Ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the scars of tropical storms Irene and Lee remain across upstate New York — fading but still visible if you know where to look, distant perhaps but never gone for those directly touched by the storms.
The two severe-weather events hit upstate less than two weeks apart: Irene on Aug. 28, 2011; then Lee on Sept. 8.
Irene was by far the worse of the two in its severity in the Capital Region, but Lee’s effects were magnified by its timing, as it dumped more water on an exhausted populace in areas so recently torn apart by Irene.
When the floodwaters receded, an altered landscape presented itself, forever changed in some places. The focal points were the low-elevation areas near the Schoharie Creek and the Mohawk River, but countless pieces of property and infrastructure were damaged in communities far and wide, wherever the streams and sewers couldn’t keep up with the water flow.
“It’s a real nightmare here.” — Esperance town Supervisor Earl Van Wormer III, speaking Aug. 29, 2011, about Priddle Road, where 20 houses were gone, smashed to pieces and washed away
Hurricane Irene was a tropical storm by the time it hit New York, but it still claimed 10 of its 40 victims in this state. Among them were an older woman in the Albany County Hilltowns, who apparently fell into the Onesquethaw Creek while trying to evacuate her home, and an older man who drove around roadblocks and into the raging Schoharie Creek to check on his farm stand in Montgomery County.
Lee was not blamed for any deaths in New York.
Irene dumped anywhere from 5 to 13 inches of rain on the region; critically, many of the highest totals would be recorded in the Catskill Mountain watershed of the Schoharie Creek. Sustained winds at Albany International Airport peaked at 33 mph on Aug. 28, and gusts of up to 59 mph were recorded in Glenmont. The barometric pressure in Albany dropped to a historic low on Aug. 28, setting a month-of-August record that still stands.
Because its winds had dissipated, Lee was a post-tropical storm remnant by the time it hit New York, but what it lacked in wind it made up for in rain. The slow-moving storm had picked up moisture over the Gulf of Mexico and still had plenty left when it stalled over New York’s Southern Tier.
Lee would break records in the Susquehanna River basin just as Irene had broken records in the Schoharie and Mohawk.
“You always see disasters all over the world. You never think it will happen to you.” — Linda Hayes, standing on Schoharie’s devastated Main Street on Aug. 29, 2011.
The National Hurricane Center in a post-storm review in late 2011 noted that Irene was tracked and analyzed for more than a week before it reached the U.S. mainland and was the subject of 35 U.S. reconnaissance flights.
It originated from a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa on Aug. 15 and grew into a Category 3 hurricane by the time its center passed across the Bahamas on Aug. 24. It diminished to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made U.S. landfall in North Carolina Aug. 27, and was downgraded to a tropical storm a few hours before reaching New York City on Aug. 28.
The state of New York had undertaken extensive preparations, including the first-ever shutdown of the New York City subways as a weather precaution; closure of New York City-area airports; and evacuation of state-run campgrounds in the Catskills.
Ten years earlier, the Sept. 11 attacks had prompted a multilayered crisis-response planning initiative across the state. Cities and counties mapped out how to respond to various scenarios; rural communities accustomed to relying on one another for help gained a codified framework for that cooperation.
What couldn’t be helped in late August 2011 was the already damp condition of the soil in many places, and an upslope windflow that amplified the rainfall exactly where it needed to not be amplified: In the Catskill, Adirondack and Green mountains.
The wind, saturated with water vapor, hit the mountainsides and veered upward into cooler altitudes, where all that moisture condensed into rain and fell to the ground. It’s a common enough phenomenon, and it’s part of the reason why thunderstorms and snowstorms are often more severe in higher elevations.
But with Irene’s massive size and steady wind, the upslope flow continued for hours.
When the ground couldn’t absorb any more rain, the water flowed down the slopes to the valleys below.
Across eastern New York, 55 stream gauges would register new records amid Irene.
“We lost everything, including our cats Shadow and Zoey.” — Sandy Orologio, Rotterdam Junction resident, Sept. 1, 2011.
One of the small crew of reporters working at The Daily Gazette on Saturday, Aug. 27, drew the assignment of writing a storm preview story for the Aug. 28 edition.
