Halloween storm of historic proportions got Adirondackers planning for more severe rainstorms in an unsettled climate
By TIM ROWLAND
Having paid rapt attention to the weather reports during the final week of October, Greg Beckler knew a storm was coming. But for once he wasn’t worried about flooding—even though his stock in trade is a riverbed.
Owner of Natural Stone Bridge & Caves in Pottersville, Beckler was well aware of what Trout Brook was capable of, because it had wiped out stairs, walkways and railings before. “Irene (in 2011) shut us down for several days,” he said. This time, however, he removed everything that was removable, and stowed it away high and dry on the riverbank.
“Usually when the rains are really heavy I get nervous,” Beckler said. “This time I wasn’t, because everything was buttoned up and good to go.”
The weather could do its worst. And did it ever.
As Beckler was stowing away his gear, a low pressure was gaining strength as it moved up the Ohio Valley and over Lake Ontario. Temperatures ahead of the front rose into the 60s and 70s in eastern New York. To the west, the low pressure was rear-ended by a fast-moving cold front creating both a downdraft and a deluge—almost the meteorological equivalent of a power washer. A steady moderate rain turned into a wind-driven downpour that was falling too fast for the ground—already soaked from a previous storm—to absorb.
As night fell across the central and southern Adirondacks, reports came in fast and furious to the National Weather Service: By 8:30 p.m. there was up to 3 feet of water covering Herkimer County roads; at 9 p.m. flash floods were reported all along the southern rim of the park; at 10:30, an elderly man trying to flee his stranded car was swept away and drowned; by midnight even main roads were beginning to close due to high water; at 5 a.m. an airboat was called in to rescue stranded people in Wells. By 10 a.m., bridges were starting to succumb to the high water.
No classic nor’easter
On Nov. 1, whipping winds of up to 60 mph arrived, the second act of a one-two punch that felled trees by the score, knocked out power and cut communities like Wells and Hague off from the outside world.
In Johnsburg, 25 roads were washed out. In Essex County, 50 homes were damaged and two or three were a total loss. By Christmas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared a major disaster for 18 New York counties, making them eligible for assistance with an estimated $33 million in damages.
But perhaps most ominously, as the climate grows increasingly tormented, this was not a classic nor’easter, or the remnants of a hurricane tracking up the Hudson. This was just a rainstorm. And it brought with it some lessons and warnings about the future of Adirondack weather.
In Port Henry on the Adirondack Coast, Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said he’s seen worse. He ranked the storm a six or seven on a scale of 10. But on the morning of Nov. 1 he looked out on Lake Champlain as he has done for decades and saw something he never had before. “The lake was swirled like a marble cake,” Scozzafava said, from multiple streams and shorelines disgorging tons of sediment.
The storm ripped deep gashes in the Port Henry beach, causing a half-million dollars in damages. It also was unique in that it cut so many communities off from help. As the winds knocked down power lines across the region, highway crews were blocked from repairing roads that had been washed out by the rain. Drivers of big tandem trucks full of gravel sat powerless, waiting for the power companies to show up and clear the wires.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said trails were battered by both wind and rain. Three bridges were washed out on the Elk Lake-Marcy trail; the newly refurbished road to Boreas Ponds was washed out; and roads and trailheads were damaged throughout much of the south-central Adirondacks. Even Mother Nature was unprepared for Mother Nature—The Safford Pond snowmobile trail in the Fulton Chain Wild Forest was impassable after, of all things, a beaver dam failed.
Soaked root balls were easy pickings for high winds, which toppled trees by the thousands across the park, further complicating things for snowmobilers just weeks before the season was to start.
‘That had never happened’
“I’d just finished brushing out the trails for the season, and then the storm hit,” said Dick Conversano, who maintains snowmobile trails around Inlet. “We had 50 trees down on one trail alone.”
As the waters rose throughout the southern part of the park, old-timers went further back in the collective memory to recall when the rivers had been that high—1972; or 1931; or 1912; or never. The floods played havoc with hydroelectric equipment in small generating plants.
North Hudson estimated it did $500,000 worth of damages to the state’s new outdoor showpiece, the Frontier Town campground on the Schroon River (DEC says it will be repaired by spring). Just to the North, the old Frontier Town A-Frame was surrounded by water, looking like a pup tent someone had pitched too close to the surf.
John Van Alstine is a Wells sculptor whose work is known and renowned around the world. He also lives along the Sacandaga River where gauges danced with record levels. To find a flood that was close to the Halloween storm, Van Alstine said it was necessary to go back to another holiday, the New Year’s Day Flood of 1949. But the rains that caused that flood fell over several days, not several hours.
“We were lucky, we only had a couple of sculptures that were tipped over,” Van Alstine said. “But people’s homes were flooded on (Algonquin Lake). It went up 6 feet in a couple of hours—that had never happened.”
Schroon Lake was up at least 4 feet, as residents made a cottage industry out of posting videos on social media, showing kayaks, pontoon boats, docks and canoes being tossed about on the water like bathtub toys. “The storm shows the destructive power of the weather,” said Schroon Lake Association member Glen Repko. “It seems that we are seeing more and more severe storms that drop a large amount of rain over a relatively short period of time. My guess is the increasing effect of climate change in our area.”
Bill Amadon, who grew up in Piseco and has a camp on Cold Brook agreed. “I think this is going to be a trend,” he said. “We’ve got quite a problem in the Adirondacks, and we’re going to have to scramble to keep ahead of it.”
For flooding, Hurricane Agnes had set the standard in Piseco nearly a half century ago, Amadon said. The Halloween storm was worse. Floodplains that were safely above Hurricane Irene levels were inundated with three to four feet of water. At his camp, Amadon lost a strip of forest 30 feet wide and 100 feet long to Cold Brook. “This is the power of water,” Amadon said. It tossed around boulders the size of beer barrels.”
That power was on full display back at Natural Stone Bridge & Caves. After managing the popular attraction for nearly 20 years, Beckler can tell the height of the river just by listening to the sound it makes. When he woke up on the morning of Nov. 1, a Friday, he cocked an ear toward the water. It wasn’t as loud as he’d heard it at times, but it was—different.
As he peered down into the chasm he could see why. The equipment Beckler thought was safe and sound was underwater. Concrete staircases were toppled and boulders rearranged. Things will get back to normal, but it will take work.
“Our family has had to deal with floods, ever since we opened up in the ’40s,” Beckler said. “I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing more and more of these events, but we always learn and we’re always figuring out how to do things differently.”
Such strategic thinking will be necessary across the park in an era of a changing climate, said Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association. In the Ausable River Valley, where Hurricane Irene is still mentioned as if it were yesterday, the flooding was impressive, but not as bad as it had been in 2011.
That storm did terrible damage to roads, bridges and homes, but it provided an opportunity to think scientifically about how to mitigate future damage. “We need data, field surveys and assessments at any site or stream in question,” Tucker said. “That allows us to develop appropriate site- and system-specific responses that target causes of instability and don’t just put a Band-Aid on a symptom.”
When a road washes out, for example, the fault often doesn’t lie with the road, but somewhere upstream where the river is clogged with sediment or has no access to a floodplain. So staying ahead of more serious problems involves data and also involves thinking comprehensively about the entire stream system including infrastructure around it and storm water flowing into it. “When we take the time to develop comprehensive restoration plans that take into account public safety, community needs, clean water and stream health, we can be better prepared for the challenges of a changing climate,” Tucker said.