A Catskill Catalog: August 31, 2011

Devastating. That’s the only word I can think to write, the Monday after Irene’s Day. Devastating.
Leah Stern died in the storm. She was vacationing in Fleischmanns with her husband, Meyer, just as she had done every summer for years. But Leah was 83, weakened by age and infirmity, and when the Valkyrian Motel was evacuated Sunday morning, somehow, she didn’t get out. Soon, getting out became impossible.

I know guys who spoke with Leah across the raging torrent that had been the Little Red Kill just a day before. They shouted back and forth, trying to reassure the distraught woman, trapped, now, in a motel unit, surrounded by two white-water rapids of rushing, churning water.
As local firemen, Broome County Rescue, and myriad others worked to find a way, Leah remained trapped, at her window, watching in fear, pleading for help. How helpless water’s ferocious power made everyone present feel.

Leah Stern died at that window. Her funeral, in accordance with the religious law she lived by, is today, as I write this, within 24 hours of her death, before sundown.

She was mother to seven grown children, grandmother and great-grandmother to a large extended family. Liberated from the Auschwitz death camp at age 14, Leah came to America, penniless, with neither mother nor father, orphaned by the cruelty of man.

Here, she built a life and a family, helped build a community, kept a culture alive.
Water’s cruel power took her. Devastating.

Gayla and I rode out the storm at home on a hilltop. The lights never went out. Flashlight in hand, I checked the four basement corners hourly, making sure we were not taking water. Two damp spots hardly count.

We stayed put. The neighbors reported on their forays downtown. A locally-posted Facebook page, “Hurricane Storys,” provided firsthand photographic and video views of the running bay that was Fleischmanns Park, the river that was Main Street, Margaretville. It was clear things were bad. (As to the misspelling of stories, I plead guilty: I was the page-founder’s English teacher.)

Most of the afternoon, I watched the wind sway, to-and-fro, the big double-trunk Norway spruce that towers above the house.

As evening settled in, the roar of helicopters erupted overhead. One big machine circled over repeatedly, white search light reaching down to the wet woods below, each roundabout-circuit seemingly at a lower altitude than the last. What were they doing? Who were they looking for? It was clear Fleischmanns was at the epicenter of disaster.

You never want the governor to come to your town during a storm. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s visit to Margaretville on Sunday means, once again, our community is at the very center of a major natural disaster. Those of us who lived through the January 1996 flood thought that was the flood-of-a-lifetime. Foolish us.

Shortly after dawn, the day after Irene, I walked through Fleischmanns. Devastating. The Vly Creek, that friendly mountain stream, went berserk at the intersection of Wagner and Main, tore Mill Street a new riverbed. Thick mud, downed trees, piled cars, and undermined foundations lay in its wake.
The bridge that gives Bridge Street its name, sits precariously unloosed from its moorings. Whole buildings lean tattered and bent where the waters dropped them. The park, centerpiece of Fleischmanns just-birthing revival, is, today, a riverbed, a channel of the Bushkill, carved fresh yesterday.

I have read, and heard, the word underwhelming used to describe the much-hyped Irene, which roared out of the sea as a category 3 hurricane, made landfall as a category 1, and hit New York City as Tropical Storm Irene. Can’t sell that word here. Devastating seems the only word appropriate.
© William Birns