On August 28, 2011, Irene, downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, arrived in the Catskills region of New York. The storm killed three people, destroyed entire towns and caused millions of dollars in damage.
In the days, weeks, months and years to follow, Catskills residents rose above the floodwaters, the mud and the broken bridges by relying heavily on each other.
Five years later, we explore eight untold stories about the flood and its aftermath.
Wilma "Nana" Beers, Arkville resident and flood buyout program participant
Above: Irene's water rising on the Beers' home. Photo courtesy of Wilma Beers.
Town: Arkville, Delaware County
Waterway: Dry Brook
"My house might be gone, but no one can take away the memories,” says Wilma Beers, a 66-year-old grandmother who is known as Nana to her friends and family.
There once was a house on Route 28 in Arkville, with robin’s-egg-blue siding and colorful annuals cheerfully facing the road. Wilma Beers lived there with her family for more then 40 years. They had seen more floods then she could count, she says.
"What they say was a flood and what I say was a flood were two different things,” she says.
According to the government, she says, there has only been three floods: 1996, 2006 and 2011.
"I've argued with FEMA, I have lived it,” she says. “There are a lot of people who have lived it, but you don't hear their stories.”
According to Beers, her property flooded "almost every other year."
In 2011, when Irene flooded her home, it was for the last time.
Beers and her husband John weren't youngsters anymore. This flood took a toll on their already deteriorating health.
"You could see the mold spores floating through the air," she says.
According to Beers, after the Irene flood many folks in the Margaretville and Arkville area suffered from upper respiratory infections.
Beers blames Irene and the storm's subsequent stresses for the death of her husband John, three Augusts later, in 2014.
Financially, Irene was the last flood that the Beers family could withstand. Beers remembers being told by a representative of FEMA: "We are not here to rebuild you, we are here to give you a hand up."
She needed a big hand. If she wanted to keep her house, FEMA required that it be raised up three feet on a new foundation.
"Who can afford that?” Beers says, still frustrated.
So, when Beers heard about the possibility of a Delaware County flood buyout program that would buy and demolish her flood-prone family home, she started attending meetings and looking for answers and hope.
Eventually, Beers sold her house to Delaware County and moved to higher ground in Arkville with her son John and his family.
She was required to continue paying taxes, the electric bill and homeowner's insurance until the sale went through, even though she was no longer living there, she says.
Then, worst of all, FEMA and the insurance company took back "every penny" they had given her. She ended up with about half of the money that her house had been assessed for, she says.
"It wasn't until the day I went to sign the papers that the deductions were fully explained to me," Beers says. By then, she was too tired and sick to fight anymore.
In January 2016, her house was leveled.
Is there anything positive to be gleaned from Nana Beers' story?
She takes a moment to answer, tears tugging at her voice.
"Even if I tried, I would never be able to thank everyone that helped us. All the volunteers, and the firefighters. Even local college kids, home on break, came over and shoveled eight inches of mud from my garage,” she says.
Beers also remembers driving to Roxbury, a town that had not been hit so hard by the storm. The United Methodist Church next to the school was distributing the basics to their neighbors. Simple things, like toothbrushes and combs.
Still in Arkville, Nana Beers now enjoys life above the floodplain, in a home where four generations of the Beers family share one roof.
"But I have a good bunch here, they take care of me," she says.
(Delaware County confirms Wilma Beers’ story. Kristin Janke Schneider from the Delaware County Planning Department says that the county bought Beers’ home with funds from FEMA and New York State. The purchase price was about half of the house’s assessed value before the flood. FEMA and flood insurance money that the Beers received was deducted from the final purchase price. The house’s pre-flood value was appraised at a lower value than its assessment price, which contributed to the reduced purchase price, Janke Schneider says.)
Shirley Van Valkenburgh, grandmother and lifelong Catskills resident
Above: Shirley Van Valkenburgh stands in front of her Lexington home of 54 years. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Lexington, Greene County
Waterway: West Kill and the Schoharie Creek
"I hope I never live to see it again," says Shirley Van Valkenburgh, a bag of just-harvested elderberries in one hand, a shovel in the other.
