Saturday, October 1, 2011

Spiritboat and Irene

 When Irene came roaring in it was amazing what damage it did.  Bob Jahn, Spiritboat of Pnet,  kept a journal of sorts and it really hit home for me.  I did not want to see it scrolled off into oblivion so with Bob's permission I am keeping his thoughts and records here for now until things get back on track for him.  I have to think that Bob has picked the best moniker he could have for himself, Spirit!

Bob's Word's:

Part 1
Prattsville, New York-A hamlet of about 600 year round residents, located 140 miles north of New York City(a place of about 9 million year round residents.) This "Land of Rip Van Winkle" comprises hills of forest green where the mountains touch the sun--A dream come true. That is until "tropical storm" Irene turned our once sleepy 19th Century-like village into a really, really bad dream...I relate these events here on Pnet, for both friends who wanted to know more, and if there exists anybody out there who may have any remaining false notions about what really can occur during a high flash flood--It's a whole lot worse than just sump pumps and wet basements.

Friday, August 26, 2011 - A clear sunny day. I solo paddled an 8 mile stretch of the Schoharie River, From Lexington NY to Prattsville. And even though it had been a wet August, I had to get out of my canoe, and drag it by the painter over several boney spots. Well, the coming rains will take care of this, I grunted.

Saturday, August 27 - Weather reports forecast NYC to get hit hard by Irene...I phone friends in lower Manhattan(a place I moved away from after 9/11)and offer them refuge from the approaching storm. "Come up to my place in the mountains," I urge them "You'll be safe up here." Tough and jaded New Yorkers, they decline my offer. Lucky for them they did.

Sunday, August 28-I rose early at 6 a.m. to gage the storm. High winds(and not water)were my main concern. You see, I'd been in the middle of putting a new roof on my rustic cabin a couple miles up-mountain outside of town. When I saw it was just a lot of rain, and no real wind, I went back to bed. The storm was scheduled to peak in our area at 9:00 a.m.

9:15 a.m. - My wife and I jump out of our skins to the sounds of women screaming. I pull open our bedroom drapes to find six cars parked almost against the house inside my vegetable garden. Our house and garden, are located on a small rise(about 4 feet or so)above a former farm field filled with mobile homes. The looks on the faces standing beside their cars in the middle of my tomato patch, tell me they are watching water rise. At first I think this is impossible, because our house is at least a quarter mile from the Schoharie, and the river's banks are 15-20 feet below the town in most places. "What's going on?" My wife asked. "We have to get the hell out of here and now." Racing to put clothes on and heading to the front of the house, I open the blinds in my living room, to witness something I'd never seen before: Both a bulldozer and a double wide trailer on fire, go floating by about 15 feet from the house. We grab our pets and a strong box containing important papers, then jump in the pick-up truck.

There is no street left to leave on. It is submerged by at least 5 feet of water, moving quite rapidly. I put on the 4 wheel drive, and with others start driving across the neighboring 5 acre farm field. It's teeming water from the sky. Even with 4WD my old truck is struggling with red clay-mud up past its hubs. Many neighbors have given up and are running across the fields on foot, with some belongings in their arms.

We reach a treeline, that divides the field from peoples backyards and the firm pavement of the uphill running Washington Street. There are guys cutting their way toward us with chanisaws, God love 'em. As they cut away remaining saplings, my truck gets bogged down in the mucky ruts. I implore a guy in a front loader to use his chain to pull me through. "I'm not going to be liable for your bumper," he says. "I don't give a shit about the bumper or the truck--Just get us out of here!" He pulls us through, I offer him some money. He refuses and we hug like long lost brothers.

