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August 26, 2012

Overcoming Irene: Rebuilding in Keene

Towns still recovering, preparing for future flooding

KEENE — The fierce winds and driving rain of Tropical Storm Irene have washed into history. 

Ribbons of asphalt are remade in fresh, black turns on vital roads. 

Nearly all of the bridges in Essex County are restored. Retaining walls that hold back the rivers are reinforced.

But, one year after Irene swept through the region, towns still struggle with debris cleanup costs that reach to six figures. And residents are still coping with the personal toll the storm took on their families.

Essex County was one of the seven hardest-hit counties in the state, according to the Governor’s Office. Emergency-repair payments are slowly dripping in from federal and state disaster-response coffers.

It isn’t the money, or lack of it, though, that most here look back on in a year’s worth of rebuilding.

It’s the advent of reuse and rethinking, of community and kindness they remember from the worst natural disaster in modern memory.

‘IRENE-PROOF MUM’

Just over a year ago, Keene Valley farmer Rob Hastings watched the Ausable River suck away an entire season’s waiting harvest and much of the rich topsoil that graced his fields.

Beyond flooded food crops, there were two — just two — autumn mum plants left when the storm cleared. 

Hastings auctioned off the better of the two, the “Irene-Proof Mum,” for $500 last fall.

This year, his gardens have grown full again with 900 mums in bloom.

“That is way better than the two left after Irene,” he said.

But the recovery effort was exhausting.

“It was like rebuilding an entirely new farm in one year, though we learned an awful lot,” Hastings said in retrospect.

“When we put the new fencing up, for instance, we learned how to put it up even more securely. And when we covered the greenhouses, we covered them with stronger plastic, which withstood the 80-mph winds (in a recent storm). 

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