Business owners in flood-ravaged communities prove they’re resilient survivors.
By Kenneth Aaron
September 11 is a brilliant late-summer Sunday in Keene Valley. The sun is shining, it’s 80 degrees, and it’s a perfect day for tourists to catch early-season foliage.
There’s only one thing missing: tourists. A couple of kids are riding bicycles in circles on Route 73, the main drag from the Northway to Lake Placid, an activity that on a normal day might seriously impact one’s health. The Noon Mark Diner, which would typically be doing a brisk lunchtime business, is quiet. Inns and B&B’s have plenty of vacancies.
Down the road a bit at the outlet store of the Mountaineer, an outdoor-equipment outfitter, the racks are filled with merchandise damaged by the torrents unleashed by Tropical Storm Irene: mud-spattered T-shirts, mud-spattered boots, mud-spattered backpacks. All steeply discounted—half off and more.
Look closely, though. A lot of this stuff isn’t any more beaten up than it would be after a couple of days on the trail. Damaged? Some. But functional. And functioning. Ready to go.
That description could also be applied to Keene, Keene Valley, and Jay, the three communities hit hardest by Irene. Soon after that monster storm roared through on August 28, flooding the Ausable River and its tributaries, the towns made it plain they were still open for business. If the last images you saw of these places were of wrecked roads and buildings carried away by a deluge triggered by the ten inches of rain that fell, that’s not necessarily what you’ll find today.
“We need for people to know we didn’t get washed away with the flood,” said Rosie Winchell, whose family owns the Noon Mark Diner. “It’s pretty scary when people think you’re not there any more.”
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, customers stayed away from the region in droves. The first weekend after Irene was Labor Day weekend, normally one of the busiest times of the year. Winchell said the Noon Mark had only two servers, down from six. And they probably didn’t even need two. Other businesses also reported that customers were scarce.
In the first days after the storm, they would have found an utter mess. Many of the businesses got back on their feet thanks to an army of volunteers who descended on the area, shoveling muck, clearing debris and restoring order.
At Green Point Foods, an epicure’s market on Route 73, co-owner Luke Ayers said the storm dumped three to four inches of mud on his store’s floor and pushed him and his wife, Leslee—at the time expecting their first child in a matter of weeks—to a friend’s place. They were able to reopen in less than a week, sans carpeting, which was torn away to reveal a glue-stained concrete floor that actually looked like it was supposed to be that way. “Free distressed floor, thanks, Irene,” Luke Ayres quipped.
Vinny McClelland, co-owner of the Mountaineer, said the storm wrecked his heating system in his main store and pushed an enormous heap of debris to his outlet store. It was a mess that was cleared only with the help of others: “We had the Wilmington highway department and the Lake Placid highway department who were on my property for two days removing probably a thousand cubic yards of material from the outlet store,” he said.
A group of fourteen students from the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid showed up, getting into the crawl space of his store, raking and shoveling mud into five-gallon buckets. “All smiling,” he said of the students. “We had two guys from Rochester, just appeared from nowhere. They said, ‘Where can we help?’ I sent them to my father’s house.” They refused a gift certificate as a reward for their work.
That was heartening, he said. When “all you’re doing is shoveling and raking and uncovering more and more damage, it can tend to drag you down, and when you get people who come in and help you out, it can make a big impact.”
But the effects still linger. McClelland says the storm cost him upwards of six figures in lost sales, inventory, and damage to his buildings. Like many business owners, he was uninsured for the flood damages, and had to work with his bank on financing options. “The residual hangover is that you’ve lost so much business,” McClelland said in early October, five weeks after the storm. “It’s finally starting to come back. What’s really encouraging is we’re seeing people driving to Keene Valley specifically to shop at Keene Valley.”
Jay Haws, co-owner of the Dartbrook Lodge, said some of his loyal customers made reservations at the inn in the days after Irene simply to support the business. “We have a pretty devoted customer base,” said Haws. “I’m hoping, by the time this goes into press, this is far into the past.”
Many businesses turned to the Internet to let customers know, via e-mail blasts and social-media sites such as Facebook, that they were still open. The Keene Business Association introduced a gift certificate that can be used at two dozen participating area businesses.
Marie McMahon, co-owner of the RoosterComb Inn in Keene Valley and chairwoman of the Keene Business Association, said that when shoppers buy the certificates, business owners get revenue right away. That’s critical to help them beef up inventories ahead of the holiday shopping season. By the time the certificates get redeemed for goods and services, those businesses should have their legs back under them.
Nevertheless, shoppers still show up at the Mountaineer who believe that things in the backcountry are worse than they are. It’s true that many of the region’s most popular hiking routes were closed immediately after Irene, but that’s not the case any longer. “In fact, all the trails are open except for a couple,” McClelland noted.
Some say the state’s reaction immediately after the storm didn’t help. The Department of Transportation reported that Route 73, the only way to get to Keene Valley, would be closed indefinitely and put up road blocks to the north and south of the hamlet. Although motorists could go around the north road block, business owners say it deterred people from driving to Keene Valley. (Route 73 ultimately reopened on September 12, much earlier than expected.) Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Conservation closed the eastern High Peaks Wilderness, Giant Mountain Wilderness, and Dix Mountain Wilderness, three of the most popular hiking destinations in the Adirondacks.
The effect, McMahon said, was swift.
“As soon as that happened it cut off ties to any of the businesses here in Keene and Keene Valley,” McMahon said. “People were losing reservations, even into October, the middle of October,” she said. “There was one inn who lost seventeen nights of reservations.”
