Even before the torrential rainfall and devastating flooding of Tropical Storm Irene touched the Adirondacks, Bill Ferebee, Keene town supervisor at the time, kept a list in his office with the names of the most vulnerable residents who lived along the Ausable River.
“Starting in St. Huberts, all along the river, there were 30 or 35 people,” Ferebee said last week, counting through the list in his head as he stood outside the Keene Valley Congregational Church, where community members met Wednesday for a remembrance of the storm a decade later. The residents on his list were elderly, lived on their own or had no one nearby to contact in case of an emergency. And they all lived in the flood path of the river.
As the rain started to add up on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2011, Ferebee and his wife drove through town to check on the condition of Johns Brook, which flows steeply down the mountains to the Ausable River in Keene. He knew it was a vulnerable spot for the river and the homes along the brook. Things were holding together, but by the time they drove through town about an hour later, Marcy Field was covered in water.
“I told my wife, ‘We are in trouble,’” Ferebee recalled. He headed to the office and started dialing the residents on his list.
“For some of them, we went into their home to rescue them.”
Some of the residents were rescued by fleeing in the bucket of a front-end loader, he said. Others were rescued on rafts and boats manned by state forest rangers, volunteer fire crews and other residents.
“I remember one lady saying I’ve been here through a lot of high rivers, and I’m not leaving now,” Ferebee said. He and another resident drove his Jeep Commander down to her property to encourage her to leave the house.
“‘[You’ve] got to come on, the water is rising,’” he remembered telling her. She ultimately relented, but said she first needed a shower. “By the time we drove out of there, the water was up to the car’s grill.”
The Jeep stalled, so they carried her to the road and left the Jeep until it could be towed out the next morning. “With all the studies governments do, there are no books or studies for how to react to these kinds of situations that I am aware of.”
The Ausable River forms out of the brooks and streams that run off of Mount Marcy and the state’s highest peaks; it collects water flowing off all sides of the mountains, forming an east branch that runs through Keene Valley and Jay, along the much-used Route 73 corridor and Route 9N, and a west branch that passes near Lake Placid and in front of the ski slopes at Whiteface Mountain. Flowing north to Lake Champlain, the two branches meet at Au Sable Forks before running under the Northway to the lake.
This past Wednesday, a U.S. Geological Survey river gauge near Au Sable Forks recorded the river’s discharge rate — a measure of the volume of water flowing in the river — at just over 200 cubic feet per second, near the 90-year median flow rate at the site. After moderate rainstorms on Thursday, the gauge measured near 3,000 cubic feet per second. During spring high-water levels, when snowmelt pulses through the watershed, the gauge may measure flows of around 12,000 cubic feet per second. During Irene, the gauge topped out at a whopping 50,000 cubic feet per second.
Stationed in the backcountry during Irene as caretakers at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Johns Brook Lodge, Brendan Wiltse and colleague Seth Jones measured rainfall using a plastic container marked with masking tape; though not a precise tool, they measured 11 inches of rain over 24 hours.
“We would sit on the porch railing and spend five or 10 minutes staring at that thing and you could watch the water coming up,” recalled Wiltse, now a senior research scientist at Paul Smith’s college. “It was that hard and that fast, and that relentless.”
Hurricane Irene formed Aug. 21, 2011, in the Atlantic Ocean near Puerto Rico; it made landfall in North Carolina on Aug. 27, and swirled north to New Jersey and Brooklyn. In the Adirondacks, communities braced for high winds, downed trees and heavy rainfall, but when the storm arrived Aug. 28, by that point a tropical storm, it parked itself among the mountains above the Ausable Valley, letting out an all-day torrent of rain.
“It came here and it sat over us, pouring out on top of us,” said Curt Stager, a climate scientist at Paul Smith’s College. “It was the perfect storm. It had everything going for it.”
Stager said the steep mountains of the High Peaks region acted like funnels, pouring the loads of water down into the valleys below. Streams rushed downhill and the river bulged into its flood plains, blowing away culverts, washing away roads and damaging scores of homes. A firehouse in Keene was destroyed. Businesses flooded and residents were left stranded on islands cut off from road access. A Shetland pony drowned in the floods but no humans died. Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay, which was built in 1906 just above the river, was so inundated with water that thousands of books were destroyed, including the library’s entire children’s collection. From an elevated vantage point across Route 9N, the library board’s treasurer snapped a picture of the historic library in a historic flood, its bottom quarter engulfed in a raging river, its basement, as its caretakers would learn the next day, completely flooded.
The following morning, a clear and sunny late-summer day, Marie-Anne Ward faced a doorstop of silt and muck as she tried to open the door to the library, attempting to survey the flood’s damage. She managed to squeeze inside, where the floor was covered in mud, books were drenched and standing water in the basement reflected back at her as she stood above the stairs. The library stored books, toys and other items for an annual garage sale in the basement; they were destroyed. A ramp leading up to the library entrance was knocked askew and the entire yard surrounding the library was covered in mud and silt churned up in the floods.
