After The Flood: The Catskills need your help

I hope to be posting soon about the wonderful time I had at Burning Man with my son, Campbell. It was our fourth year on the Playa out of the last five, and all the better for letting 2010 lie fallow. It was, surely, our best burn since our first. (Your first burn is always the best.)

We had been scheduled to fly to Reno on Sunday August 28th. But as Hurricane Irene came closer to New York City, it became evident that we would not be getting on any kind of plane anywhere on the east coast that day. Fortunately, the airlines dropped their usual cancellation policies, and on Thursday 25th, I made efforts to switch our flight to the Saturday, without any joy; to compound what suddenly seemed like very bad news, the Continental reservations assistant was disparaging about our opportunities for flying early the following week too. I awoke on the morning of Friday August 26th, wondering how long it would take to drive out to Nevada, and realizing it was far from a workable option, put in another call to the airline; a very helpful assistant confirmed that there were no flights available on Saturday – which turned out to be just as well, given that the NYC airports all closed by midday – but that if we could fly to San Francisco that night, we could get a flight to Reno Saturday morning. It meant two additional nights in hotels, abandoning work on the Friday and packing our clothes in more of a hurry than I would have liked, but I wasn’t about to complain, because it also meant we were going to Burning Man.

All of that went well. Waking up in a Reno hotel on Sunday morning, I went online to find out what had happened with Irene. I knew it had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm, I sensed that New York City was not going to get battered to the extent that had been hyped, and I expected to hear that, heavy rains aside, life was pretty much continuing as usual. I was wrong. As soon as I went onto twitter and especially,, Instead, it quickly became evident that my Catskills home community, much more so than New York City or most of the metropolitan area, was getting absolutely hammered, a combination of high creeks and streams from a wet summer, up to 10” of rapid rain, an early Sunday morning high tide and the pressure of the storm surge combining to burst the banks all over this mountainous region, unleashing terrible devastation in the process. Details, unfortunately, were sporadic, and in some cases – as in my local village of Phoenicia, which does not have cell phone coverage, the various telecommunications companies refusing to lease the local cell tower because population density makes it sufficiently unprofitable – non-existent. Fortunately, we have cell coverage at our house, high up in Mt Tremper, and I was able to contact my wife Posie. She informed me that power was out, as had been expected, and that rain was coming down hard, and that the wind had taken down a couple of trees already, but the house was holding up well and that she and 6-yr old Noel were well prepared, with water bottles filled all over the house and candles and flashlights (at least those we hadn’t taken to Burning Man) fully charged and loaded.

A short while later, I was put in the odd position of calling her back from almost 3000 miles away to let her know that, our own good fortune aside, the area was taking a tremendous hit. Thanks to the sterling coverage of, which had smartly set up a live blogging (Twitter-like) interface so that communication could continue should they lose power at the source, I knew that Windham and Prattsville and Hensonville and Tannersville, up by where we used to have a weekend home, were ravaged, with waters raging down Main Streets, houses being washed away and people trapped on roofs, that nearby Margaretville was under water, and that Belleayre Ski Mountain had opened up as an evacuation center for those who could get there. There was still no word out of Phoenicia, not until I checked my school board e-mail and learned that flooding was sufficient that we had opened up the elementary school as a shelter (though I was unsure in that case how people had get there).

In fact, very little word came out of anywhere in Shandaken, the larger town that comprises the Ulster County community to our west, even by the time Campbell and I left for the desert Monday morning. What we had learned by that point was that the road at the bottom of our hill had washed away, effectively trapping Posie and Noel (and several other families), and that both Ulster and Greene Counties had declared States of Emergency, which meant all non-emergency vehicles were banned from the roads. Posie kindly assured us that Campbell and I should go off and enjoy ourselves, that she and Noel were absolutely fine, that the neighbors had enough food and fuel and the occasional generator, and that they would get through the lack of roads and electricity and running water as a team. Off to the desert we went. We had, as stated up top, a wonderful time. However, when people asked where we were from, and we said the Catskills, and they said “OMG, it’s beautiful up there,” I did feel compelled to note that at the moment, it probably was not.