Walking across her manicured lawn towards the house where she has lived for 54 years, she stops at a footbridge crossing a small drainage ditch. That became a stream during the storm, she says.
"But we were lucky," she says, echoing the words of so many folks remembering Tropical Storm Irene.
Van Valkenburgh recalls the morning of the storm, when an emergency services helicopter landed in a field just past her house. Her sick elderly neighbor up the road needed to be transported away from the danger zone. Van Valkenburgh remembers being urged to leave as well. She was told that she had 15 minutes to gather her belongings.
"We had to stay here,” she says.
She explained to the emergency responders that she had her own sick family member, a nephew. She wasn't sure if he would survive being uprooted, and the rising waters of the West Kill (a tributary of Schoharie Creek) did not threaten to reach her property, which was perched high above the banks.
Little did she know that her decision to stay was important for the entire town. Van Valkenburgh’s house became an unofficial restaurant that fed neighbors and strangers for more then a week in the Greene County town of Lexington.
"We had generators, we kept on the lights, and the stove,” she says. “But the freezers, we had to empty them out.”
And empty out the freezers she did. Along with her sister, she cooked and baked every day and night, feeding all the neighbors who found themselves trapped in Lexington between two collapsed bridges on Route 42.
"Strangers came to the door. 'Is this the place to eat?' they would ask," Van Valkenburgh says. Then they would hand the sisters their own rapidly-thawing frozen food, which would be turned into a hot meal.
Despite the camaraderie, it was a dark time.
"It was living hell," Van Valkenburgh says.
But there is no mistaking the pride Van Valkenburgh has in her family, her property, her community and her temporary role as a restaurateur during that first harrowing week after Irene.
Shirley and Mike Perpetua, New York State Fire Police with the Phoenicia Fire District
Above: Shirley Perpetua with four of her grandchildren on her daughter's porch in Shandaken. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Shandaken, Ulster County
Waterway: Bushnellsville Creek and the Esopus Creek
"We lost everything," says Shirley Perpetua, "Fifty years of memories."
Standing on the porch of her daughter Tanya Morton's current home, surrounded by four of her grandchildren, Perpetua is just a few doors up from the first-floor apartment she shares with her husband, Mike. She vividly remembers the day that the flood forced them out of it, making them homeless for four months.
Shirley was next door at a neighbor's house when it became clear they were unprepared for the depths of Irene.
"I saw the water rising; it came up to the back porch, and went out the front door,” she says. Shirley ran to rescue her bird, a cockatiel named Penny, from inside the house.
The Perpetua family spent that first night at Belleayre Mountain Ski Center, which had quickly evolved into a shelter and provider of emergency services.
The next few nights were spent at a friend’s, and then, for three-and-a-half months, Shirley and Mike lived with another daughter, Theresa Jones, who then had a house in Fleischmanns.
During those months, because Irene's destruction in New York and beyond had been declared a disaster by the federal government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped in and helped the Perpetua family and their landlord rebuild.
Four months after the storm, the family moved back into that same Shandaken apartment where they had lived before the flood. The mud had been scraped off the walls and "new" used furniture had been provided by the Phoenicia Rotary Club.
"We have seen the community come together before, but never like this," recalls Mike, who has more than 20 years of experience serving with the Phoenicia Fire District under his belt.
His wife stands next to him, nodding her head.
"I am so thankful for all the help from friends, family and volunteers. And I just glad to be alive,” she says.
"But I still have nightmares when it rains.”
René and Carrie Garcia, managers of La Cabaña Mexican Restaurant in Fleischmanns, and brother Roberto Garcia
Above: Rene Garcia in front of his restaurant, La Cabana, in Fleischmanns. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Fleischmanns, Delaware County
Waterway: Little Red Kill, Vly Creek and Bush Kill
"The storm took us by surprise," says Rene Garcia.
He remembers how all the focus was on New York City as weather reports predicted that Irene would hit hardest there. At 2 a.m. the evening before, he had closed up the bar and checked out Vly Creek, which runs right behind the restaurant.
