Goodnight, Irene: Commentary On Disaster

by Sue Taggart

The people of the Catskills are certainly putting Irene to bed with a spirit of community that really comes into its own when disaster hits. I realize that many other communities up and down the Northeast are doing the same, but I have a strong personal tie to the beautiful New York mountains that makes them near and dear to my heart. Like many New Yorkers on 9/11, I was out of my apartment for over six weeks. At the same time my apartment was habitable again, the closing on our little piece of heaven three hours out of NYC was completed. Once homeless, now two homes!

With the ten-year anniversary just a week away, the terrible sights of destruction that Irene wrought seemed even more overwhelming. As I visited with the farmers that made it to the Pakatakan Farmers Market and the storeowners in Margaretville shoveling mud from their shops this Labor Day Weekend, I was struck by their unwillingness to give in. The human spirit is at its very best when faced with adversity. Many of these people were almost whipped out in the flood of ‘96 (though Irene was worse) and here they are again, cleaning up the debris, dealing with emotional distress and doing the best they can to rebuild their lives, their homes, their crops and their businesses.

To get an idea of the scope of the destruction, check out some of the storm coverage on the Watershed Post website.

Many other towns, villages and hamlets were similarly affected, including Arkville, Fleischmnanns and Halcottsville. A new source for up-to-date recovery information on these towns, New Kingston and Middletown can be found on this newly-launched website. The site offers information on relief efforts that are underway for stricken residents and businesses, as well as contacts for people needing help, along with suggestions for volunteering and donating to community recovery programs.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a regular visitor to the area and one can only hope that he can keep these small towns front and center in the news and get FEMA and other government agencies moving at the pace necessary to bring immediate relief not only to the clean up, but also to the recovery and re-building effort.

Governor Andrew Cuomo in Margaretville on Sunday with 100 state volunteers and a number of National Guard. The governor gave a helping hand to volunteers as they worked to clean up Main Street, Margaretville. — Photo by Brian Sweeney

In the very short space of the few days that I was in the area, the clean up effort was amazing. Looking at the video coverage of the water raging down Main Street Margaretville, it didn’t seem possible that all the debris and mud could be cleared so quickly. Yet on Sunday, a few of the shops were open for business, and others were getting ready to move their merchandise back in. The Margaretville CVS actually collapsed and the local Freshtown supermarket needs a complete rebuild, but the big wooden bear in the parking lot still stands tall, even though at one point he was up to his neck in water. He has become a symbol for the town, now appearing on the back of t-shirts that ’bear‘ the message “Irene, you may have flooded our town but you have not broken our spirit.”

It’s this spirit that is so prevalent in all the small towns and villages in the Catskills. From Windham, where the local radio show host Joe Loverro (RIP 97.9 mornings 6-9am) stays on the air for twelve hours straight taking call-ins and giving out relief information, to Belleayre Mountain where the last concert of the season on Saturday night not only offered a much needed respite to the locals, but also donated ticket money to the relief fund. The band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones played their hearts out and lifted the spirits of everyone there.

As the area begins to recover, another storm, Katia, is dumping more rain into the swollen rivers, causing more floods, but hopefully the worst is over. After 9/11, the mayor at the time, Rudi Giuliani, encouraged people to come, visit and spend their dollars to help the city get back on its feet. I hope people will do the same for the Catskills. It really is a most beautiful place, full of history and charm—and the people really look out for each other—it’s so worth a visit. And if you can’t get there in person, you can always support these local businesses by shopping online!

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