Once on solid pavement, we start feeling a bit better. We assume the house will be lost. Along with our other car, and three of my heavier paddle craft. But we didn't care. We were safe temporarily. And my rustic cabin two miles up mountain was chock full of food, supplies and clean drinking water--All we had to do was get there. No easy task, as a mile or so up Route 10
sinkholes were opening up around us, with whole sections of road just disappearing. When we got to the dead end road where our cabin sits, the small bridge over the Huntersfield Creek was gone. Gone. The tiny creek looked like the raging Colorado. So much for us getting to the cabin as a back-up lifeboat.

We got back in the truck and headed for our neighbors place even further up mounain. They are elder city people, who came up for the weekend. When we arrived, they had no idea that the 300 year old village we'd just evacuated from below, was quickly being hydro-blasted away. We turned on the local mountain top radio station for any news. What we heard was horrifying. Our townspeople were phoning the radio station, and live on the air, begging and crying for help. Some were trapped on their roofs. Others had children or parents still inside houses, stuck on the second floor. A sick feeling knotted in my stomach. Something had gone really wrong. This was not just alot of rain and the Schoharie jumping it's banks.
A dam above nearby Windham had breached. The town's dozen or so volunteer firemen were pinned down or divided in different areas. Half were trapped in the firehouse, their pick up trucks parked in back of the building were swept away. I remembered my self bailing inflatable kayaks(Sea Eagle 380 and a Thrillseeker), were folded in the back of my truck, along with, two drysuits, pfds, and other gear. I was not anxious to play at being an kind of hero. But I couldn't just sit there listening to people I talked to every day, drown while on the radio. I had been a college lifeguard and had swift water rescue training. Other than that, I couldn't even think of another single person in town, that owned a boat of any kind. And professional help to our remote mountain village was possibly hours away. I suited up and inflated the boats. My wife and friends protested even trying to return to town. Someone will be coming to help they said. But if not us who? As just about everyone in town alread knew me as that eccentric "Kayak Bob" I couldn't face my neighbors again if I didn't at least try to offer my silly little boats for use.

I will relay the second part of this(and it gets worse)in a second post if people are interested.

Donations can be sent to

 Part 2

We uneasingly made our way back to Prattsville in the truck. But not without complications. One of the two lane bridges on Rural Route 10(one we had ridden over while evacuating)had now become a very tenuous one lane. And a torrent was flowing around both sides of this, by the now wildly meandering Huntersfield Creek. Before my more cautious-than-I wife could object, I floored the accelerator and we shot over what was left of the bridge...It would be gone when we tried to get back hours later.

Once again down on Washington Street, where it intersects with Main, the sight was unbelievable. Still pouring, the water had now risen at least four houses uphill past our corner post office. I was too busy to even look back to see where it was at, when we originally fled town. Everyone who was still in town was outside milling around a sole ambulance in the middle of the street. Most were wondering if the water would continue to rise, and reach their place next. The street itself ended like a public boat ramp, sloping steeply into submerged Main. On Main Street, the water was 6 feet high, and cranking along at about 35-40 mph.

"Hey, Kayak Bob." A neighbor Dave, called out to me. "Ever seen any shit like this when you're out paddling these creeks up here?"

"Man, I never even heard of shit like this."

I pulled the Sea Eagle off the top of the truck. This boat had been the bane of my existence within my fleet of boats(Most of which, was now gone, anyway). Slow in whitewater, the SE was tough, could hold 750 pounds, and was self-bailing--But more importantly, it had saved my swimming ass a number of times in Class IV water more easily than any other craft I owned.
I've paddled dozens of ww creeks in the Catskills and Adirondacks. No brag, just fact. So the flood water itself did not intimidate me. But what was drifting around inside it did intimidate me very much: Every type of motorized vehicle, propane tanks, trailers, 90 foot trees-You name it...It was all being accordionized as huge strainers scrunched up against dissolving and upturned buildings. Or being forcibly shoved into the billions of gallon Gilboa Reservoir, at the end of town(Concerns of which, were very real fears of bursting, and obliterating one-third of the entire state.)

"I don't want to have to identify your body being found in Schnectady some 50 miles away." Cried my wife.

