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.


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). 

“In terms of flood recovery, we are about 95 percent back.”


The National Wildlife Service, with assistance from Trout Unlimited and the State Department of Environmental Conservation, just completed repairs that will protect the farmland beside the river.

“It’s a river-remediation project, which means we won’t be losing any more land, and flooding will be controlled,” Hastings said.

“It’s in ‘hope’ mode, not in actual reality yet, but now I feel like I can go ahead and plant in a field I could not use before.”

Rebuilding at the farm was largely accomplished with local funding and support.

“At first, (local authorities) begged me to go to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), but FEMA looked at us and said, ‘We don’t do farms.’ Then they told us to go to the Small Business Administration. But SBA said, ‘You’re a farm, not a business,’ and I said, ‘Oh, really?’ 

“I just threw my hands up, at that point. It was an agonizing process. 

Recently, Hastings made application for a $20,000 assistance grant.

“That is as much as they could give,” he said.

“But we were very thankful for the assistance from the town and the people at the Keene Flood Fund, which could not have been a better thing. Within three days of filing for help, they put funds in your hands.”


Rivermede’s Farm Market, in a separate building in the heart of the town, was also damaged in the deluge, along with nearly every home and business along Route 73.

Recovery at McDonough’s Valley Hardware Company close by was the result of many hands.

Val Warner works at the family business, owned by her brother, David McDonough.

She remembers that first footstep into the mud-raked general provisions store when the floodwater receded.

“To see the look on David’s face — he was in total shock. Then people just showed up … Everybody in this town needed something, and everyone showed up with something to give.”

There were hundreds who came from near and far to help clear the mud and muck. 

There were donations of food and rags and cleaning supplies and heavy equipment and encouragement.

Endless volunteer hours were given without question, the toil accomplished in near silence.

“No one had to say anything,” Warner remembered of the months worth of work done in weeks by many hands.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The busy hardware store is thriving once again, like Hastings’s farm and many other businesses in Keene and Keene Valley that picked up and forged ahead.

“I could only say thank you, thank you, thank you for the help. We realized most of all what a wonderful place we live in, for sure, with a community that rallied behind everybody,” Warner said. 

“It was just a big family working together to get through it.”

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A year after the massive Tropical Storm, the North Country is still picking up the pieces. Over the next week, this series catches up with those who found themselves in the center of the storm as victims and rescuers and what life post-Irene has brought them. Tomorrow: Costly strike.