The weather preview is never an easy story to write: If it’s too detailed, it quite possibly will be proved wrong when the reader looks out the window the next day.
This story was spot-on in its broad prediction — a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albany said a deviation of even 50 miles from Irene’s predicted track could make a huge difference in local impacts.
But some of the details in the story were very wrong.
A key point of concern that Saturday was a minor earthquake centered near Altamont and its potential impact on the two dams that held back 25 billion gallons of water on the Schoharie Creek. The Gilboa Dam, impounding 20 billion gallons of New York City drinking water, was already known to be deficient and in recent years had been undergoing urgent repairs.
The dams held. But even without the wall of water their collapse would have sent downstream, the Schoharie Creek shattered records for flow and height as Irene’s rain made it overflow its banks.
The Burtonsville stream gauge stood at 1.33 feet the morning of Aug. 27, and the National Weather Service predicted a peak of 10.1 feet the morning of Aug. 29.
The actual high point in Irene’s wake was 17.46 feet Aug. 29.
Water flow at Burtonsville was no more than 675 cubic feet per second on Aug. 27, but hit an incredible 128,000 CFS the morning of Aug. 29.
That is how houses on nearby Priddle Road could simply vanish; why livestock was washed away; why roads and bridges and cars and businesses were destroyed — 128,000 CFS is nearly a million gallons per second, more than the treaty-mandated minimum flow over Niagara Falls during tourism season and more than double the minimum at night.
The most water ever recorded at Burtonsville before Aug. 29, 2011, was 81,600 CFS during a freak thaw and rainstorm in January 1996.
“My refrigerator is floating on its side in my kitchen.” — Stephen Reichart, resident of Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, Aug. 29, 2011.
Having inundated the villages of Schoharie and Middleburgh, and many of the little communities that grew up along the Schoharie Creek over the centuries, all that water headed north to the Mohawk River.
Riverside communities all were affected to greater or lesser degree. The Fonda Fairgrounds and Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park were underwater. Rotterdam Junction was submerged at an extremely rapid rate, causing drop-everything-and-flee evacuations, many by boat. Schenectady’s flood-prone Stockade neighborhood was navigable only by canoe and kayak.
A temporary lake stretched a mile from Collins Park in Scotia to Schenectady County Community College, with landmarks such as the Western Gateway Bridge poking out.
Silt from rich Schoharie Valley farmland turned the water a light brown; mixed in were unknown amounts of raw sewage, chemicals and other pollutants carried away by the storm.
Emergency repairs were performed to shore up the Vischer Ferry dam.
Cohoes Falls turned into a filthy, roaring maelstrom.
To the north, Irene had much the same effect: Heavy rainfall filled rivers and streams to record levels in the eastern Adirondacks, causing extensive mudslides, washing out roads and damaging or destroying several hundred houses and businesses. The Ausable River rose to record height and flow, causing severe damage in Keene and other areas along routes 73 and 9N.
In the Green Mountains of Vermont, road damage was so extensive that a dozen towns were cut off and stranded residents needed to be resupplied via helicopter.
“We’re removing trees from the road by basically plowing them off to the side of the road as if they were snow.” — Glenville town Supervisor Chris Koetzle, Aug. 28, 2011.
Irene inflicted significant wind damage as well. It was more widespread than flood damage, but mostly repairable in much less time for much less money.
National Grid reported 120,000 customers without power in the Capital Region after Irene passed. Some were still out days later.
More than 130 miles of the New York State Thruway was closed, as were other bridges and highways, either because of pavement damage or fear that bridges had been undermined. In Schoharie County alone, nine bridges were destroyed and 40 roads were damaged.
Shelters were set up for those rendered homeless, but these saw light use as most flood victims chose to stay with friends and relatives.
Thousands of tons of mud was cleaned from structures deemed salvageable, and piles of ruined possessions grew on hundreds of sidewalks and front yards, waiting to be hauled away.
“These were extraordinary events. The flows were beyond any levels we’ve seen.” — Howard Goebel, chief hydrologist, N.Y.S. Canal Corp., Sept. 9, 2011.