"Relax. I have no intention of sacrificing myself. I'm not putting into Main Street on a bet."
But I knew I might be able to carefully pick my way around the backs of the houses there, where the water wasn't really moving, and the surroundings more like Venice. A few Prattsville Volunteer Firemen were ready to back my play, because the situation on their hand radios was telling us things were growing more desperate.

Just then, the Cavalry arrived: Marine Rescue Units from suburban towns in and around the Capital District(Albany)50 miles or more away started to roll in. They made the same arduous trek over the lone remaining road we took back--Rural Route 10. An audible sigh of relief came over the crowd. The Town Supervisor advised me to hold off hitting the water. I was only to glad to comply and let the professionals take over. At first, anyway.

There was then what seemed like much commotion as to just who was actually going to take charge of the rescue attempt. A lot more indian chiefs than warriors, if you get my drift. A few of our local volunteer guys were getting anxious and pissed--It was their friends and family stuck in those houses. And the water was still not even near cresting.

A firemen with a face I'd seen around town, but didn't know personally, approached me. "If these aqua-guys don't get their shit together soon, we're throwing your boat on our shoulders and wading with ropes through the backyards to go house to house."

"I'm down with that." I replied,

Next, one of the responding rescue units put a large metal sponson-hulled boat in the water. It had at least a 75hp outboard on the back of it. Wrong boat--Bad move, I thought. Six guys in bright red drysuits and helmets piled into the craft. And they no sooner shoved off into the current where Washington meets Main, when their prop scraped bottom and the torrent swept them up against a telephone pole at the corner of Beth's Cafe. They swamped, and had to bail out.

"Some pros." My new found firemen friend said.

"I can't knock them for trying...Those guys gave up the peace and comfort of staying home with their own families. They came all the way here to save our sorry assses." Another firemen quipped.

I started dragging my IK toward the back of the houses lining Main Street. My paddle in the other hand. My wife and two firemen followed. As we trudged through water and muck up to our hips, I noticed rainbow swirls with the stench of gasoline in the water. Great, I thought--There goes the lamination on the most expensive piece of Men's apparel I've ever owned, my drysuit--It didn't yet hit me, that it may be amongst the only set of clothes I had left.

MORE IN PART 3 (Sorry, didn't think it would take this long to write all this--But with no cable, I got nothing else to do at night!!!)

Part 3
You might be wondering at this point: Why not just wait for the flood waters to recede before trying to get those people stuck inside their own homes out? This is a reasonable assumption, and one I asked myself a number of times, at the height of the crisis.
But here's why those of us(both first responders and volunteers)were so compelled to do something, anything. Aside from heartfelt human compassion, most of the houses in the town are wood clapboard from the 19th Century or earlier. They are federal style, Queen Anne Victorian, or in the local vernacular: Pratt shacks. The last "super major" flood here was in 1874. And it was no where near these proportions, because modern man's construction and engineering around all the creeks and rivers had transgressed the natural landscape. Foundations were washing away rapidly on 8/28/11, with house after house either sinking where it stood or being lifted up and crashed into the largest nearby object. If they didn't first collapse outright. So time was of the essence to get people out.

The two firemen, my wife and myself, arrived in the flooded backyards off Main Street and stood on the front pavers of a detached two-car garage. The water was still coming down in sheets. About 20 feet in front of us, was one partially submerged house, whose rear 15 x 20 deck was only being held in place because the builder had thought enough to bolt it down on concrete piers. It, and all the other adjacent houses had what looked to be about 3 feet of water flowing around them. The Main Street main torrent, was still blowing high out front and way out of control. Would things ever crest and start going down??? The four of us just stood silently for awhile, watching the water and all the crap in it, flow around the houses.

"If we can reach it--That deck should be our staging area." The older of the two firemen said. We all nodded in agreement. I knew I could reach it in less three paddle strokes. But all I had in the SE was a single throw bag. "Got any mountaineering ropes, carabiners, come-alongs, anything like that?" I shot back. "I'll be back. Don't move." In a flash he waded off the way we had come.

