Following last year's Tropical Storm Irene, a community foundation based in Lake Placid stepped forward to serve as the clearing house for private philanthropy, helping residents and businesses in Keene and Jay devastated by floodwaters from the AuSable River.
To date, the Adirondack Community Trust reports that it has received $800,000 in gifts from more than 1,320 donors from across the country. All of that money has been distributed so far, and donations are still rolling in. Through partnerships with the Keene Flood Recovery Fund and Jay Irene Flood Relief Fund, ACT has awarded 204 grants to 104 homes, 14 businesses and four civic organizations.
Cali Brooks, ACT's executive director, said she vividly remembers the day Tropical Storm Irene hit, as well as media reports detailing the extensive damage to homes and businesses in Keene and Jay.
Funds distributed by the Adirondack Community Trust following Tropical Storm Irene helped people like Dennis, left, and Martha Gallagher of Keene, get back on their feet. They also helped people like Paul Johnson, right, owner of Paul’s Bakery in Upper Jay, keep their businesses open.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"We at ACT had a couple of contacts down in Keene, and I called up some of these contacts and said, 'Is there a role for philanthropy, and can ACT help?'" Brooks said.
Brooks immediately reached out to members of the Keene Community Trust, a local group that had been dormant in recent years. Brooks asked them if they wanted to help with flood recovery efforts; they said yes and immediately formed a local advisory committee of people in the community who had on-the-ground access to homes and businesses and could assess the needs of their neighbors.
As the Keene trust's philanthropic partner, ACT set up a fund within 24 hours of the storm and began notifying people that it was accepting donations. Brooks said ACT received hundreds of phone calls from donors in the days following Irene.
"So we began to receive thousands of gifts from all over the country," she said. "We put them into a fund at ACT, and we worked very closely with this committee to identify the people who needed it the most."
Melissa Eisinger, communications and donor services officer for ACT, said a number of businesses, organizations and elected officials were invited to meetings to make sure they were on board with what ACT was trying to do.
"We said, 'Do you like the idea of ACT administering this fund for you?' and they said, 'Yes, three cheers, move on,'" she said. "Then they stepped aside, and the volunteers ran the show."
Eisinger said ACT and the community funds strived to make the grant applications simple.
"They came up with an application that was so un-red-tapey," she said. "One of the people who applied said she couldn't even believe that that's all she had to do because when you apply to (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) or something else, you've really got to jump through all sorts of hoops."
Brooks said ACT worked closely with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a community organization that helped lead recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"They sent us a lot of the documentation, which we just turned around," she said. "(We) changed 'New Orleans' to 'Keene' and 'Jay.' We made our first grant in Keene I think four days after the flood had occurred."
ACT also had to do some fundraising to pay its own employees and run the organization.
"We did it at a loss," Eisinger said.
FEMA's presence was felt in Essex County; by December 2011, the federal agency has distributed more than $2 million to nearly 600 applicants. But some homeowners needed relief sooner, especially those who needed to repair their homes before winter.
Martha and Dennis Gallagher own a home on state Route 9N in Keene; the East Branch of the AuSable River runs through their backyard.
"The neighbor's barn had hit the back of the house - floated down, hit the back of the house," Martha said. "The water drilled down 12 feet deep, 20 feet wide, nothing for the foundation to stand on. So not only was the foundation gone, but (there was) this huge hole. That's what we looked at: The back wing (of the house) just hanging out in space. It was kind of (like), 'Oh my God.'"
The Gallaghers said ACT was able to give them relief quickly. They declined to say how much they received but described it as a substantial amount - enough to make critical repairs before colder weather settled in.
"The application was so basic," Martha said. "In your stressed state, you don't have to think about, 'How do I answer this, and where's the paperwork to answer that?' It was just very straightforward because the people on the committees distributing money kind of knew - they could drive by your house. ... It wasn't a blind government process, if you will."
ACT also helped distribute funds to businesses, something FEMA doesn't do. ACT officials said no businesses were forced to close in Keene or Jay as a result of the flood.
Paul Johnson owns Paul's Bakery in Upper Jay and lives in a home behind the business. All of his property was heavily damaged by Irene.
"I received nothing from FEMA," Johnson said. "I did not go back (to FEMA) over and over again because my job was so physically demanding, and then any moment that I wasn't at my job, I was ripping my house apart. I didn't keep pursuing it; once I was turned down, I think, the third time from FEMA, I said, 'Forget it. I'm not bothering (with) that.'"
Johnson said ACT was a huge help for him. After the first grant came through, ACT encouraged him to keep reapplying as needed.
Local government officials were appreciative of the work ACT did after Irene. Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said the organization's approach was thoughtful and thorough. The town of Keene also received funds from ACT to rebuild its skating rink and for heating needs.
"They were cautious not to give out funds that really weren't needed," he said. "I know some of the members that were on the board, and they took it very serious. It wasn't just taking somebody else's money and just dispersing it."
The town of Jay was also a recipient of funds from ACT. Supervisor Randy Douglas said ACT and the town's relief fund played a big role in the recovery effort.
"It worked out very well," he said. "We were able to help a lot of families in a time of need."
ACT's flood relief effort represented a new type of activity for the organization. The group has been around for 13 years, distributing funds for scholarships, nonprofits and individuals, but this is the first time it has helped in the wake of a natural disaster.
Brooks said ACT stands ready to help in the event of future natural disasters like Irene.
"We hope we're not called upon for that reason, but that's our primary role: to bring philanthropic resources to this region for ongoing needs," she said.