Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by the time it hit the North Country, but its force was still powerful enough to devastate communities along the AuSable River system and dramatically change the character of the Adirondack backcountry.
As rain from the Aug. 28 storm came down from the mountains, it turned unassuming brooks and streams into raging rivers. Those streams then flowed into the AuSable River, which hit historically high levels. Powerful waters washed out town roads, state highways, culverts and bridges, leaving locals and travelers stranded.
Statewide, the storm resulted in six deaths and left close to 1 million people without power for days, sometimes weeks.
Gulf Brook washed out state Route 9N in Keene, as seen Monday, Aug. 29.
(File photo — Naj Wikoff)
In the Adirondacks, the towns of Jay and Keene saw some of the worst damage. Gulf Brook, a small tributary of the AuSable River, surged with such strength that it washed away huge chunks of the Keene Volunteer Fire Department, leaving behind just a portion of the frame and foundation.
Downstream from Keene, the Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay lost one-third of its book collection, and the neighboring Upper Jay fire station incurred significant damage. And in AuSable Forks, the river spilled its banks and invaded entire neighborhoods, damaging homes that had just been repaired following flooding in the spring.
"This is the worst damage I have ever seen," Keene town Highway Superintendent Bruce Reed said at the time. "This was the size of those disasters you see on TV."
In Lake Placid, the West Branch of the AuSable River carried massive piles of debris down to the state Route 73 bridge next to the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex, piling tree limbs, rocks and other sediments where the river bends toward River Road.
Upstream in the High Peaks Wilderness, flooding washed out the Marcy Dam footbridge and damaged the dam itself. The Duck Hole dam was severely damaged, which caused the pond - a popular destination for adventurous anglers and paddlers - to drain. The heavy rains also formed new slides on backcountry mountains like Wright Peak.
No deaths were reported in the Tri-Lakes region, although two people were killed when their vehicle plunged into a river in the Clinton County town of Altona, and local rescue crews and volunteers did make some dramatic rescues.
Just south of AuSable Forks, town of Jay highway workers rescued five people from a van that was pinned near the Stickney Bridge Road, which also had to be rebuilt after the storm. In Keene, stranded people and animals were rescued by boat to bring them to safety.
Although the storm came in went in a matter of hours, it's taken months for communities to pick up the pieces - and there's still a lot of work to be done.
Immediately after Irene hit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency across upstate New York, and soon after, President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster area declaration. But Cuomo didn't just sit in his office in Albany.
Two days after the storm, Aug. 30, Cuomo descended upon the Adirondacks, along with U.S. Reps. Bill Owens and Chris Gibson, state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, and a host of state and federal officials.
Cuomo and his daughter Mariah walked door-to-door in Keene, speaking with business owners and homeowners.
To speed recovery efforts, Cuomo temporarily lifted state Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation permitting requirements. He announced that during his Aug. 30 visit.
"I understand the regulations, I understand the permitting process, but I also understand we need businesses up and running tomorrow, we need homes," Cuomo said during a press conference.
Cuomo made other moves to streamline recovery efforts. State Route 73 in St. Hubert's, a main artery to the Olympic region and the eastern High Peaks from Interstate 87, was wiped out by the flood. Early estimates said it would take two months to reopen the road.
But Cuomo put the screws to the state Department of Transportation. Two months went to two weeks to get one lane of traffic up and running. Days before that target date, both lanes reopened.
"It doesn't happen every day where government actually exceeds the deadline," Cuomo said.
Gibson, whose district's northern tip is the towns of Keene and North Elba, said he hadn't seen such devastation since his tour in Haiti following the earthquakes there. But he said he also saw New Yorkers at their best after Irene.
Across Jay and Keene, neighbors pitched in to help neighbors, despite damage to their own property. Children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens put their lives on hold for days to shovel mud, deliver food and offer shelter to people displaced by the storm. Both communities established relief funds that gave flood victims much-needed financial support long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency began sending out checks.
People in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake - communities that were spared the worst of Irene's wrath - held concerts and bake sales, and heaped clothing and supplies into buses bound for AuSable Forks and St. Hubert's.
Damages in Essex County alone surpassed $25 million, and with budgets already tight, towns had to borrow money just to make critical repairs. Jay took out loans totaling $3 million, and town Supervisor Randy Douglas says officials are still crossing their fingers that FEMA aid will reimburse some of those costs. In December, Congress approved an appropriations bill with an additional $8.1 billion in disaster relief aid.
Despite the show of support and the community strength that came out of Irene, some controversy boiled to the surface. As town highway crews worked to dredge and re-channel rivers, some observers said the bulldozers and excavators were making the brooks look like urban drainage ditches, possibly leading to worse flooding in the future. Town officials, like Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee, said highway departments were simply doing the best they could in an extreme situation.
But after just a few weeks, Ferebee and Douglas were able to bring those different voices together at a well attended forum at the Community Center in AuSable Forks, where local, state and federal officials, nonprofit organizations, and citizens discussed the best approach to river mitigation. As late as December, state Department of Transportation workers were back in parts of some brooks - under the supervision of federal, state and county conservation agencies - restoring critical fish habitats and reshaping river banks in ways that could protect communities from future flooding.
Four months have passed since Irene shocked the North Country. Some people are still out of their homes, and some are still waiting for federal relief checks.
In November, Owens joined Douglas to inspect a ruptured water main, which has since been replaced. As they walked back to the town offices, Owens marveled at the resiliency of the townspeople that they want to stick around and rebuild instead of take a FEMA buyout.
But Douglas said he wasn't surprised.
"It's their community," Douglas said. "They don't want to leave. It really is quite amazing what they've been through. Some of them have already started to rebuild their homes, and they're ready to go for the third round."