Much of the North Country is still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. Four weeks on, I return to the notes I jotted during and shortly after Irene passed through Essex, New York.
A sheet of water cascades in front of the parlor windows. I’ve sunk into an armchair to watch the white caps rolling into our stone seawall. Into the dock beneath Rosslyn boathouse. Wind surges, thrashing and straining the leafy limbs of the gnarled old maple tree on the front lawn, violently snapping the boathouse flag.
Hurricane Irene has been delivering a less devastating blow to the Northeast than originally anticipated, and yet our lawn is littered with branches, entire tree limbs and even the top half of an Aspen which snapped off next to the carriage barn. Lake Champlain‘s water level has risen dramatically, gobbling up the sand beach and lapping at the stone seawalls currently being rebuilt north of our boat dock.
I initiated this post during the worst of Irene’s wind and water, however I quickly abbreviated my commentary. My mind flashed back to Lake Champlain’s destructive spring flood. I grew superstitious, my premature relief that Irene had taken it easy on us replaced by dread that I was underestimating her impact.
The next day I continued my observations after a demoralizing round trip to Plattsburgh. My suspicions had been confirmed. We were lucky; others unlucky…
The day started well enough. Clearing skies. Sunshine. Only a light breeze, virtually imperceptible after yesterday’s 65mph gusts.
I checked the waterfront, noted the dramatic rise in water level then celebrated the absence of damage to the boat house. I walked the lawn and counted about a dozen broken limbs strewn over the grass. The top third of an aspen tree had snapped off and lay crushed to the south of the carriage barn. But no serious, unrecoverable damage.
My sunny disposition clouded briefly upon finding 27 bags of ready-mix concrete that had been left uncovered by the fellow rebuilding the stone seawall. All had been soaked and were now petrified, unusable.
Nevertheless, I departed for Plattsburgh relieved that we’d escaped virtually unharmed.
This is where my notes end. The day would force me to recalculate my earlier conclusions. Yes, Susan and I had been fortunate. Rosslyn had been virtually unscathed by Irene. But many of our neighbors in Whallonsburg, Willsboro and Wadhams and throughout the Champlain Valley were underwater.
Normally I’d drive through Willsboro, up and over Willsboro Mountain and then pick up “The Northway” (NYS Route 87) north to Plattsburgh. But I’d already heard that roads were closed beyond Willsboro, so I turned south toward the ferry dock to try another route. Our Town Supervisor was directing traffic at a road block, so I stopped and rolled down my window.
“What a mess. Roads are closed everywhere.”
“Can I get to Plattsburgh?”
“Route 12 is the only access to The Northway.”
“Toward Lewis? That’s fine.”
“Would you show those folks how to get to Meadowmount?” she asked, pointing at a car with out-of-state tags that was parked across from the Masonic Hall.
I pulled in front of the car and parked. I introduced myself to the driver and explained that they could follow me to Meadowmount. They were grateful.
With 20/20 hindsight I should have realized that I would need to take Route 12 to the Lewis exit on the Northway and then cross over and lead them into Meadowmount from Betty Beavers Truck Stop. But there are a half dozen local routes between Essex and Lewis that would be quicker. It never occurred to me that all of them could be flooded.
They were. And over the next thirty minutes I tried every one only to be stopped at road blocks or unmarked, submerged roads. Staggering. But most heart breaking of all was Whallonsburg, a hamlet of Essex a couple of miles inland from Lake Champlain. The Boquet River flows directly through the middle of Whallonsburg and it had flooded so high that five or six houses along the river were totally inundated. A couple of homes had water up the the second story windows! Emergency services had been set up at The Whallonsburg Grange, and volunteers were directing traffic and assisting displaced residents.
I would revisit this heartbreaking scene the following day during a bicycle ride assessing the damage all along the Boquet River corridor. By then the water had retreated and residents were dragging furniture and carpets and clothing and books and appliances out onto their yards. Over the next couple of days enormous dumpsters were filled with the destroyed possessions. During my most recent conversation with a friend who lives in Whallonsburg I learned that at least one and maybe more of the homes were condemned. Despite the devastation, it’s been heartening to experience the community spirit and volunteerism that have resulted. The community has pulled together to help the residents effected by Irene with a fundraiser (Good Night, Irene) and countless hours of volunteerism.
Still trying to absorb the depressing situation in Whallonsburg I proceeded to attempt one road after another. And it seemed that with each “dead end” our entourage collected another vehicle. In due course our entire caravan made it out to The Northway, hopefully in time for one of the cars to make it to the airport without missing their flight. At Betty Beavers I got out and explained to the first car how to get to Meadowmount and offered them my card in case they got stuck. Only a few days later I received a gracious email from them explaining that they made it safely to the music school where their son had studied some years prior.
I mention this detail for the same reason I explained the community recovery efforts in Whallonsburg. Irene’s proverbial silver lining may be the humanizing influence. People connecting and helping one another. This was also the case last spring when Lake Champlain flooded its banks for weeks on end. In both natural disasters the disruption and destruction were catastrophic, but in both cases effected communities rallied and supported one another. This civic responsibility, this community spirit underpins the attractive North Country lifestyle that has embraced us since moving from New York City to Essex in 2006.
In closing, the photograph at the top of this post was taken after Lake Champlain’s water level rapidly rose due to the runoff from Irene. Although it pales in comparison to the water levels last spring, it was surreal to watch our beach disappear as water levels returned to typical spring levels.