Photograph by Mark Hobson
Soaked, shell-shocked and still here
Jodie Frederick’s birthday cake had been baked and decorated, ready on a platter in her new refrigerator. Frederick’s family had planned a party that also celebrated the success of her recent hip replacement.
But there wouldn’t be any kind of celebration. That day—August 28, 2011—Tropical Storm Irene dumped seven inches of rain on the northern Adirondacks, saturating the High Peaks and pummeling the river valley settlements below. With floodwaters gauged at 18.5 feet, about seven feet above the riverbank, it was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region since the freshet of 1856 swept away mills, homes, livestock and human lives.
At 4:45 the next morning, when it was safe for Jodie and her husband, Wayne, to navigate the scattered debris back to their property, they were met with such devastation, Jodie “cried like a baby,” she says. The Fredericks had lived in their circa-1913 two-story home since 1996, raising three kids beneath its roof.
Just 10 days before Irene hit, the Fredericks had finished exhaustive repairs to their Au Sable Forks home. In April an ice jam had clogged the Ausable River, forcing it over its banks, filling the Fredericks’ house with a foot of icy water that shorted appliances, heaved hardwood floors and ruined the Sheetrock, which absorbed the moisture like a sponge. Now their house “was completely trashed” again, says Wayne.
This time, four and a half feet of floodwater had punched through windows and doors, soaking everything, leaving their possessions in tangled heaps. The refrigerator, where Jodie discovered her smashed birthday cake, was upended. The oven was full of water. A molasses of mud and oil coated everything.
The cleanup was frantic. “The goal was to get everything out of the house,” says Wayne, “to dry what you could.” It took a day for mold to appear.
“It’s a sinking feeling to watch your belongings from the past 25 years being picked up by a backhoe and taken to a dumpster,” he says. But “we worked from daylight to dark to get it done.” Completely “shell-shocked,” it wouldn’t be until later that reality set in—that a neighbor’s swimming pool was wrapped around a tree; that firefighters, dodging propane tanks, had pulled people and pets from rooftops; that the community would never be the same.
Today the Fredericks’ house is again rebuilt, but, nearby, a half-dozen empty, grassy plots mark where there were structures—“where people once lived their lives, sometimes generations’ worth,” says Wayne. And the stink of Irene, says Jodie, even five years later, lingers. “When it rains, you can smell that smell.”
“Funky and earthy,” adds Wayne.
It’s a reminder.
So is the culture of flood victims: Around here you won’t find Sheetrock or carpet in homes—just wood. Birth certificates and other cherished items are kept upstairs. “Every time it rains,” says Wayne, “you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach—oh no, not again.”
So why do they stay?
The Fredericks live in what’s known as the Jersey section of Au Sable Forks, connected to the hamlet’s main street by a one-lane bridge. “Jersey Swamp,” as Jodie jokingly calls her lower part of the neighborhood—a block below “Jersey Heights”—is in the Ausable River floodplain, beside a pinch-point in the river. That corner, says Wayne, “is the worst part of the river, especially for jams.”
In three decades the Fredericks have been affected by just two floods, but the town of Jay—which includes the hamlets of Au Sable Forks, Jay and Upper Jay—has endured years of high-water events. Since 1925, 11 major Ausable River floods have been recorded, but water overtaking roads and seeping into basements is an accepted, and frequent, part of living here.
These communities, after all, rose around the Ausable. As with most 18th- and 19th-century settlements, river power meant prosperity, fueling lumber mills and tanneries.
While Au Sable Forks has a proud history, it’s a flash in the timespan of the river that runs through it. For more than 10,000 years the Ausable has dutifully gouged the earth, pushing along the sediment for which it was named.
“Rivers are dynamic, they change all the time,” says Tim Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Research Institute. “One of the comments I often receive is, ‘My river is changing, it’s meandering here, moving there—I want it to be like it was.’ But rivers don’t care when you bought the property. People want to put rivers in a static mindset. You can’t—rivers erode and deposit.”
Irene has been labeled a “500-year flood.” That doesn’t mean it’ll happen every five centuries, but that there’s a .2-percent chance of a similar event occurring in any given year. An Irene repeat could, hypothetically, happen tomorrow. And North Country weather records show that since the mid-1900s, storms are wetter; the number of storms dropping more than two inches of rain in two days has doubled.
Recently, the Essex County Department of Community Resources held a meeting at the town offices in Au Sable Forks to address the town and county’s challenges post-Irene, to present the findings of a grant-supported survey. One proposal was a new bridge and a lower Jersey buyout, allowing the river to swell naturally, beyond its bed. Though that scenario, due to its multi-million-dollar price tag, is unlikely, Wayne is indignant.
In 2011 his house qualified for a Federal Emergency Management Agency buyout, but—unlike 40 town of Jay homeowners—he didn’t take it because, he says, “You wouldn’t even get half of what your house is worth.” Plus, that scenario would erase close to 20 homes. “Where would we go?” he asks. “The more people you buy out, the more people who leave. And there goes the town.”
It’s complicated. “Every nail you hammer, every board you put up—it’s your home,” says Wayne. “People stay here because this is where we live, this is where we want to live.” Yet one more big flood and “we’re done,” says Jodie. “I don’t think I have the emotional fortitude to do this again.”
Still, the Fredericks want the river to make that decision for them.