McMahon said she scrambled to find somebody at the state who could help get the word out that businesses and many trails were still open. “The beauty of the story is, I immediately reached out to [the DEC’s] Dave Winchell, who got it. As soon as he heard my story he got it. And I immediately began working with him, changing the wording” of the department’s announcements.
Her own inn wasn’t filled again until the end of September, a month after the storm. “We estimate that we’ve lost about three months of income just in that short amount of time that normally we would stash away for winter,” McMahon said.
Fiona Burns, co-owner of the Adk Cafe in Keene, said business has taken a turn for the better since the reopening of Route 73. “It definitely has made a significant difference,” she said. Columbus Day was particularly good—one of the better weekends the business has had since opening in February. She heard reports that other businesses enjoyed strong sales as well.
Still, Irene still doesn’t feel completely like a thing of the past, Burns said. Business is picking up, but the community itself is still dealing with residual issues such as broken heaters and creeping mold. And Burns said she still gets asked about Irene by customers. At this point, the disaster may be responsible for some business: occasionally, tourists tell her that they decided to visit the Adirondacks in a show of support.
Businesses, of course, aren’t the only ones that suffered. Many homeowners—the exact tallies vary—suffered great losses. Some will never be able to move back. The Essex County Office of Emergency Services says residents reported that 240 homes were damaged by Irene, nearly half in the town of Jay. In Clinton County, 388 homes were damaged, but only a handful were destroyed.
Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up disaster-response centers to help dispense grants to storm victims, the awards won’t come close to fully healing homeowners and business owners who suffered great losses. FEMA’s maximum payout is $30,200, and as of the end of September, the average payout for housing assistance was $4,400, said Don Jaquish, director of the county’s emergency services office.
“I’ve seen people get very upset,” Jaquish said, “because the assistance they think they’re going to get is not there. It’s there to help. But it’s not going to make you whole.”
On the other hand, by many accounts, the response to the disaster has been generous from both locals and out-of-towners. Organizations in both Keene and Jay have established relief funds that are managed by the Adirondack Community Trust. Harpist Martha Gallagher has recorded a CD, The Water is Wide, whose proceeds will be donated to relief efforts.
Nevertheless, Kelley Tucker, a member of the Jay Flood Relief Committee, said the communities need more money to help people get back on their feet. In late September, Tucker estimated there was between $30,000 and $40,000 in the Jay fund, “and we need an extra zero,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s absurd to say, but we’re going to do our best.” (The amount has since grown to over $70,000.)
Dave Mason, vice president of the Keene Community Trust, said the volume of donations has been impressive. “The thing that I see that no one else sees is the number of donations. There’s something like 750 donations,” said Mason, whose group is raising money for the Keene Flood Relief Fund. “For our little town, Keene, that’s a really heartening thing to know that people care that much.”
As important as the money is, volunteers are needed as well. Joe Pete Wilson Jr., Keene’s volunteer coordinator, organized a series of cleanups that continued through much of the fall. “There’s so much damage and so many people in need,” he said. “And at the same time, we’re getting a spontaneous response of people who want to volunteer and help.”
Wilson dispatched volunteers to go door to door to see what kind of assistance residents need; some are too proud to actively seek help. “This event is really like a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s a terrible, destructive force. But at the same time, it’s really brought out the best of the people in our communities.”
Kelley Tucker worries that even with the help, these small communities are about to get smaller. With most families not insured for flood damage, and FEMA payouts too small to cover rebuilding costs, it’s likely that some people will simply opt to move away. “How do we not lose families that have been in our hamlets for generations?” she asked. “There are still people who aren’t in a home. There are still a couple of folks I know of who are not going to have a home to go back in and aren’t going to have the means to make the transition. We worry what’s next for them.”
Even so, as the disaster recedes many who made it through the Flood of 2011 talk warmly of the generosity that marked its darkest moments—and hope that kindness is the high-water mark that endures.
“There should be a silver lining in a tighter community,” Mason said. “Some of the community facilities will be better than they were, and the connection between the socioeconomic classes around town will be better. People won’t forget this. But we don’t want to do it again.” ■
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
The Adirondack Community Trust has helped establish two funds to help local victims of Tropical Storm Irene. Here’s how you can give:
Keene Flood Recovery Fund. Your donations will help residents and businesses in Keene, Keene Valley, and St. Huberts. Send checks to:
Keene Flood Recovery Fund
c/o Adirondack Community Trust
P.O. Box 288
Lake Placid, NY 12946
For more information: www.keenefloodrecoveryfund.org
Jay Flood Relief Fund
Donations will help the communities of Upper Jay, Jay, and Ausable Forks. Send checks to:
Jay Flood Relief Fund
c/o Adirondack Community Trust
P.O. Box 288, Lake Placid, NY 12946
For more information: www.helpjayny.org
The websites of Adirondack Community Trust and both recovery funds have links and instructions for making an online donation.
ACT’s website is www.generousact.org. (ACT’s phone number is 518-523-9904.)
American Red Cross
The North Country chapter of the American Red Cross also is assisting victims.
You can make an online donation at www.redcrossneny.org.
The chapter’s phone number is 518-561-7280.
More Irene Coverage:
• The big rain – Tropical Storm Irene alters the lives of Adirondackers, the course of rivers, and the faces of the High Peaks.
• New slide guide – Hikers and skiers look forward to exploring the many new slides created in the High Peaks by Irene’s deluge.
• Park Perspectives: In the wake of the flood
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