local farms and crops (page TK)

Shortly after the storm, local citizens worked with architects and planners from River Street Planning and Development in Troy to launch a Rebuild Prattsville group (www.prattsville.org). Their goals ranged from rebuilding homes and parks to developing a community garden. The Housing Expo and Home Improvement Show held in March attracted 50 vendors and was deemed “a huge success.” A June 3 “Planting Day” paired the Prattsville group with master gardeners from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Gardeners all came to town and gave plants to those who lost theirs in the hurricane. We filled their planters with vegetables, herbs, flowers, whatever they wanted,” says Annie Hull, the chairwoman of the group’s housing committee.

Hull says that the hurricane’s aftermath remains visible. “We still have homes that need to be torn down, and debris on the side of the road.” Even so, she says that “Rebuilding is going well. We’ve been very successful with helping residents to get back in their homes. All of our businesses are up and running, with the exception of just one.”

 

 

cave mountain brewing company in windhamCave Mountain Brewing Company in Windham

Wild ride in Windham

After the Batavia Kill overflowed during Hurricane Irene and turned Windham’s pretty Main Street into a rushing river, “I thought, ‘That’s it. We’re done. Windham is going to become a ghost town,’ ” says Graham Merk, the chairman of the Windham Chamber of Commerce. While he rode out the storm at his home several miles away from the center of town — “there wasn’t much damage, a tree came down” — his office in a historic building on Main Street was flooded. Still, it was nothing compared to the rest of the devastation he saw. Take the Windham Movie Theatre. “We had eight feet of water in there,” says owner Pat Higgins, who also runs a laundromat, an ice-cream shop, and a Subway restaurant out of the same 12,000-square-foot Main Street building. “I was completely unprepared for this. And it’s not the water; it’s the mud that really wreaks havoc on your building. At least that is my take on it.”

» See why Irene hit so hard (page TK)

But Merk was buoyed by the way the local townspeople rallied after the storm. He gives kudos to Bridget Pelham, a local teacher who “did everything” in the days following the storm; weeks later, she organized the Windham Support Group, which served as a clearinghouse of information and support for residents. He noted how local flower shop owner Erica Regan went into the center of town each day and set up tables beside the historic Centre Presbyterian Church, which she stocked with endless urns of coffee. Other people were showing up with barbecue grills; soon, food was being cooked and served all day long. “This went on for six or seven days,” says Merk. “It was nice because you were able to sit down and talk to people and tell them your troubles.”

Help continued to flow in from national organizations as well as grassroots groups. High school students from Cairo-Durham spent one September Saturday helping Higgins scrub out the movie theatre. It reopened in December; the Subway, not until May. While it took Higgins months to get back on his feet, “within six weeks the town looked just like it did before,” he says. “Except for maybe the sidewalks.”

Tim Adams, co-owner of the Cave Mountain Brewing Company, echoes that sentiment. “Now, I’d say that most people wouldn’t have even known it happened other than a couple of small details.” After a moment, he continues, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Banks and streams have greatly widened and cut through areas they had never cut through before. Our local golf course lost a lot of acreage — they had to reroute many of their holes. Our historical sidewalks were lost. But most of the store fronts have been improved. Many owners took it as an opportunity to make their businesses better than before.”

» Irene’s blow to local farms and crops (page TK)

Adams said that the brewery’s basement “filled up entirely with water, to the rafters. Half of our operation was down there and everything — from the electronics to the ice machines — was a complete loss. We had at least 2,000 pounds of grain down there in 50-pound sacks. They were all completely waterlogged and turned into 200-pound sacks of malt. They all had to be dragged out.”

Still, a “huge outpouring of volunteers, from local townspeople to second-home owners to even some military personnel,” helped Adams clean up quickly. “We were here from 10 to eight every day; we didn’t take breaks.” Cave Mountain was one of the first storefronts to reopen a month after the storm. “This is such a strong community,” says Adams. “Windham is really a great place to live.”

To celebrate how far the town has come, a street fair will take place on August 25. “There will be music, games for the kids, free food,” says Merk. “We’ve made huge strides. Come and see.”

» Next: Why Irene hit so hard

 

 

hurricane irene satellite imageSatellite image of Hurricane Irene, courtesy of NASA

Why Irene hit so hard 

Hurricane Irene began as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 miles per hour, slamming the Bahamas on August 24 (pictured at right). It crawled up the Eastern Seaboard, made landfall in North Carolina, and proceeded to pummel the Northeast.

