New York sinking

When you’ve been to the natural-disaster rodeo a few times, as a reporter, there begins to be a profound and depressing sameness to the story that emerges out of every fresh calamity. You watch from afar, helplessly, as each little community touched by storm and fire learns anew the hard-won lessons that took your town years to absorb.

A headline in the Washington Post this week gave me a wearying sense of déjà vu:

“For many small-town Carolinians, the question isn’t when they’ll rebuild — but whether they will at all.” 

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From this corner of broke-ass, flood-gutted small-town America, let me tell you, Terrence McCoy: They will. Again and again, they will rebuild. They will sink their hopes and their dollars and their 4×4 posts into the wet ground, like so many dominoes to be knocked down when the next 100-year flood rolls through in a decade or so.

A New York Times reporter wrote a story like McCoy’s about the Catskills once. His name is Kirk Semple. I met him at the Andes Hotel in 2011, right after Irene walloped us good, and we struck up a conversation. He was looking for a disaster story, and a place to stay in town. He ended up crashing on the couch of the Andes apartment out of which my wife and I were running the Watershed Post, a local news website that had become a round-the-clock live feed of Irene disaster news, and picking our brains for story ideas. 

Ravine across Route 47/Oliverea Road carved by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. (Photo by Julia Reischel)

A few days later, he filed his story: “On Flood Plain, Pondering Wisdom of Building Anew.” It was widely loathed in the region. For weeks, people around here spoke his name with an audible sneer for having the temerity to suggest that we shouldn’t rebuild, for instance, the hamlet of Phoenicia. Or even the Margaretville Freshtown, which doubles as a dam across the East Branch during nasty weather. One might just as well suggest that New York City pack it in and call it a day.

I confess, we egged him on to write that story. It was one that we — as day-in, day-out chroniclers of local news — could never get away with running, not if we wanted anyone to speak to us again. As a community, we have never been good at contemplating the question of whether we ought to exist on the ground we occupy. 

I had coffee this morning in Margaretville with a friend from Middleburgh. He’s barely in his twenties, and I’m a couple of decades farther down the road, but he reminds me of myself: a small-town academically-motivated, civic-minded sort who doesn’t quite fit in but stays anyway, paradoxically full of both rootedness and ambition. The kind of guy who could write a ticket out, but stubbornly refuses to give up on Main Street. 

Middleburgh is doomed, he told me. Seems like a major flood takes a bite out of the town every 15 years or so. By all the laws of reason and self-preservation, the good citizens of the village ought to retreat en masse to somewhere a little higher and drier. Still, he says, he’s probably never going to leave.

We were sitting at Picnic, the bagel shop across the street from the Freshtown. I waved a hand out the window at the parking lot, the supermarket, the bridge to Route 28. “This whole thing is Flood Alley,” I said. “None of it should be here.” 

There was a government program that was supposed to fix this. Dubbed New York Rising, the program set aside almost $575 million after Irene, for more than 300 flood recovery and resiliency projects in towns and villages stretching from the North Country all the way to the tip of Long Island. 

I live in hope that someone will do a huge investigative news report on New York Rising: what it got done, what it missed, what obvious projects went undone because of infighting or incompetence or political inexpediency. (ProPublica, if you’re listening: there’s some juicy stuff here.) But even without a team of reporters digging into the documents for months, one thing about New York Rising is obvious: It didn’t work. 

Bridge washed out by flooding from Tropical Storm on Hatchery Hollow Road in Oliverea. (Photo by Julia Reischel)

We have new flood maps now. Buyouts have released the owners of a few of the most vulnerable structures from the endless karmic cycle of flooding and rebuilding. A project to address some problems with the Binnekill bulkhead is still grinding on. But it’s fiddling while Rome floods. Seven years after Irene, the most obvious problem in Margaretville hasn’t been touched: the triangle of flood-prone land between the Binnekill and the East Branch, on which the Freshtown and the CVS and the Bun ‘N Cone squat like fortresses, standing ready to shunt the terrible force of the swollen river onto nearby Main Street the next time Ma Nature comes for us. 

The New York Rising committee studied the idea of doing something about it, but concluded it was much too expensive. In any case, the Freshtown’s owners didn’t want to move, and every last man, woman and child in Margaretville wanted their grocery store back, so that was that. 

The news coming out of Florence country right now, especially the little neglected rural towns, is heartbreaking. It’s a wonder that people choose to live in some of these places at all. But even with climate change and communal fragility eroding the very ground out from under our feet, most of us are stubborn. We’re going to rebuild. I’m not sure that’s something to be proud of, but it’s what we’ve got.

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