WILMINGTON - Tropical Storm Irene didn't damage this town's public infrastructure too badly, but its two most famous private tourist attractions are another story.
High Falls Gorge and Santa's Workshop are closed due to Irene damage, a few months after April flooding caused the family-owned Gorge to borrow as much money as it could to repair the catwalks and trails that overhang the frothy West Branch of the AuSable River.
While Santa's Workshop expects to reopen Saturday, High Falls Gorge is closed until further notice. The river rose 5 feet higher Sunday than it had in April, damaging walkways, fencing and a deck, Gorge owner Katherine Reiss said this morning. Also, there's only about half a foot of dirt left against the pillars that support the back of the attraction's main building.
An aerial photo shows the swollen West Branch of the AuSable River as it rips through the High Falls Gorge in the Wilmington Notch Monday afternoon. It was higher Sunday.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"If that dirt goes, I'm done," Reiss said. "I need fill. I need equipment. I need help"
Volunteers came out to clean up debris Wednesday, for which Reiss is very appreciative.
"Between my staff and everybody we were at least able to remove debris, which at least tells us what we need to repair now because now we can see the structures," Reiss said.
"Seeing young kids help help other people.. the best day ever," Diane Chase of Bloomingdale posted on High Falls Gorge's Facebook wall.
But Reiss doesn't expect anyone to donate the steel, fill and heavy equipment she needs to reopen. She can't make it up in business because this is the end of the season, and she won't get Labor Day customers this year. She said she also can't get any more loans, even from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, because after the April flood, she "borrowed all that our equity could hold to fix up."
She estimates she'll need $250,000 for repairs, and she is asking people for donations, which aren't tax-deductible since the Gorge is a private enterprise. Donations can be made through www.highfallsgorge.com.
Santa's Workshop, one of the nation's first theme parks, is doing better. Electricity and phones just came back on Wednesday, but its train ride along a creek may not be running when the park reopens Saturday.
"You know the stream that runs through us? That just exploded," Tracey Hovey, the Workshop's retail buyer, said this morning. "It was raging."
When Whitney Ratliff offered to volunteer labor, the Workshop referred her to others in the area who need the help more.
"(T)hank you so much for the offer, but Santa's helpers are (doing) a great job," it said.
"Is the mother hubbard restaurant closed down too?" Melanie O'Donnell posted on Santa's Workshop's Facebook wall Wednesday morning. "My baby is turning 5 tomorrow and wanted to have breakfast with santa."
"(W)e will have breakfast on Saturday morning," the Workshop responded. "(L)et your little one know that Santa is very sorry."
Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston noted the damage the these two attractions but said that in terms of public works, "Wilmington dodged a bullet with this one" compared with nearby towns like Jay and Keene. The town beach lost its new dock, ropes and a third of its sand - the beach will be closed until further notice - one town road was damaged, and the reservoirs are filled in again with debris. Also, Irene dropped trees onto two houses, but no one was hurt.
"I don't think our damage will exceed $40,000 for the town public entities," Preston said. "My heart goes out to neighboring towns."
He urged people in Essex County who were affected by Irene to go to their town office and fill out a survey form for disaster and flood damage. The initial form is basic, he said; it includes one's name, location, phone number and description of loss.
"My advice is to fill out the form so the county can track the people and places that have incurred damage," Preston said. "They should also contact FEMA's 1-800 number and go the website disasterassistance.gov, so they can't be forgotten."
President Barack Obama has declared the state of New York a major disaster area, and Federal Emergency Management Agency funding has been made available to Essex and seven other New York counties. Residents and business owners who have incurred damage in the selected counties can start applying for assistance today by registering online at www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).