"It was running low and clear," Garcia says.
By 6:15 a.m., his uncle called him, frantic. Garcia says his uncle warned him: "The bridges in Arkville are already closed, this is starting to look bad—worse than '96." (In 1996, a winter storm flooded parts of Margaretville and Fleischmanns, one of the worst disasters to affect the area before Irene.)
This time, Irene dumped more then two feet of water on Main Street Fleischmanns, Garcia says.
Tragedy struck the town that day when the roaring waters claimed the life of one visiting elderly woman, a Holocaust survivor named Rozalia (Leah) Stern-Gluck, who was washed away after being trapped in the Valkyrian Motel on Main Street.
Above: The Bridge St. bridge in Fleischmanns is still closed five years after Irene. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
In comparison, Garcia and his business suffered what he considered to be minimal damage. Five-and-a-half feet of water flooded the the basement of the restaurant and three feet of water flooded his mother's adjoining apartment.
"It was amazing though,” he says. “We never lost power."
Garcia and friends spent a week making repairs to the restaurant. The damage mostly consisted of water damage from the leaking roof.
While they worked, the whole village of Fleischmanns, one of the most diverse communities in the Catskills, came together, Garcia says. The village has large populations of Mexican immigrants, vacationing Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and a variety of other diverse communities. In the aftermath of the disaster, everyone in Fleischmanns looked past these differences, he remembers. The Methodist Church was handing out free meals to anyone who came through the doors, he says.
A week after Irene, Garcia re-opened his own doors.
"We have been family owned and operated since 1993,” says Roberto Garcia, Rene’s brother. “Our journey in Fleischmanns has been a story of adversity. We have endured two fires and two floods."
When the Garcias welcomed their customers back to their Mexican restaurant, they hosted dinner crowd after dinner crowd of "drawn faces,” they remember. Everyone was trying to make sense of the surreal experience that was Irene.
Kristi Trimboli, student and clerk at The Nest Egg
Above: Kristi Trimboli of Phoenicia sitting on the porch of the Nest Egg, where she works. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Phoenicia, Ulster County
Waterway: Stony Clove Creek and the Esopus Creek
"I was terrified,” says Kristi Trimboli, who was 12 years old during Irene.
Living on Route 214 in Phoencia, Trimboli watched from inside her house as the swelling waters swept closer and closer to the windows.
"It was probably worse for others, though,” she says. “My friend Kara, who lives near the railroad museum, got flooded out completely."
Kara's mother, Tina Herdman, says, "Irene was the first time it flooded where the water actually came into the house."
She considers herself lucky. "At least we had flood insurance,” she says.
Herdman, who has lived on Station Road for over 20 years, points out that before Irene, there were nine families living on the road. Now she lives in one of the only three inhabitable dwellings on their road.
"We are the last family left," she says.
On Route 214, Timboli’s family was out of power for three weeks. Partway through that period, they decided to take a vacation for a week, to get away from the wreckage.
When they came back, Tropical Storm Lee was battering the Catskills with a second round of rain and wind.
Trimboli still works in Phoenicia, at the general store and candy shop The Nest Egg, where she has been employed for almost five years. Her best memory of Irene is how “our community came together during that tragedy.”
“Everybody just took care of each other,” she says.
Rayla-suzan Hart, guitar player, summer camp director, swim coach and retired teacher of children with autism
Above: Rayla-suzan Hart of West Shokan, by the Esopus Creek. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: West Shokan, Ulster County
Waterway: Esopus Creek
Irene was no match for Rayla-suzan Hart. As she sees it, there was an angel on her side.
"The night Irene hit, it was our turn to take care of a neighbor that needed round-the-clock end-of-life care,” Hart remembers. “At 2:45 a.m., we got a call that Lois had passed on. We went up to her house, and as we got to her driveway the wind picked up everywhere but around our two houses. The coroner came and we left around 6 a.m. We went to Bread Alone [Bakery] for coffee, and on [Route] 28 the water was at the bridge.”
Hart and her partner, who Hart asked us not to name, returned home just in time. Their property, just two miles from the Esopus Creek, become trapped between two downed bridges.