Part of what made Irene so potent was its slow speed. Because the storm inched along at only 14 miles per hour — about half the usual speed of coastal storms — the brutal rains stayed put. “The flooding that resulted was a major factor” why the Prattsville area was hit so hard, said Harvey Thurm, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Bohemia, N.Y. “The biggest impact with these storms is usually felt along the coast, but this time it was more inland. The combination of strong winds and heavy rains was especially destructive.” Oversaturated soil weakened tree roots and building foundations, sending trees and structures toppling, resulting in widespread power outages. The relentless rain caused normally tranquil streams and rivers to rise quickly — many of them swollen with tree limbs, roots, and other storm debris that crashed through towns during the floods.

A second element affecting the flooding was the meteorological phenomenon known as orographic lift. “Orographic lift occurs when air is forced to rise along the slopes of a hill or mountain,” said Raphael Miranda, the weekend meteorologist for NBC New York. “As the air rises and cools, it loses its ability to ‘hold’ moisture, and this can lead to precipitation. Imagine the air is a wet towel, and as it rises the rain is wrung out of the towel. This is what happened as Irene approached the Catskills. The orographically enhanced rainfall was one of several factors which led to the devastating flooding.”   

Still another factor in Irene’s path of destruction was the storm’s huge size; swirling out more than 250 miles from the eye, nearly 55 million people were in its dangerous path. Weather experts compared Irene to deadly Hurricane Katrina, which hit six years earlier, nearly to the day (it battered New Orleans on August 29, 2005); Katrina stretched nearly 290 miles wide.

» Next: Irene’s blow to local farms and crops

1 & 2: Greene County Route 42 between Lexington and West Kill, as it looked in September 2011 (1) and June 2012 (2). 3: Main Street in Tannersville at the height of the flooding. 4 & 5: Scenes of flooding near Margaretville taken by Gov. Cuomo from his car. 6 & 7: After the waters receded, the cleanup began. Mud covers the floor at Cave Mountain brewery in Windham (6) and the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville (7)

photographs:  robert j. near (1 & 2), bobby janiszewski (3), gov. andrew cuomo (4 & 5), courtesy cave mountain brewery (6),  larry gambon (7)

 

 

rogowski farmRogowski Farm, Pine Island

Growing pains

When Irene ripped through the Valley, she dealt farmers in Orange, Ulster, and Greene counties a massive blow to their harvests. “Being a farmer means always living with the reality of loss, and putting as many safety nets in place as possible,” says Cheryl Rogowski, the second-generation owner of W. Rogowski Farm in Pine Island. Rogowski — who supports multiple CSA sites, participates in GrowNYC and farmers markets, and sells wholesale to stores and restaurants — scrambled to bring in as much of her crop as possible before the hurricane hit. “But with the magnitude of a storm like that, it would have taken months of warning to be adequately prepared,” she says.

As the rain came down, Rogowski — who was trapped in her home for a few days before a rescue team reached her — watched the floods claim 80 acres of her land and keep them under water for three whole weeks. “It’s almost akin to going through a traumatic death,” she says. “When the flood receded, I wished it all was back under water so I didn’t have to look at it.” The farm’s squash, onion, cucumber, pepper, and pumpkin crops all drowned, and Rogowski could only salvage 10 percent of her potatoes. “We had to abandon all crops that were under water and ones that sat in soggy soil within 10 feet of the flood line,” remembers Rogowski. “They were just obliterated.”

Rogowski was certainly not alone in her plight. Farmers across the Valley lost huge amounts of their summer yields. Up in Ulster, some of the fields on the 157-year-old Wilklow Orchards were under water for two days. The majority of the tomato crop had to be scrapped. “Nothing replaced those funds,” says Sharon Wilklow. “Insurances helped a little, but only covered a fraction of the costs.”

Yet good often comes of bad, and this crisis was no exception. The Orange County community rallied and formed Warwick Farm Aid, a fall fund-raising effort that sold tee-shirts and other items and hosted a benefit concert; they raised $100,000 to help supplement losses at 45 farms. “The outpouring of support was incredible,” Rogowski says. “It always came at just the right time, almost like if you needed a Band-Aid, you got a Band-Aid.”

The struggle, however, is far from over. Rogowski has since replanted her crops and added some high tunnel planting areas that can shelter and grow plants year-round, but at press time she was testing the entire farm on a microbial level for harmful substances left over from the flood waters. “It’s costing us thousands of dollars, but we’re doing it,” she says. “We’re digging our heels in to get through today, and then through tomorrow.”

 

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