Monday, September 12, 2011

Naj Wikoff: Digging Out in Keene

What follows is a guest essay by Naj Wikoff, a member of the Keene Flood Recovery Fund steering committee.

“The hardest thing I had to do this week was let three employees go today,” said Rob Hastings, owner of Rivermede Farm in Keene Valley. He and I were standing amongst a crowd of over 200 residents attending a pig roast, block party and benefit for the Keene Flood Recovery Fund on Market Street in Keene Valley Friday, September 9.

The event, which raised over $21,000, was further buoyed by the news that Route 73, the hamlet’s vital artery to the Northway that had been closed since Irene’s 11 plus inches of rain washed away major sections, would open on Monday. Just seven days earlier Governor Cuomo, countering DOT estimates that the roadway might be opened by Columbus Day but possibly not till December, stated that unless it was opened within 10 days, “Wheels will roll or heads will roll,” a statement followed by his suspension DOT and DEC restrictions on construction, such as requirements of going out to bid for contracts. Since then in a near 24-hour cycle DOT trucks have poured in with load after load of boulders, gravel and other road foundation materials.

The closure of 73 as well as 9N north to Upper Jay, and DEC media and web announcements that all trails in the eastern High Peaks were off limits to hikers, brought visitor traffic in Keene Valley to a dead stop and caused dozens of cancellations of room reservations during Labor Day weekend, the second busiest holiday of the year for local stores. Thanks to a massive volunteer effort that put hundreds of people at McDonough’s Valley Hardware and elsewhere scraping off mud, pumping out basements, cleaning shelves and merchandise, most stores, B&Bs and restaurants had managed to reopen, but what was missing was the people.

“Road Closed” said the sign to Keene Valley. “Don’t even think of going there” was the message. The hamlet of Keene was hardly better off as it was the center on incoming politicians and state officials, the media, National Guard, DOT trucks and Labor for Your Neighbor volunteers so that what visitors made it through the gauntlet scurried west to the relatively untouched Village of Lake Placid, though a fleet of water ski boats sank during the storm and River Road and Snowslip Farms were certainly torn up.

No question the attention by Governor Cuomo, who visited the hamlets on two successive weekends, and the outpouring of volunteers, the National Guard and DOT transformed the hamlets along with Upper Jay, Jay and Ausable Forks bringing them back from what appeared to be war zones to a somewhat sense of normality, though deep scars and uncertain futures remained.

Knowing this outcome likely to occur, a grass roots effort was launched while the rains were still falling and fields flooding to create the Keene Flood Recovery Fund with perhaps a greater sense of urgency than the media’s scramble to film the unfolding disaster. Jim Herman and Dave Mason, the soon to become president and vice president of the Keene Community Trust, lead the effort. Working in partnership with the Adirondack Community Trust (ACT) a small team was assembled. The goal was simple; raise as much money as fast as possible and begin giving it out in grants to local residents and business to help cover critical needs not met by FEMA, other government sources, insurance or sweat equity.

The process was not unlike the building of the Continental railroad wherein the trains followed the rails as they were built. The public relations and fund raising effort was launched simultaneously with the recruiting of five people to serve on the allocations committee while application and funding guidelines were being written, the Keene Valley Trust board reorganized, agreements with ACT negotiated, and web and Facebook sites created.

The Nature Conservancy provided the forum for committees to form, meet, and stayed energized with hot coffee available morning till night. Critical was the early blessing and support by Keene supervisor Bill Ferebee, agreement by the Keene Community Trust to take on a project of such scope, the talent pool assembled, and the full support of the Adirondack Community Trust, aided in no small measure that their president Vinny McClelland and donor recognitions officer Melissa Eissinger were residents of Keene. Another was the sheer mass of community development knowledge stored in the brain of Henrietta Jordan, who could draft funding guidelines the way some can cast a dry fly into an eddy on their first try.

As of this writing about $100,000 has been raised and the first wave of grants has already been approved, but the amount needed to raise is far, far higher if they are to reduce layoffs like those already done by Hastings. While to the casual observer the hamlets might not look so bad, the damage done has been severe. Over a dozen families are not able to move back to their homes and are in need of temporary housing, just two businesses lost over $200,000 in inventory, the Keene Firehouse has to be relocated and rebuilt, the public skating rink replaced, the Keene Library, which also houses the Food Pantry, needs an aggressive abatement program to keep mold from settling in, and one third of Rivermede Farm’s sugaring lines have to be replaced along with all their storage tanks and two greenhouses. The first 12 applicants’ losses, which does not include many of the previously listed, have totaled over $2.5 million, this before FEMA and insurance are factored it.

Meanwhile a recently constituted Keene Business Committee (aka chamber of commerce) is attempting to stop plummeting income and lure back visitors. Led by Rooster Cob Inn owner, masseuse and rustic furniture salesperson Marie McMahon, they have taken on the DOT, DEC and later the State Police to change their signs that announce the closing of High Peaks trails, detour visitors to Placid via Plattsburgh and other actions that discouraged traffic to local businesses. Plans are underway to host events over Columbus Day and a conference for high school and college geology professors to showcase the wide array of major environmental changes that include the largest landslide in recorded state history, 22 new slides in the high peaks, and the rerouting of streams and waterfalls creating what can be best described as moonscapes in some locales.

“Our goal is to help the community come out stronger,” said Herman. “One benefit of all these landslides, rerouting of streams, and other environmental changes is that there are many new features for hikers, geologists and environmentalists to see and experience. We are trying to get the word out that now is the best time to come see them while they are fresh. We have some new vistas of Giant that didn’t exist before and old streambeds that have been hidden for centuries are now revealed. New growth will cover them up. The time to see them is now.”

Another benefit was the Governor discovering that Keene Valley had no cell phone coverage. “Where can I get cell service?” Cuomo asked Ron Konowitz, a local volunteer fireman and on-the-ground coordinator of volunteers. Konowitz told the governor not only that he would have to travel three miles down the road and stand in the middle of Marcy Field to pick up a signal, but in fact there was a cell tower in place, had been for four months, though had yet to be turned on by Verizon, a consequence that had hampered communication amongst all the various state agencies, volunteers, rescue workers, civic leaders, the media and one governor and the outside word. The piercing brown eyes of the wheels-will-roll governor swiveled and locked on the “Frankenpine” hidden amongst the tall White Pines behind the Neighborhood House. Two days later a frantic Verizon worker stuck his head in the Birch Store asking if anyone could help him locate their cell tower. Pam Gothner did and the next day the hamlet had cell service.

The Keene Flood Recovery Fund can be reached at www.keenerecoveryfund.org

Photo: Keene Valley flooding during Tropical Storm Irene; Volunteers at work.

Naj Wikoff, a member of the Keene Flood Recovery Fund steering committee, is local artist, columnist for the Lake Placid News, president of Creative Healing Connections, which organizes healing retreats for women living with cancer, women veterans, and other special audiences, and arts coordinator for Connecting Youth and Communities of Lake Placid and Wilmington (CYC).

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Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at [email protected]




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