“The yard looked like a beach with dunes of sediment,” said Ward, who served as the library board’s president at the time of Irene. “We got to work with shovels.”
Board members showed up and so did other residents, forming an assembly line to remove sodden books and ruined furniture — anything wet had to go. Bucket by bucket, they cleaned up the library.
“There was a really great sense of true community,” Ward said. “People were helping each other.”
Ward estimated the library lost 3,500 titles. Computers were destroyed. But word of the tiny Adirondack library that lost its children’s collection in a flood spread far and wide after an NPR story aired on “All Things Considered.” Donations flowed in from across the region, state and country — donated books started showing up from Germany. Kindergarten classes organized book drives, and soon the library’s entire collection was restored.
“We got almost triple the number of books we lost,” Ward said.
The original hardwood floors dried out and were refinished, old plaster walls survived, old Hickory bookshelves were also spared and the library reopened by the January following the storm.
Joe Pete Wilson, now Keene town supervisor, became a volunteer coordinator in the days after the storm, working to organize hordes of volunteers who showed up for cleanups and rebuilds, filling out the ranks of “bucket brigades.”
“As a volunteer you were right into someone’s life,” Wilson said. “You were in their house trying to help them clean up some quilt that was important to them, finding their picture album or handmade Christmas ornaments kids had done over the years — helping people return to their lives.”
Volunteers showed up from the Capital Region, Syracuse, Rochester, even Canada. Wilson said the immediate focus in the weeks following the storm was to get homes ready for winter.
“So many good-hearted souls were showing up in Keene on the weekends saying, ‘What can I do to help?’” said Wilson.
In the years since, Annie Stoltie has collected the stories of people most impacted by the storm — people who survived the floods in Jay, cleaned up, rebuilt and stayed. Stoltie, executive editor at Adirondack Life, watched the “crazy, chocolate-colored water licking the bottom of the [Jay covered] bridge” from her home on a hill above the town.
“[I knew] this was going to be so bad, and I was worrying for my neighbors and friends, and really not knowing what was going to happen and feeling helpless,” she said.
She said the question facing residents who stayed — whose homes may stand in the way of future floods — is not as simple as where their homes sit on FEMA flood maps. The homes hold special familial connections and a home is never an easy thing to leave — for practical and sentimental reasons.
“Some of these people live in homes where they grew up, maybe where their grandparents lived. Dealing with the river, rebuilding and cleaning up is part of life,” she said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Why would you do that?’ But it’s complicated. There’s place-based identity and the reality that some people don’t have anywhere else to go. Where are you going to go?”
Stoltie also recalled how her neighbors responded to the storm, helping one another, making sure everyone was fed and safe. Potluck dinners proliferated, community centers popped up and volunteer first responders went above the call of duty.
“Everyone came together,” Stoltie said. “No matter who you were, what you believed, you helped your neighbors put their lives back together.”
BUILDING A HEALTHIER, MORE RESILIENT RIVER
Standing last week along a section of the West Branch of the Ausable River known as the “Dream Mile” for its fishing reputation, Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, pointed out a series of tree roots sticking out of the ground where the river met its bank.
Seemingly spaced in plotted increments, the hulking tree roots looked vaguely planned. But they disappeared into a massive bank of earth, rocks and sand covered in a mix of flowering plants and grasses. An arc of boulders stretched across the river, forming a slight ripple in the water’s course as it moved through a gradual bend.
“Standing here in 2012, you would have been underwater,” Tucker said of the bank. “What you are standing on is built.”
Before a three-year-long restoration project at the site, the stretch of river was much wider and shallower, harming its fishing quality and overall health, and threatening the stability of Haselton Road between Wilmington and Black Brook. The stretch of river was worsened during Irene. Invited in by the private landowners, the river association surveyed the stretch of river and planned out how to rebuild the riverbank and narrow the channel, so that it would flow more effectively through the bend.
Crews removed 80 to 90 trees from the private property to build the bank, placing entire trees at specific directions and angles in the ground to hold the structure of the new bank. Every degree of slope and placement of a boulder was specified in careful design and engineering plans. The trees will live in the bank for 100 years, Tucker said, gradually breaking down into the bank over time.
“It’s like an internal organ being transplanted,” she said.
To bury the trees expert excavator operators dug deep, but to carefully planned and precise elevations, into the river channel, providing the rock and natural material to rebuild the bank over the skeletal structure provided by the trees. Even the arc of boulders across the river was placed as part of the reconstruction to encourage the water to cascade toward the center of the reformed river channel. The height of the new bank above the river is designed to meet spring runoff levels and the broader bank could easily absorb a larger flood, Tucker said.