I started contemplating different places to eddy out behind the piles of soggy rubbish lodged around all the houses. "I hope you're not thinking of paddling over to that deck?: My wife said.

"Why not? It's a cake walk."

"Please wait until some more help gets here. That firemen told you not to move." Oh here we go, I thought. The conversation, then went something like this:

"Woman, why don't you allow me to do the things I know how to do?"

"I've lost my house, my car,and everything else in the world I've ever owned today. I'm not going to lose you too."

This hit me like a cannonball in the chest. In all the high tension rush in thinking about how we could best go about being of help to others, I'd almost forgotten that we probably didn't have any home to return to. And that we were, at that very moment, ourselves still in some possible danger.

"Okay. You're right. I'll wait."

I looked over at the young fireman standing silently beside me. He was about 20(I'm 52). "Don't I know you from over in the(Trailer)Park?" I asked. He just nodded once. "Your place--Is it..?" He shook his head and tears welled up in his eyes. I suddenly remembered seeing him with his girlfriend, a dog, and and an older parent who I think lived nearby. I couldn't bear to ask him if they were safe. And since he responded earlier on in the going, he might not have even known.

Two of the marine rescue unit guys in red drysuits showed up with a large yellow vinyl bundle. It was an inflatable pontoon raft, which when unraveled, proved about 20 feet long. I took a step toward them, off the solid pavers of the detached garage, and quickly sank into what I thought was only 3 feet of murky water. My PFD kept my head above water, but my wife screamed anyway. "I'm alright. I'm alright." And I just as quickly hoisted myself back up on to the pavers. It was more embarrassing than anywhere near life threatening.

"Why'd you bring the kayak if you were going to do that?" The young firemen asked.

"Good question."

(Continued - In would you believer Part 4??? (Hey, they only give you 30 minutes to type stuff.)

Part 4

The two marine rescue unit guys in red drysuits, were having problems filling up the yellow "H" shaped pontoon craft. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I also didn't think it was of any real use in the cluttered and flooded backyards. My assumption proved correct, when the two mru guys couldn't bring the giant thing up to full inflation--And they almost blew their own faces off with the CO2 tank they were using. Their Chief showed up with a few others and opted to use a grey Zodiac raft instead.

I made my way over to the Chief and introduced myself, I described my peculiar skill set and offered my big ducky and paddling service. "If you don't use me, I understand. But please feel free to take my boat."

"No thanks. We don't wanna have to rescue you also." He chumped me off, albeit, politely. My Bronx-bred moxy came out. "No offense, Chief. But I've seen your guys completely flop with two boats so far. And if you stick a motor on that Zodiac, I'm almost positive that will be three strikes." He shot me a look that pissed daggers. "We're not motoring the Zodiac. We're lining it with ropes and tackle. You can either help us by lending some muscle, or get out of the way."
"Great. I'll help."

Maybe I was unqualified and completely out-of-line to get in the Chief's face at all. But I thought, tough shit. My neighbors lives were on the line. He could always berate me or have me arrested later.

Things finally got organized, and the rescues started happening quickly. Ropes with pulleys were tied through two corner windows of the house with the solid rear deck. Seven of us worked as a team on five houses. People were gingerly brought out of their dilapidated house(usually through a broken window), placed in the Zodiac, and we dragged them over to the deck to disembark. In quick succession, came a man, his two young kids and the children's grandmother. When the brave ten year old girl landed on the deck, she broke down crying. My wife hugging the child, told her how much courage she displayed, and repeated, "It's alright, Sweetheart. You're safe now." My wife then led everyone who could walk, through the flooded backards, to get checked out by the waiting ambulance on Washington Street.

