When Irene Reached the Adirondacks

Melinda Tuhus
No One Expected Flooding in the Adirondacks and Vermont; But with Climate Change, It Could Be a New Reality
Can you imagine a major road repair being done in two weeks? More like two years, in many folks’ experience. But that’s just what happened after Tropical Storm Irene flooded and wrecked the highway in Keene Valley that runs to the premier Adirondacks vacation spot–Lake Placid and the High Peaks–on August 28, 2011.

My family has vacationed in the Adirondacks for most of the past 20 years. Last year we drove home from Lake Placid down Route 73 exactly a week before the storm caused the Ausable River to overrun its banks and flood the highway; it also devastated much of southern Vermont after crashing ashore near my home in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s almost unheard of for such a storm to strike as far inland as the Adirondacks and Vermont. It’s exactly the kind of incident scientists predict we’ll be seeing more of as climate change accelerates.

Melinda Tuhus
During our vacation back to Lake Placid and the High Peaks this August just before the first anniversary, I interviewed Bill Ferebee, the supervisor of the Town of Keene, who explains that Governor Andrew Cuomo (who vacations in Saranac Lake, a few miles from Lake Placid) lifted environmental regulations so workers could get the job done. Ferebee notes that Cuomo said of Route 73, “’If in two weeks cars don’t roll, heads will.’ Those were his exact words.” Ferebee says it’s a lengthy process to do any work in the lakes, streams or rivers in the Adirondack Park, a six-million wilderness area interspersed with small towns and villages, but the governor waived all the permit requirements. He was concerned about the potential economic impact of a long disruption of traffic.

Pretty much all the homes and businesses around Keene Valley were flooded, and a few were destroyed or severely damaged, including the back half of the Keene Volunteer Fire Department, which slid into Gulf Brook.

He says very few people were hired to do the clean up. “Everybody volunteered, hundreds of people.” That included both locals and people who came from all over to hike the mountains and wound up hauling mud.

Russ and Angie Cook and their two kids, Caleb and Hallie, live along Route 73. The storm slammed into their house, which filled with three feet of water, wrecking the inside. They evacuated for six months, and had the house raised three feet and re-did the entire inside and are now re-siding the outside. Although Russ, a kindergarten teacher, has done the bulk of the work, it’s clearly a family project. One day just before the anniversary all four of them were in the yard staining the siding an elegant weathered-gray. They, not surprisingly, did not have flood insurance, but they do now. “I’d be crazy if I didn’t,” Russ says.

Ron Konowitz ambled by while Russ was working on his house. Russ calls him the storm’s “number one volunteer.” Turns out he had just retired from a 33-year teaching career in town when the storm hit. He’s also a volunteer firefighter for the Keene Valley Fire Department. He helped with evacuations and accountability. “We didn’t lose anybody,” he says, “which was a blessing.” He pumped basements for the first several days, then began helping individual neighbors. He was the volunteer coordinator for Gov. Cuomo’s program, Labor for Thy Neighbor on Labor Day Weekend. “Basically this whole area was covered in about two and a half feet of mud,” he says, “It was nice to be retired and be able to keep helping people.”