Mike Fayette says state Department of Transportation workers like to think they can handle just about anything.
But on Aug. 28, 2011, as Fayette received report after report of roads destroyed and bridges washed out by the raging flood waters brought by Tropical Storm Irene, he realized this was going to be very different.
"The DOT as a whole, and maintenance staff in particular, we like to think we can take care of everything, and you fight it as long as you can, saying, 'I can take care of this, I can take care of this," said Fayette, DOT's resident engineer for Essex County. "For a while we were holding on, but it just turned into something we had never seen before."
Sections of state Route 73 in St. Huberts, seen here on Aug. 29, 2011, were washed out by Tropical Storm Irene. Route 73 is the main connection between Lake Placid and points south.
(File photo — Naj Wikoff)
In the hours and days that followed the storm, DOT and private contractors responded to the disaster with an army of manpower and equipment, working at breakneck pace to repair and rebuild road and bridge infrastructure ravaged by Irene.
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More than a week before Irene struck Essex County, Fayette said he was closely following weather forecasts and planning for the possibility of the storm hitting the region.
As it got closer, Fayette said DOT crews moved equipment, traffic cones, barrels and barricades to various locations around the county where they felt they could run into problems. Streams, bridges and road conditions were checked. Variable message signs were set up at opposite ends of the county to provide information to motorists. Fayette polled his crew of roughly 50 maintenance staff to see who was on vacation and who would be available if they were needed.
Meanwhile, Reale Construction of Ticonderoga, DOT's emergency contractor for the region, was also gearing up.
"We saw the hurricane working up to the Northeast, and we put ourselves on notice and started talking to the state," said the company's vice president, Peter Reale.
By 6 a.m. the day the storm hit, Fayette said all his forces were in and ready to respond.
As the rain poured down, Fayette, who was stationed at his office in Elizabethtown, started getting reports of significant damage, particularly in the western portion of the county.
"In Keene, when Gulf Brook jumped its banks and came down Hurricane Mountain Road, we started deploying forces there," he said. "In AuSable Forks, where the two branches of the river come together, it started backing up there and ended up on Route 9. We tried to stamp out the fires as they got further along.
"I had all my supervisors out, relaying me information. There were places you just couldn't get to. There were places where they would get trapped a little bit and have to find ways to get back. For a period of time we were basically traffic cops, telling people where they could go and couldn't go and helping out as best we could."
Fayette stayed in contact with DOT's Region 1 office and main office in Albany throughout the day. As day turned to night, Fayette said it was clear that they were going to need a lot of help.
"Route 9N between Keene and AuSable Forks, especially in the Upper Jay area, was pretty much wiped out," he said. "Between St. Huberts and the crazy intersection (of state Route 73 and U.S. Route 9), sections of road were just washed away. When I heard that night that (Keene town Supervisor) Bill Ferebee declared a state of emergency in Keene Valley, I knew then we had a big, big problem."
The following morning, teams of DOT workers from other parts of the state began to arrive: brush crews, tree crews, ditching crews and hauling crews. Fayette matched them up with local DOT workers and dispatched them where they were needed the most.
Private contractors, including Reale's company, also responded the day after the storm hit.
"We moved all our crews from other ongoing road and bridge work to concentrate on repairs," Reale said. "We had between 50 and 100 workers on the payroll, dozens of pieces of heavy equipment of our own and rented dozens more pieces of equipment and hired trucks."
One morning, Fayette said he showed up to work and there were at least 50 trucks parked outside the agency's Elizabethtown facility, which is normally home to only 23 vehicles.
"At the bottom of Spruce Hill (in Keene), we had a giant wood chipper. I had crews, probably 20 trucks hauling all the daylight hours for a week straight, just feeding this thing with wood that had jammed up underneath bridges," Fayette said. "There was a mountain there."
After coordinating the response from his office for the first few days, Fayette finally got the chance to see the damage for himself.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said. "What's really remarkable is, last year in April, we had all that rain combined with a rapid snowmelt. In the same year we had flooding problems, and it wreaked havoc, but this was a magnitude much beyond that."
"In my 35 years in construction, I had never seen such widespread devastation of our infrastructure," Reale said. "We'd been involved in ice storms, floods, landslides and earthquakes, but this was the worst I or most people involved had ever seen in our careers."
One of the biggest tasks DOT faced was rebuilding Route 73 between Keene Valley and St. Huberts - the main connection between Lake Placid and points south. Some initially said it would take two months to do the work; it was reopened in 10 days.
Reale said his company met with DOT engineers the day after Irene hit to tour the area and come up with a plan to rebuild the washed-out roads.
"We contacted the local quarries and they began extra shifts blasting and processing stone fill and gravel products," Reale said. "We worked dawn to dusk, and when it was safe to proceed, we worked late with construction lighting. At times we had over 50 trucks hauling stone to fill in the washed-out sections."
Fayette said the governor's decision to suspend state environmental regulations in the wake of Irene was key to reopening Route 73 much sooner than initially expected.
"I told the governor we could do it," Fayette said. "He wanted it open, and that's what we do. We like challenges, and we were up for it."
"It could have been stretched out there, but it was extremely beneficial to get (the road) back as quickly as we did," Ferebee said. "It just shows what government can do when they want to work together."
Asked to evaluate his agency's response to Irene, Fayette said DOT did "as well as we could.
"I don't know if I'd do anything different, but I would have an expectation of what to see," he said. "I know my potential problem areas a lot better."
Although DOT won a Public Service Excellence Award earlier this year for its response to both Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, much of the work performed by its crews and the contractors who responded has been largely unheralded.
Fayette said that's OK with him.
"I'd never say people aren't appreciative of us," he said. "I'm sure they are, but I tell all my supervisors that if we do our job right, we're like a referee in football or an umpire in baseball: Nobody remembers us. They just remember the game."
Enterprise Staff Writer Chris Morris contributed to this report.