Ten years ago Tropical Storm Irene’s torrential rains devastated the Ausable River Watershed. I tell my story of the first day living near one of its tributaries.
During the afternoon of August 28, 2011, we watched a ditch uphill from our house become a ranging stream on our property that borders Styles Brook. The gravel on our driveway washed away. It was not until our closest neighbor from Highland Farm called late afternoon that we realized the seriousness of the rain storm from Tropical Storm Irene. Our neighbor asked if we wanted to stay at their house after informing us that a nearby bridge had just succumbed to the roaring waters of Styles Brook.
We were flooded-in, though. Styles Brook, normally 10 feet wide that passes under a nearby culvert, had overflowed to about 400 feet, which covered the town road that leads from Styles Brook Road to our driveway.
Styles Brook originates in the Jay Mountain Wilderness area descending 2187 feet until it reaches the East Branch of the Ausable River at 766ft at a bridge on Route 9N – halfway between the Hamlets of Keene and Upper Jay. Approximately eight to eleven inches of rain fell over a ten-hour period August 28, 2011 causing devastation across the Ausable River watershed. The Towns of Keene and Jay were hit the hardest.
The flooding water of Styles Brook subsided the next morning, allowing us to survey the damage. We maneuvered our truck on the town road around the foot-deep potholes caused by the force of the water the day and night before cascading over and around the culvert. We reached Styles Brook Road, and saw that the bridge upstream was impassible.
We were pleased, however, that the gravel road leading toward town showed only slight damage from the storm. After a mile passing through the woods, we continued down Styles Brook Road for two miles (which by this time is Macadam), dodging washed-out portions until we could go no further because the road was washed-out. The road parallels the brook, which plunges 747 feet from Highland Farm, then flattens out before it reaches the state highway, Route 9N. The raging brook had cut a ten-foot swath out of the road, eliminating any hope of reaching the state highway.
The next day I met the four environmental researchers who were renting a cabin at the juncture where the road was washed-out. They were from North and South Carolina and Tennessee doing an invasive species study along the Ausable River watershed. They told me their story.
The four had spent the afternoon of the Irene storm taking photos and videos of the torrent of water over the falls , and the trees and houses that toppled into the brook.
They shared their experiences:
“We could feel the boulders crashing past the cabin. It was so insane, like thunder.”
“In the afternoon the trees started falling in. Fifty-foot trees were falling down in front of us. And then the house was gone,”
“It was the coolest, but most destruction thing I’ve ever seen. The craziest thing – changed so fast.”
They took a nap after they saw the house go down. “We were hung over. It was still raining.”
Lying in bed the four thought about leaving, but did not know if they could get up the hill. They had seen the road washed away just below them.
Earlier they had moved their cars to higher ground and talked about staying in the cars all night not knowing if the house would be flooded.
The caretake at Highland Farm drove down in the evening with his ATV and insisted the four come up to the farm on higher ground and stay overnight. They did, which is where I met them the next morning.
At first they wanted to remain in the cabin because they were cooking dinner. Then changed their minds. “We saw everything we could see, our camera stopped working, we were soaked.”
“We were evacuated,” one continued. “I live off the coast of South Carolina and never been evacuated before I came to New York. Hurricanes are not a big deal for me.”
The house was never flooded, water came just up to the foot of the steps. The force of the water had carved out another path, diverting the stream from the front of their house. Two others downstream were destroyed, neither occupied at the time. A woman in the house across the brook spent the evening and the night on the second floor with her cat, as the water rushed through the first floor. She was on the phone trying to find help, until the power went out. No one could rescue her until the morning.
All photos provided by Lorraine Duvall