A 96 year old women we brought out of one house, had to be carried on a lawn chair, do to leg problems complicated from diabetes. She was very cheerful from the moment of contact, unafraid, and asked me,
"Is hell still in session?" I replied, "It is, Dear. But we got Satan on the run." We both laughed and laughed.

The final(and worst)house we reached was what was the day before, a stately Victorian. It was owned by a Lawyer who was also a volunteer firemen. One of those trapped in the firehouse up the street. His 21 yr old daughter was still inside his house, when he'd left to answer the first emergency calls earlier. The young lady was trapped with her dog in a rear bathroom on the house's 2nd floor(which was now the 1st floor.) The house itself, wss sunk, surrounded by a moat, and badly lurching to it's front side. After she was brought out alone, I reassured her that someone would be back to get her dog freed after the flood receded(someone did).
This same young lady, a few days later, was pictured with her dog in front of the obliterated house on the front page of the New York Times.

The firemen's radios were abuzz that help was starting to pour in, even though the water showed no signs of abating. People were still in desperate circumstances all over town. I had no idea what was going on outside our little platoon. But I finally got a shot at using my ducky, when a radio report said there were some 30 people still trapped inside the Moore's Motel. I heard a Prattvillian voice I knew say, "Can we possibly send that guy with the kayak over, to see if the building will remain standing." Before the Chief could say "Negative" or my wife got back, I was off around the backyards, slicing my way through a farm field. I knew if I could possibly reach the Motel in the slower waters, I might be able to see if my own house was still standing. To my great surprise, it was. But not without some damage. At least a dozen mobile homes in the field beneath it, had simply vanished.

Part 5

I didn't dare get closer than a hundred yards off the rear of the Moore's Motel. It was passable enough. And the shallow water, even with all the debris, didn't seem all that threatening. But I told myself, your wife will be waiting back over in those backyards, so have a little more brains than balls right now will ya?

There were people standing flailing their arms/waving from the 3 story Inn's windows. I stood up where the water was only about a foot deep and raised my arms, trying somehow to signal/acknowledge them reassuringly that someone would be along soon. The building was of recent construction and looked fairly sound to me. So after once more spying the gable of our little house behind the treeline, I headed back to the yards. Just maybe, I thought --Just maybe we'll manage to come out of this thing with a few more meager possessions.

When I got back, my wife looked miffed at me for having gone off by myself. I told her, "Solo's what I paddle best most times." I then told her our place was still standing, although most likely took a good wet hit. Her eyes grew wide and hopeful, almost happy in disbelief with tears. I told her, "We'll have to try to get in there tomorrow, to get anything else we can think of out. Most likely the National Guard is going to arrive and lock the whole town down tighter than a drum." This turned out to be true.

Suddenly, somebody upstairs pulled the cork. Through a six foot breezeway, between two abandoned houses, I noticed the water had gone down a couple feet on Main Street. But it was still cranking along at an uncomfortable rate that would normally be a fun ride for me, if it weren't part of a damn disaster. I then saw a white haired old man in boxer shorts, step out on to his front porch across the street. He started heading for the steps leading down into the rushing water. "STOP!" I yelled. "Go back inside!" He didn't hear me over the torrent. "He only speaks German." said my young fireman friend behind me. Only speaks...What??? Even though there were German speakers in my family and I knew from WWII movies the German word for "Stop" is "Halt!" --My adrenalin-filled brain refused to remember anything at that very moment. I called 20 feet back to my wife: "What's the German word for "STOP"??? Comforting some local woman, my wife couldn't hear me either. The older Prattsville volunteer fireman who was with us earlier, stepped over. "He speaks English perfectly well...If he wants to drown let him. We got little fuckin' kids to save yet." I watched the Old Man stick one toe in the water, turn around, then go back inside.
Thank God, I didn't have to watch him get swept away in front me.

My wife then grabbed me by the shoulders. "Well. What do you say, Mister?"

"About what?"

