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A Look Back At Tropical Storm Irene’s Impact In The Adirondacks

State and local officials tour damage from Tropical Storm Irene in Keene, NY
Pat Bradley
State and local officials tour damage from Tropical Storm Irene in Keene, NY

Ten years ago Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the Northeast, causing significant damage across the region. The northeastern corner of the Adirondacks saw rivers and streams overflow their banks, homes flood and washed out roads. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks back at Irene’s impact near the hamlet of Jay, New York.

The Ausable River starts in the Adirondack High Peaks and meanders through the mountains to Lake Champlain. Normally a bucolic river popular with anglers, it swelled more than eleven feet above flood stage as Tropical Storm Irene swept past the eastern slopes of the Adirondacks. The raging waters damaged roads, homes and infrastructure in numerous towns and hamlets including the Town of Jay.

On August 28, 2011 Randy Douglas was the Town of Jay supervisor and the chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. He said the river had flooded numerous times throughout the years and the disaster committee thought it was prepared for the incoming storm.

“But you can never be prepared for what hit us that day. I thought we were very well prepared. But it was just something that was too big.”

As the storm approached and heavy rain began falling, Douglas says he and the town highway superintendent met with then county emergency services director Don Jaquist.

“And the phone rang and it was the National Weather Service and the person on the line said to Don Jaquist do you know the supervisor of the Town of Jay? Don says he’s sitting in my office right now. And he said tell him he’d better get back to his town because they’re about to get hit with the worst flooding in the history of the Town of Jay. That feeling was just devastating. My jaw dropped. My heart almost bounced out of my chest," Douglas says. "On our way back we ran into numerous trees down. Water all over the place. I remember [Town Highway Superintendent] Chris [Garrow] was out cutting trees with chain saws. I was out there throwing brush aside so we could get back to the town office. It amazes me that we made it through without any deaths in Essex County and in particular the Towns of Jay and Keene.”

While there were no deaths, Douglas notes there was extensive damage.

“Not one dollar went on the local tax budget. We were able to lobby and leverage enough funding to make our people whole and then some to improve our facilities. As you know we lost water, sewer, our youth facilities, roads, bridges. Between Jay and Keene we had $25 million worth of damage and you know when budgets are around $2 million a year it’s devastating.”

Ten years later Douglas still sees the scars of Irene.

“Especially when you see where the buyouts were and you see where the people’s homes, generation after generation, and you see there’s no longer a home. To see that brings back a lot of emotions. And when I look at pictures cleaning mud and silt and everything else out of their homes." Douglas continues, "But on the flip side of that I also can see new bridges, you know new water and sewer infrastructure and those sort of things. But when I ride around and I see the loss of the homes, the loss of the residents, the loss that our people suffered, that’s the part that saddens me the most.”

In the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene heavy equipment was allowed to bulldoze the riverbed to adjust the channel while road repairs were done. Ausable River Association Executive Director Kelley Tucker acknowledges the emergency nature of those efforts but notes it increased river restoration work.

“We did go back in and fix Johns Brook. There are a couple large examples of that that are in our design phase now that we’re hoping to raise money for to restore most notably the confluence of the East Branch and the West Branch Ausable River below Ausable Forks," says Tucker. "It was just another just devastating area devastated by Irene. So many homes, businesses, livelihoods just at risk there. So we’ve been working really hard with those communities to come up with a plan that alleviates as much of those problems as possible by restoring the river.”

In Keene, New York, flood waters destroyed the local fire station. It was eventually rebuilt at a new site on higher ground. In the immediate aftermath of Irene, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed numerous trails to the eastern High Peaks region due to washouts, trail damage and mud slides.

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