“In a 100-year event, this is fine,” she said.
The stretch of river flows more smoothly than when it had previously pooled, moving rocks, sediment and all manner of debris during high-water flows. The riffles and ripples oxygenate the water, strengthening the ecosystem for aquatic life to thrive — and improving the quality of the fishing. Tucker said a restoration project will also improve stretches of the river both up- and downstream of the project. Linking multiple projects along the broader river can strengthen the overall system.
“Together they create resilience in the entire reach,” she said.
The Ausable River Association, which was established in 1998, works to improve the overall resilience and health of the Ausable River watershed primarily through restoration projects like at the “Dream Mile” and by replacing old culverts with new “climate-ready culverts” that enable less-restricted water flow and healthier streams. Culverts, the pipes that run under roads to carry water from brooks and streams, are major choke-points in the overall watershed and potential points of failure in major storms. During high-water flows, water and debris back up at the narrow culverts, sometimes washing away chunks of road. During Irene, numerous culverts blew out entirely as floodwaters shot through the narrow pipes like cannons, damaging river banks and further degrading the river.
The Ausable River Association, the Nature Conservancy and local governments are working to gradually replace old culverts with newer, much wider ones. Along Otis Brook, which runs off of Jay Mountain into the Ausable’s East Branch just above the historic Jay Covered Bridge, the river association last year, working with road crews and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, replaced a 40-inch-wide culvert with a 19-foot-wide one that allows the brook to pass under the roadway effectively undisturbed. The project took three weeks — and an inconvenient road closure — as crews ripped up the road, rebuilt the course of the stream, capped it with a culvert and repaved the road. The project is more extensive than typical culvert replacements but creates a more flood-resistant thoroughfare for the brook and its fish life. The wider culverts enable wildlife — aquatic and small mammals — to pass safely under the road.
“It’s not cheap, but they [the road crews] are never going to have to come back to fix this,” Tucker said.
The previous culvert, which Tucker said dated back decades, was set off from the natural course of the brook; massive boulders had been built up where the brook would naturally cross the road, forcing water to make a hard left to flow 100 feet down a trenched-out storm ditch before taking a hard right to flow through the culvert and under the road. The replacement project restored the brook’s natural path and significantly widened its underpass of the road. Kneeling down at one end of the new culvert, you can hear the stream as it flows over and around the rocks on its way under the road — the way a brook is supposed to sound.
“I guess that’s the babbling brook thing,” Tucker said. “All that is the movement of water, oxygenating the water.”
The association started studying and planning culvert replacements in the 2000s and had completed a river restoration project that survived the Irene floods. But the projects took on added urgency after the storm demonstrated the true power of the Ausable. The association in recent years has mapped out plans for 13 river restoration projects in and around Jay and is working with Wilson, the Keene supervisor, to develop a plan for the river in Keene and Keene Valley. With more funding, they hope to replace more culverts and restore more sections of river.
“Imagine trying to get your brain around 30 miles of river with six communities and farm fields in it,” Tucker said of the monumental planning challenge. “We talk about communities being more resilient; we also need to talk about natural water infrastructure being more resilient. If a [river] system isn’t healthy it can’t do its job, move that sediment, wood and water, and rebuild its form if it’s damaged.”
A damaged river will take up space to rebuild itself, flowing through old channels, forming new ones and spilling out of its usual flood plains. Where the river’s vulnerabilities meet human infrastructure, trouble always looms. And the storms and water will keep coming; scientists expect the worst of the future storms to be more intense and stick around longer. If the rivers are stronger, restored in key spots to their self-sustaining potential, they will better manage those storms and limit damage to the communities they course through.
CALM UNTIL IT’S NOT
The Ausable was calm on Wednesday, meandering leisurely through deep valleys, flush green tree canopies starting to take on the earliest hints of yellow, orange and red. A man enjoyed a beer on the cobble beach where Johns Brook flows into the Ausable near the Mountaineer store; he had just taken a dip in the water and said it was pristine. In Jay, families sat on dry rocks on the edges of the steep but easy-to-scramble falls just above the town’s historic covered bridge. An artist set up an easel on dry riverbed for a good view of the falls. The wooden bridge crossed a deep chasm well above the river.
But 10 years ago, that same river rushed under that same bridge by mere feet. Videos memorialize the river’s inner ferocity unleashed during Irene.
Both history and future climate projections point to more floods in the Ausable River watershed. Climate change promises to bring more heavy-rainfall storms to the region and development still exists in the flood plain. But residents hope efforts to restore the river to its natural strength and build stronger road and human infrastructure will help Jay and Keene and other Adirondack communities survive those storms.
“The big thing is making sure we are building resilient infrastructure and considering not only what the river is doing today, but what it can do in the future,” Wiltse said. “So when another event like Irene happens, which it will eventually, we can weather that storm.”