Where Hurricane Irene Really Wreaked Havoc

Irene may not have lived up to expectations where the cameras were, but its impact is still being felt farther inland, where the real damage was. A report from the floods.


Despite numerous predictions to the contrary, Hurricane Irene didn’t blow North Carolina’s Outer Banks to pieces or push a deadly storm surge through the streets of Baltimore. By the time it reached Manhattan, it was downgraded to tropical storm status, and the intense media coverage that preceded it began to fade along with the nation’s attention. But up here in northern New York and Vermont, the real devastation was just beginning. Irene saved her worst for last.

Think “hurricane” and most of us picture palm trees bent over in a howling wind, or a frothing sea devouring coastal towns. But there’s more to a hurricane than wind. Hurricanes also carry megatons of water that are sucked from the ocean surface, and even though Irene’s winds eventually slackened enough for experts to re-label it, the storm still threw a powerful wet punch at the Adirondacks of New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Within a few hours of the storm’s arrival, steep hillsides were funneling torrential rains down onto narrow valley floors, destroying roads, bridges, and buildings on a massive scale. Worst of all, several people lost their lives.

Days later, those of us who live outside the zones of destruction can still seem surprisingly blind to the carnage. National media coverage has been relatively thin, perhaps in part because attention shifted elsewhere when the winds and waves failed to do what had been expected. When Irene didn’t seem to live up to the hype, pundits began bashing the weather experts and reporters for exaggerating the danger. But if not for those advance warnings, far more of my fellow North Country residents would have been caught unawares, especially if the waters had risen at night rather than during daylight hours.

At first, I didn’t understand what had happened either, thinking that we’d gotten away with a few downed trees and a good soaking. Rain gauges near my Adirondack home in Paul Smiths caught only two inches from Irene on Sunday. What I didn’t realize, and what is only now becoming horribly clear, was that people just a few miles east of me were living through hell.

Observers in the Ausable River Valley area measured between seven and 13 inches of rain over the course of a single day, enough to drive the river and its tributaries out of their channels and straight through local settlements. A minor stream in Keene suddenly rose up, tore the fire station in half, and ripped a new channel right through the center of town. Route 73, one of the main access routes to and from the Adirondack Olympic region, was completely severed by the Ausable. In Vermont, where most of the fatalities occurred, bridge after bridge was swept away, leaving many communities cut off from road access to the outside world.

Irene was every bit as dangerous as the hype suggested, but not in the way we expected. Now let’s do what we can to support our neighbors as they struggle to pull their shattered communities together.


[Image: Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

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About the author

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University (1985).