Press-Republican

August 29, 2012

Fire stations ruined; relocation on hold

Upper Jay, Keene fire houses still need repairs after Irene

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — KEENE — Torrential rain from Tropical Storm Irene turned the east and west branches of the Ausable River into monsters a year ago.

Like serpents, river currents rose with lashing waves and a surging force that pushed everything out of its way.

By good providence, no one was killed in afflicted Essex County towns, though the National Weather Service marked 7.55 inches of rainfall at Whiteface Mountain between Aug. 28 and Sept. 1, 2011.

Many residents faced treacherous rescue as their homes were inundated. And those who went in after them — by boat or by rope or by ladder — were firefighters and trained emergency medical technicians.

But even the rescuers were affected.

Volunteers with two of the county’s fire departments could only stand by and watch as rivers ripped through their fire-station walls and swept valuable gear into the roiling, fluid tempest.

Fire stations in Keene and Upper Jay remain damaged to this day, with limited and, in Keene’s case, temporary use. 

MUST MOVE SOON

State, federal and local officials are still trying to come to terms with costs for rebuilding the fire stations, vital links to public safety.

Flood damage to the Keene Fire Station was terminal — the building is condemned.

“We’ve got two fire trucks in what remains of the Keene station under a temporary certificate of occupancy that expires at the end of August,” said Alan Cary, chairman of the Keene Board of Fire Commissioners. “We were told when we got it that it would not be renewed.”

The company’s other fire trucks are stored in other barns and garages.

Insurance money allowed Keene to begin plans to rebuild and relocate with an initial nod from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for some $600,000 in disaster-recovery money.

But as shovels were poised for breaking ground earlier this month, commissioners were told the FEMA allowance was to be cut in half, based, commissioners believe, on dimensions and code aspects of the building’s structural design.

Keene Fire District had gone ahead with land purchase and design plans for a 5,400-square-foot station that complies with new Essential Services Codes in New York.

“They (FEMA) had no idea what an Essential Services building is — it has much more stringent building codes since 9/11. Public services buildings have to be built to be the last building standing after any natural or manmade disaster,” Cary explained.

UNDER REVIEW

In May, he said, the federal agency approved their plan to relocate.

“We went ahead when they gave us the nod at the meeting in May in front of 45 people,” he explained.

“Up here in the North Country, you take people’s word for it. We were within hours of getting the funds formally allocated when they pulled it again on Aug. 3.”

The fire company is in true financial limbo, faced with moving out of the condemned Hurricane Road structure by the end of next week and losing ground daily on an already tight construction schedule.

“We proceeded based on the project worksheet we signed on June 1,” Cary said. “We advertised for bids and opened bids on the promise this FEMA (award) was going to be obligated. On Aug. 3, the funding was pulled back into review. Without that funding in place, we don’t have the means to go ahead.”

Cary figures they have already lost the 2012 construction season.

‘NEXT TO IMPOSSIBLE’

Looking back, the fire commissioner said, they would never have counted on federal assistance if they knew then what they know now.

“If we could go back to Sept. 15, 2011, we would have not even put FEMA in the mix, and we would have had a firehouse built by now, right where we have planned it, across from Stewart’s Shops.”

Redesign cannot be turned on a dime, and building contracts are in force until Sept. 15.

“It would be next to impossible,” Cary said of reorganizing the design plan in time for construction this season.

“If we have to redesign and rebid, we would toss $130,000 down the drain.”

FRUSTRATION

Originally, Keene designed the station with two options: one that was just two garage bays for the trucks, and one that included meeting and gear-storage space. 

“And if we have to go (back) to the garage-bay design, it’s going to cost us $30,000 plus to re-engineer — that is, if we can even use what we have on paper now. We’re still waiting for Sen. (Charles) Schumer, who is pushing to help us. If we lose this season, we will have to rebid,” Cary said.

The entire experience proved challenging way beyond the flood’s destruction.

“You just bang your head against the wall. FEMA is the most frustrating organization I’ve ever dealt with, bar none. We are not the only essential services that this has been done to by FEMA.”

STILL TEMPORARY

Upper Jay fire commissioners have appealed to FEMA for relocation of their damaged fire station, which sits beside the Ausable River.

It took nearly eight months for their organization to settle a flood-insurance claim, with help from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state insurance advisers.

Upper Jay fire equipment is also being housed in temporary quarters in the Jay fire hall some 5 miles away.

No one knows yet what defines “temporary.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

Overcoming Irene

A year after the massive Tropical Storm, the North Country is still picking up the pieces. This is the fourth in a series of articles catching up with those who found themselves in the center of the storm as victims and rescuers and what life post-Irene has brought them.