And then there was Lee, which developed from a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa on Aug. 18 and meandered for two weeks before finally making landfall in Louisiana on Sept. 4, never reaching hurricane strength but dumping a foot or more of rain on some places along its path.
The Capital Region was spared a direct hit as most of the rain fell to the southwest, giving places like Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre and Hershey record flooding.
The watershed of the Cobleskill Creek extends far enough west that it picked up some of this, and flooding ensued in Cobleskill, with Route 7 underwater at one point and floodwater seeping into SUNY Cobleskill dorms.
The Cobleskill Creek pours into the Schoharie Creek at Central Bridge, which pours into the Mohawk River at Fort Hunter.
Rain from Lee had fallen into the Mohawk farther west from Fort Hunter by this point.
So once again, the Mohawk overflowed.
In The Gazette newsroom, reporters listened in disbelief as emergency radio transmissions described the combined Route 103 bridge/Lock 9 dam in imminent collapse. Every bridge downstream was closed to traffic for fear a deluge of water and debris would be released.
But the bridge and dam held. It was the northern approach that was washed away, leaving a small canyon between the bridge and Route 5.
Damage was varied along the length of the Mohawk River. A 70-foot power line tower collapsed into the water east of Amsterdam. A few basements in the Stockade neighborhood got wet. The village of Waterford experienced its worst flooding in more than seven decades.
When the two storms were over, 80 miles of Erie Canal infrastructure was badly damaged. With temporary repairs, the canal was opened briefly in late 2011 to let stranded boaters reach winter destinations.
But full repairs, plus upgrades to limit the impact of future disasters, would continue for years to come. The final price tag was $112 million.
“You will never get the true human cost. You go through there and you see peoples’ lives on the sidewalks. You are taking away their dreams, their hopes and their lives.” — Robert Godlewski, Rotterdam deputy town supervisor, Sept. 9, 2011.
Irene cost four lives in the Capital Region: one each in Albany and Schoharie counties, two in Greene County.
An unknown number of pets and livestock were killed, thousands of people were traumatized temporarily or for months to come, many lost possessions and homes they’d spent years paying for, and some would find no recourse from insurance.
Some fled and never came back: Schoharie County’s population dropped by 600 from 2011 to 2012, according to U.S. Census estimates. Between the 2010 to 2020 Census surveys, it had the largest population drop among the state’s 62 counties.
Other signs painted a picture of resilience rather than defeat.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency staged mobile temporary housing units for use by flood victims outside the former Guilford Mills complex in Cobleskill. Inside, tons of donated furniture, clothing, housewares and appliances were piled up in rows for flood victims to choose from.
Organizations including Schoharie Area Long Term, Flood Recovery Coalition for Schenectady County and Schoharie Recovery were formed to help communities move forward from the two-part disaster.
The Gilboa Dam alarm network sounded early enough to get people out of harm’s way in the Schoharie Valley when Irene hit — across Schoharie County, thousands were safely evacuated.
Volunteer rescuers working at risk to themselves extracted more than 100 people from the worst of the flooding, sometimes from second-floor windows.
And everywhere, there was a helping hand with the cleanup.
“Neighbors are working with neighbors from one side of the town to the other. We have walk-in volunteers, people with no power who can’t get to work wanting to help,” Fort Hunter Fire Chief Tim Haegi said Sept. 1, after floodwaters receded the first time.
This ragged blend of bitter loss, resilience and camaraderie was common in many of those communities in late summer and early autumn 2011.
Touring the ravaged town of Prattsville on Sept. 1 in the aftermath of Irene, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered a message of hope.
“Upstate New York paid a terrible, terrible price for this storm. We are going to rebuild better than it was before. New Yorkers are a tough breed, and in our darkest hours is when we shine the brightest.”
It’s one of those scripted cliches politicians offer at disaster scenes, and Cuomo would later recycle it, almost word for word, many times during the COVID crisis.
But as it turned out, he was right: By the thousands, New Yorkers did step up and make a difference in the disaster zones during and after Irene and Lee.