We returned to the region, two nights after Labor Day, in the midst of Tropical Storm Lee. The good news was that our home road had been quickly repaired, and that Posie and Noel had been able, after five days without power or water, to take off to the Jersey Shore to the in-laws for Labor Day weekend. Power had finally returned eight days after it had gone off. The bad news was that our area had taken an even harder hit than we had realized. Where Route 28 intersects with Route 212, at the entrance to Mount Tremper, everything had ended up under about eight feet of water, the post office and several of our friends’ houses included. All those buildings had been declared unfit for occupancy, possibly for ever. Over in Oliverea, where Route 47 winds south of Route 28 and heads out to Peekamoose and Slide Mountains on its way to Denning in Sullivan County (by coincidence, the very route on which I had participated in a 100km running relay race just two weeks earlier), one of my friends had lost his house entirely – in that it was swept off its foundation and turned on its side. The road itself had been riven through at one point by a 50-ft surge of water, rendering the area inaccessible for the first couple of days. Others who lived out there had been mildly more fortunate – they were only flooded out for the short term, not rendered fully homeless.

In Boiceville, the family-run IGA supermarket had been swept through with a sea of mud; it was closed for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the Onteora schools on the other side of the road, at a slightly higher elevation, had been spared the worst of the damage. Less fortunately, out towards Saugerties, nearer the HUdson River, where the creeks had not burst with the same intensity, a tornado had swept through in a savage straight line, dropping a tree on our good friends’ home and rendering it inhabitable. Back here, the village of Phoenicia itself had been flooded for the third time in under a year, rendering the terminology “100 year flood” somewhat redundant. The bridge at Station Road was a mass of tangled concrete and steel. The road in Phoenicia itself was torn up all over the place, with craters and potholes everywhere, and with large parts of the Plank Road into town from Mount Tremper having slipped into the Esopus Creek, but fortunately Main Street was spared from the kind of devastation that hit Margaretville, Windham, Fleischmanns, and Prattsville, to name just four neighbouring villages.

All the while, for the first 48 hours after our return, Tropical Storm Lee was dumping more and more rain on the area, undoing a lot of the repair work that had already been conducted, and threatening to rain yet more misery on local residents. Ultimately, as if deciding to spread its wrath, the storm caused major flooding in the cities of Binghamton, NY, and Wilkes-Barre, PA, forcing the evacuation of 130,000 people. The Catskills barely – just barely (and not in all places) – escaped a double whammy.

We recognize that, despite it all, we are fortunate. People did not die in our area, to the best of my knowledge. Assistance came relatively fast. FEMA stepped in. And the community stepped up. Neighbours have been out helping neighbours since the first flood waters receded. For Campbell and I, this was somewhat like a continuation of the Burning Man ethos, where commerce is put aside and everyone helps everyone else out with whatever they might need. It’s a way of life that I greatly enjoy, as you can tell from the fact that I keep going back to Burning Man – but as someone noted in an e-mail, it’s one thing to opt for “radical self-reliance” for a week, it’s another thing to have it forced upon you.

The devastation in the Catskills did not make too many headlines. Our 24-7 media hyped everyone up for the possibility of Armageddon in New York City and when that didn’t happen, well, rural flooding in remote areas was not a sufficiently close second. As a result, I don’t believe too many people fully understand how hard we have been hit. Sure, this was not Katrina of 2006, nor Andrew of 1992, which I remember well (and selfishly, I hate to say) for how it affected my own travel plans. Power has returned, our schools have reopened, and people are slowly taking stock of their losses and stoically addressing their plans for the future.

But for many people, that future is grim. I want to stress that for all that there are wealthy second home-owners up here, the majority of residents are rural poor. Most could not afford flood insurance, which means that those who have lost their homes are going to be dependent on charity to get by. It’s not enough for those of you who love the Catskills to make plans to come visit at some future point and hope that by spending money as tourists, you will contribute sufficiently to the area’s recovery. There’s not guarantee that money will get to the people it needs to get to. If you do truly love the Catskills, please consider, however hard up you may be in this truly terrible economy, putting your hands in your pockets and donating a few dollars directly to a charity that is on the ground and helping. You can buy a 43-track album, After The Flood, for just $15 which will go primarily to victims in Schoharie County. You can contribute to the Timber Lake Camp’s Phoenicia Relief Fund, or to Helping Hands of Phoenicia. Or you can go to this Google Docs spreadsheet of charities and relief organizations which I understand to have been vetted by Watershed Post and the Daily Freeman. If you are visiting the area, you will find countless opportunities to contribute, either over the counter or at various forthcoming benefits. Volunteers are meeting on Main Street in Phoenicia each weekend, where the Phoenicia Rotary Club is quickly putting them to work. You will find similar stories of community camaraderie up and down the region.

We will rebuild. Because that’s the human instinct, and it’s the human spirit. But for some people, and in some places, it will take time, effort, kindness – and financial support. Please do what you can. Thank you in advance.

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November 2021