"About getting out of the way and taking care of ourselves now. More help has arrived." As usual, she was right. Professional First Responders from all over were rushing in through the yards. Helicopters were over head. The rain was letting up. "Yes. I'm exhausted."

We dragged my Sea Eagle back to Washington Street and put it on the rack atop the truck. I wouldn't deflate it for days to come. After hugging a few friends, I thanked the guys from the Prattsville, Melrose, and Clinton Corners Fire Departments, for letting me work side by side with them. We then drove back up mountain to our neighbors place. There, we spent the next two weeks living comfortably, but without any electricity. We had to park the truck and rock hop over the Huntersfield Creek on RR 10. The little bridge by now, had totally washed away.

Final commentary, next.

(Final Part is next, I promise.)

Final Part:

Writing all this down has been a catharsis for me. Thank you if you read all of it. I know it's not the usual cheerful recreational fare, we as paddlers come to this site to enjoy. But I didn't know where else I would post it. I don't want attention--Just wanted people to know my take on what really went down here. I don't do any social networking sites, or blogging. Hell, in normal times, I don't even check my email for days at a spell. When not working, I spend most of my time in the woods or paddling.

It has been one month since Irene hit our obscure, sleepy little northern Catskills town. And by general consensus, we were hit harder than most of our surrounding neighbors. The place was quickly declared a disaster area, by both our Governor and the President. Here is my own personal analysis of how it all happened so badly:

>The obvious part: 14 inches of water fell in just a few hours time, on already heavily saturated rocky mountain soil. Once again, the preceding days in August, had not been the usual summer bone dry month.

>The not-so-obvious part: The Mad Brook and the Batavia Kill("Kill" is an archaic Dutch word for "Creek")converged with water from dam breach in Maplecrest, which in turn released even more volume from a man made lake up there.

>Further not so obvious: The Batavia Kill confluences with the Schoharie, already over its course, being rapidly fed by innumerable smaller mountain creeks from the east around Hunter-Tannersville. (One of these creeks is the West Kill--A run I've paddled as a Cl. III-IV during "normal" flood/Spring thaw.)

>Prattsville, sitting at the bottom of this giant funnel, then also got "doubled-dosed" from other creeks that simultaneously drained frcm the Huntersfield and Bear Pen mountains. At the same time, the giant Gilboa Reservoir was overtaxed and backing up...In other words, alot of friggin' water!!!

In the end, over 40 homes were instantly obliterated. All electric, cable, phone, fuel and sewer lines were knocked out for three weeks. Hundreds of lives, were turned upside down or displaced. There was some very sad loss of life also, but an absolute miracle there wasn't a whole lot more.

In a once lush, beautiful field on the edge of town, over 100 flooded/destroyed vehicles were towed and plunked down. There are debris mountains of metal appliances, furniture and assorted junk. This once pristine valley of clear trout streams, looks more like the Staten Island Landfill. But we continue to clean up and come back.

In the days that followed. I witnessed many more incredible scenes of both heartbreak and heroism. I saw/heard of people risking their lives to save a dog, a cat, a horse. But I will spare you these.

We lost/had to throw out quite a few things, and have had to move out of our soggy fume-smelling town home --But this is only stuff, and our little mountain top cabin is coming along quite nicely. If I have learned one life lesson again out of this whole incident, it is that you don't keep the stuff--The stuff keeps you. (Besides, if you're fortunate to live long enough, you can always acquire more stuff.)

I found out also once again, what a great country we live in. With life-affirming citizens, who don't shirk getting involved when the game is really on the line. God Bless America!!!

I also rediscovered what a great family I have. And what great friends, who I never dreamt would go to the wall for me in the face of adversity.
I hope I can repay them someday, in that same currency worth so much more than money.

And finally, this catastrophe has made me put a higher premium than ever, on the twenty-six year love affair I share with my beautiful wife. Because after all, it is our relationships in this life and what we experience together, that really matters the most.

And thus concludes, my "bad trip" report.

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