Almost every week in the past year, an article about Shandaken has mentioned the flooding that swept over the town during Hurricane Irene. Whether the news is about stream remediation on the Stony Clove Creek to prevent future flood damage or the optimism of newcomers who have bought local restaurants and hotels in defiance of the historic flood, the disaster that hit Shandaken in August 2011 persists in our consciousness.
The immediate effects included damage to low-lying homes and roads, with a section of Oliverea cut off from civilization for several days by washed-out bridges. Those whose property had been spared helped clean up mud-strewn homes, the community coming together in a powerful way, while town crews worked to rebuild roads and bridges. For some residents, this assistance was enough to restore a sense of normalcy. Others, a year later, have found their lives irrevocably changed.
One of the attractions of the Copperhood Inn and Spa in Allaben is its splendid view of the Esopus Creek — which also makes the resort vulnerable to flooding. Irene rerouted the stream into a narrow channel that undercut the bank, threatening the stability of the buildings and replacing the broad flow of water with a litter of rubble. Proprietor Elizabeth Winograd said she didn’t get much help from government agencies for the costly restoration but obtained assistance from an unexpected source.
She did receive $12,105 from the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) to repair a culvert and rip-rap, but that amount was a drop in the bucket compared to the $60,000 she had already spent on restoration and the thousands more that her property required. She applied for a $100,000 grant from Empire State Development Corporation, which is giving her only $6,000.
After applying unsuccessfully to various agencies, Winograd was advised by March Gallagher of the Ulster County Development Corporation to check in with her power company, NYSEG.
“They were amazing,” said Winograd. “They saw that I was a 31-year customer, faithfully paying high bills, and they said they would help me. They paid $150,000 for doing the abutment and the rip-rap, restored electricity on the island, and helped me with heating for the buildings. NYSEG saved my business from closing down.”
She is still frustrated that DEC is blocking, on environmental grounds, some of the changes she needs to make to protect her property. “In a flood plain where no one lives, I agree, just let the river take its course. But when something’s inhabited, we need to protect it — we should have rights too. They act like they know everything, and we are idiots.”
During the storm, Joe and Judy Livoti were evacuated from their Mount Pleasant home in a pontoon police boat. They returned to find a mud line three feet high on the walls and the contents of the house ruined. Volunteers organized by the Rotary Club came to help clear out the house. Within days, Joe Livoti and his son started tearing down sheetrock.
“We got help from a close friend of ours, a contractor, and his son,” explains Livoti. “The four of us ripped out everything down to the studs, and put in new insulation, wiring, plumbing, furnace, heating system. In four months, we were back in the house.”
Friends gave them furniture, and Livoti’s sister bought them a bed. “It was a humbling experience to have all these people so giving,” he said. “It still brings a tear to my eye, the camadarerie we had. I used to run a youth center in Pine Hill in the early 80s. When the Rotary came, there must’ve been 70 or 80 people here, pushing mud, pulling out furniture. I heard the voice of one of my girls from Pine Hill, Bonnie, who I hadn’t seen since then. She had her three sons with her, all teens like she was back at the youth center. It was very emotional.”
Now life is almost back to normal, he finds. “The only thing you miss is that we were so used to having stuff and knowing where stuff was. The screwdriver, the passports — but we’re working through it.”
As for the future, he mused, “I hope it was only once in a lifetime. They said it was a 300-year flood, so we’re hoping for the best. If it ever happened again, I don’t know what we’d do. I guess we’d move. I’m apprehensive about the streams — they left these big piles of stones in middle of the stream, which displaces water out of the streambed and onto the roads. That makes it more hazardous for us.”
He concludes, “Even though it was a traumatic experience, I’m fortunate I still had a foundation to build on.”
“We’re well on our way with recovery efforts, including road, bridge, and stream restoration,” said town supervisor Rob Stanley this August. “Every road is passable, but we still need some work to bring things back up to where they were, and we need mitigation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
A township the size of Shandaken doesn’t have the money for repairs on the level required, but the Federal government has come through with funding. The town has received $150,000 from FEMA, and another $550,000 is slated to come to the highway department as projects are completed. Stanley estimates that a total of $3.5 million is required, and it will take three years to finish restoration of such washed-out areas as McKinley Hollow Road in Oliverea.
After the flood, many residents blamed the extent of the damage on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which has discouraged dredging of streams for the past 15 or 20 years. A project that had been in the works for almost a year, digging gravel from the Stony Clove in the area around the Main Street bridge in Phoenicia, was fast-tracked immediately following the hurricane. The work appeared to prevent flooding on Main Street 10 days after Irene, when Tropical Storm Lee added insult to injury with another high-water event.
At this point, said Stanley, “No dredging projects are planned, although we’ve had several discussions with agencies about the Bridge Street bridge.” After the reopening of the repaired bridge just before Memorial Day, the county advised Stanley that the area should be dredged to prevent future damage to the bridge. “This one will be tougher than the Stony Clove, due to what the DEC will allow,” Stanley predicted. “They say a stream should be allowed to follow its natural course, that deposition of gravel is natural occurrence, but when that occurs under a major thoroughfare, into the economic heart of Shandaken, it’s a problem.”