Adirondacks: In Jay, a beaver was swimming across Main Street
ADIRONDACKS When Tropical Storm Irene dumped 10 inches of rain on the thin-soiled and steep slopes of the High Peaks last Aug. 28, what happened next was inevitable.
It ran downhill.
Soil, trees and vegetation washed off the sides of mountains, and even tiny streams like Gulf Brook and Stiles Brook in Keene quickly surged into monster torrents.
The subsequent flooding severed roads, swept away houses and even ripped a firehouse in half.
The East Branch of the Ausable River rose from calf-deep in the early afternoon to a record 18.5 feet at Ausable Forks at midnight. In Jay, a beaver was seen swimming across Main Street.
Tons of tree limbs, rocks and other debris were carried through the hamlets of Keene, Upper Jay and Ausable Forks. Residents caught in the flood were evacuated by airboat and even helicopter, leaving their homes behind.
"You look back now, we're so very thankful that we didn't lose a life," said Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, who is also chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors.
But plenty of people lost property. The storm was a calamity across the eastern Adirondacks, damaging hundreds of homes and washing out roads and other infrastructure.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far approved $26.8 million in public infrastructure damage reimbursement and $4.3 million in individual claims in Adirondack communities. Essex County was the epicenter of the damage, sustaining more than half of the damage totals.
For a few days, Keene was almost entirely cut off from the outside world because state routes 73 and 9N both had multiple washouts.
Even though Irene was predicted for days, its path went closer to the Adirondacks than forecasters expected, and few people were prepared for the power of the rainfall.
"This was flash-flooding. With a one- or two-hour delay, this wall of water came down like a hydraulic hammer," said Donald Jaquish, Essex County's emergency services director.
At the county emergency center in Lewis, dispatchers who had struggled to get to work through storm-damaged roads were fielding 10 to 15 emergency calls per minute. Then the main emergency radio transmitter went down, adding to the confusion and forcing dispatchers to rely on phones and faxes to communicate with rescuers in the field.
"A lot of people had no power, there were lines down, limbs down, roads out, people couldn't get in or out," said Bridgette Blemel, one of the dispatchers who handled the calls. "The firemen out there were absolutely amazing."
Hundreds of volunteer firefighters and other emergency workers put in 16- to 18-hour days for nearly three weeks, until emergency repairs were made to roads and the situation began to stabilize.
A year later, piles of debris dredged from the Ausable River are still visible, and its flood plains are dotted with abandoned businesses and homes. Some owners are fixing their homes. Officials said the recovery effort will take years.
More than a few flooded-out homeowners have walked away and are waiting for a planned FEMA buyout program. In some instances, the same homes were also damaged less than six months earlier, in severe spring 2011 flooding.
"We're trying to do a 60-house buyout. We've got 60 applicants," Jaquish said.
Apart from the planned buyouts, funding for the cleanup and recovery -- and for trying to reduce flooding risks in the future -- is still coming in.
The towns of Keene and Jay were each awarded $50,000 state grants for planning to reduce future flood risks. The Essex County Board of Supervisors earlier this month accepted a $500,000 state grant to pay for debris removal.
"I think it will be five years before we fully recover," said Douglas. "It's been a trying time, but we're getting there."
Douglas estimated the total damage in the town of Jay at $5 million to $8 million.
With an annual budget of barely $2 million, Jay has borrowed more than $3 million to repair local roads and replace broken water lines, and it still needs to raise $1.2 million for sewer system repairs, said town Public Works Superintendent Chris Garrow.
FEMA will be reimbursing 75 percent of the repair costs.
In Jay, residents had to boil their water for several weeks, and for a time a five-inch fire hose was an integral part of the town water system. "I had seven or eight pumping stations inundated," Garrow said.
Immediately after the storm, six other municipalities sent workers and road equipment to help Jay make emergency repairs. "We had over 70 trucks in town at one time, and equipment was everywhere," Garrow said.
The Upper Jay fire station, on a flood plain near the river, was badly damaged. It remains in use, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in June brokered a deal between the fire company and its insurance company that will allow for building a new fire station on higher ground. The company is waiting to find out what FEMA will pay.
In Keene, where Gulf Brook washed out Hurricane Road and swept away half the hamlet's fire station, a new $2.3 million station is planned on higher ground, on Route 73 opposite the Stewart's shop.
A groundbreaking was scheduled for earlier this month, but canceled after FEMA officials told the fire company it was reconsidering a planned $680,000 reconstruction grant award -- a major frustration for firefighters.
"Our fire equipment is spread out all over town, and we're not providing the level of service we should," said Alan Carey, chairman of the Keene fire commissioners.
The old station has been condemned and in unsuitable for storage of heavy fire equipment, Carey said -- and the site is now unstable due to storm storage.
FEMA spokesman Matthew Russell said the replacement/relocation requests from the two fire companies are currently under review.
But even as repair projects and financial settlement talks continue, at the one-year anniversary communities are shifting toward preparing for the future, with a more vivid knowledge that the Ausable and its tributaries are bound to flood again.
Douglas said the town of Jay has been shifting water pipes and other infrastructure to higher ground as damaged pipes are replaced. "As we rebuild, we're moving things out of harm's way," he said.
But there's another component to preparing, too -- getting the public to understand the risks of living near rivers and streams, and how to prepare for those risks.
"Now we're really focusing on educating people how to prepare themselves," Douglas said. "If a warning goes out, that means it's very likely to happen."
Jaquish said an essential lesson to be learned from the disaster is that people need to be prepared to take care of themselves when an emergency arises, at least for the first few days. Everyone, he said, should have a weather radio -- a device that only activates when a warning is declared by the National Weather Service.
"You've got to have personal responsibility," Jaquish said. "You've got to be ready for three days by yourself. You've got to be ready to self-evacuate. Government