Town of Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee, left, and town Highway Department employee Ryan Hall Tuesday, Aug. 28 put up one of two banners on the Marcy Field building thanking people for supporting the recovery effort for Tropical Storm Irene, which caused a lot of damage to roadways, bridges and buildings. It was the one-year anniversary of the storm.
Driving home from vacation last week, Essex County Board Chairman and Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas passed a line of vehicles that immediately sent him back in time.
“My wife and I were on our way home from Florida when we came across a convoy of power company trucks heading into Florida to prepare for Hurricane Isaac,” Douglas said. “Emotionally, it brought back some memories.”
The memories are not happy ones for Douglas, Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee or the other supervisors, town residents and property owners who suffered through the effects of Tropical Storm Irene, effects that are still being felt one year later.
“I think that I have learned over the past year is that you have to have patience,” Ferebee said. “Any time that you deal with things in government, there has to be patience. FEMA and other government agencies came in and they would be here for one day and then be gone.”
“It will take at least five years before we can say that we are at a level where we are fully recovered,” Douglas said. “It changed us. We thought that we were very well prepared for a situation like this, but now I don’t think that there was any way we could have been truly prepared for what Irene did to us.”
Prior to Aug. 28, 2011, the town supervisors had spent an evening together at dinner, along with Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston.
“Preston thought we might be making too big a deal over it, but I couldn’t stop being worried,” Douglas said. “The next morning (Aug. 27), I called my staff together to put a plan in place if there should be a need. We had a plan in place and we did the best that we could.”
Ferebee said that he relied on growing up in Virginia and having experienced hurricanes before.
“I had heard that there was the chance of a hurricane, but being from the south I remembered that there was a lot of wind and a lot of rain. What I hadn’t thought about was they were a lot more prepared when it came to issues like water runoff because they had experienced it so many times.”
Both supervisors awoke to the heavy rains on the morning of Aug. 28 that announced the arrival of what was then Tropical Storm Irene, and watched through the morning as both the winds and intensity of the rain picked up.
“At about noon, I told my wife that I wanted to drive into Keene Valley and check out where we had recently had mudslides,” Ferebee said. “The river was up a little bit, but I was not concerned then. At about 3 p.m., it was really pouring and I decided that I wanted to take another look at the slides. Going to Marcy Field, there was water over the road. A half-hour later, you could only get to the rock cut and the road was flooded. to see that much of a rise in the water in that little amount of time, that is when I realized that we were in trouble.”
“We kept trying all morning to find out where the storm was going, and I remember coming into the house once and telling my wife that I had never seen it rain this hard before,” Douglas said. “Eventually Chris Garrow (Jay DPW Superintendent) said he wanted to go to Lewis to get a generator from the county. When we got to Lewis, Don Jaquish (County Emergency Services Director) was on the phone with the National Weather Service. They were asking if he knew who the supervisors of Jay and Black Brook were. Don said that he had one of them standing next to him. The guy from the weather service then said that we needed to be prepared because Jay was going to get hit harder with this storm then it had ever been hit before.”
Douglas said that the signs of damage had already popped up on the return trip to Jay.
“Power lines were down, roads were damaged, and it took us forever to get back,” Douglas said. “I went to Jay to help get people out ay around 5 p.m., and there were places and people that you just could not get to. At 6 p.m., I was standing on the steps of the Catholic Church in Au Sable Forks and watched as the river came up and over the road. Those sites were unbelieveable.”
“My first response was to go down to the town hall and call any of our elderly residents who lived along the river,” Ferebee said. “They had all been moved or had someone helping them.”
Ferebee said that while he was on the phone alerting people to the threat, one eye was focused at his neighboring building.
“All through this, I was watching the firehouse,” Ferebee said. “Someone came running in and said there was a hole in the foundation. Then they came in and said it was bigger. Then we watched as half of the firehouse was swept down the brook. That day is not a blur for me; I can remember everything.”
The following morning, Ferebee took to the ground in Keene and Keene Valley, walking through the streets and surveying the damage.
“The next day for us was a matter of finding cots and food for those who needed them,” Ferebee said. “I walked down the streets a number of times, and the only way I can describe it was that it was an eerie day. Residents were just standing there, looking at the devastation and walking around in disbelief that this had happened.”
Both supervisors said that they remembered the people who came to help, including state representatives and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We are fortunate that the governor came and helped us out with the lifting of permits while we were still assessing,” Ferebee said. “We had the National Guard on hand to help out, and that helped us start to bounce back.”
Douglas said his encounter with the power trucks on vacation also brought back the feeling of appreciation.
“I just thought about all the people who came to help us out here,” Douglas said. “If you think about it, all of the trucks at that time were down in New York City where they were expecting a direct hit, and we still had people here to help quickly.
“The last time the governor was in the area, he asked me to come and see him and the first thing he asked me was what still needed to be done in order to recover,” Douglas added. “He was the one asking, which is far better than us having to seek him out or go to his people.”
Douglas said that there are still issues that need to be worked out like debris removal, the Upper Jay and Keene fire departments along with property acquisitions, but that the communities continued to be united.
“Is it as fast as we want it to be? No,” Douglas said. “But we are working at it. I think that this has made our community stronger. Our people are resilient and come together. Those small neighborly disputes all of the sudden didn’t mean anything.”
“We have bounced back very well, and we look good from the streetscape,” Ferebee said. “But if you get out of your car and take a walk up any of our rivers and brooks, you can see where we are still working. The staff and the residents are what have helped us get the job done. We have still got some struggles, but I love my job and what we can do. The biggest thing is that we did not lose any lives (other than a cat and a rabbit) and no one moved away who lost their homes. This truly was a situation where we were all in it together.”