Through the storm, the couple sat calmly on their back porch, drinking coffee and watching “a little trickle becoming a washed-out road.”
"The wind was crazy, there were trees down all around us, but not in our yard,” Hart says. “We still believe it was Lois protecting us.”
Afterwards, things got worse. Hart’s house was out of power for five days. This was bad news for the 1967 Good Humor truck she owned, which was packed with thousands of dollars of ice cream destined to be served at an upcoming town celebration called Shandaken Day.
Hart called Tony Lanza, the superintendent of Belleayre Mountain Ski Center at the time.
"He allowed us to plug in our truck," says Hart, a tearful smile on her face.
Irene demonstrated how a catastrophe can unite a community, Hart says:
“People pulled together from all over, to help each other, to build, to rebuild."
Peter Halvorsen, plumber and fiddle player, and Julie Halvorsen, nurse
Above: Peter and Julie Halvorsen in front of “River Music” by Michael Bauermeister at the Mount Temper's Emerson Resort. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Big Indian, Ulster County
Waterway: McKinley Hollow Brook
"It was a catastrophe of biblical proportions," says Peter, remembering Irene's violent visit to the Catskills.
His wife Julie agrees. "It was a travesty, devastating, shocking,” she says.
The road the couple lived on at the time, McKinley Hollow Road in the hamlet of Big Indian, was washed away. "There was no road, no recollection of the road," says Peter.
They watched as six of their neighbor's houses were completely taken by the water.
Miraculously, the Halvorsens sustained no water damage. They did lose power for a week.
They were trapped, like so many others, between two disintegrated bridges. They had to carry their bikes through a landslide on County Road 47 so that they could peddle to Pine Hill for supplies and cell phone service to call their bosses.
The two have several stories to tell of that dangerous time. This one is the best:
"Two community members ‘borrowed’ an excavator that had been left behind by the county,” Peter Halvorsen says. “Between the two bridges being gone and the landslide, people were trapped. So these guys, whomever they were, had heavy equipment experience.”
"They hot-wired the excavator and dug out the landslide so people could get through,” he says.
"Our community came together, more so then I have ever seen,” remembers Julie Halvorsen. “We met people that we have never met before. Police officers brought us our medication from the Phoenicia Pharmacy on an ATV."
Since then, the couple has moved from their home of 10 years to safer ground in Phoenicia.
"I just couldn't go through that again," says Julie.
Her husband nods.
"But we were lucky,” he says. “Windham and Prattsville, they were ground zero."
Nancy Barton, director of the Prattsville Art Center, and Maggie Uhalde, marketing assistant for the Catskill Mountain Foundation and lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the band Evvergreen
Above: Maggie Uhalde performing at the first Prattsville Music and Art Festival, held on July 24, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Andre.
Town: Prattsville, Greene County
Waterway: Schoharie Creek
"It took a year to clear the mud from the homes still standing—you can still see its dusty residue five years after the storm," says Prattsville resident Nancy Barton.
According to Barton, Irene destroyed 40 percent of the buildings in the hamlet of Prattsville.
"No home or business on Main Street was spared," she says.
The rain filled up the narrow valley, and the three creeks that converge in the town rose 15 feet, Barton says. The streams became a six-feet-deep river that washed away buildings, vehicles and an entire trailer park at a rate faster than water flows over Niagara Falls.
"Those whose homes tilted or fell huddled in upper floor rooms or on rooftops for hours, fearing they might not survive,” Barton says. “Incredibly, no one in Prattsville was killed during the storm.”
Barton recalls the great sense of caring and community during those early weeks. Many families lost everything.
As military helicopters began to arrive with supplies, residents, neighbors and volunteers pulled together to help those dig out those hardest hit by the flood, she says.
"A thick sea of gooey mud covered streets and sidewalks, filling every basement and turning couches, kitchens and bedroom furniture into shapes rising from the dark muck like dinosaurs caught in a tar pit," she says.
Above: Prattsville’s floodwaters beginning to recede on August 28, 2011. Photo by Rev. Greg Town, MudFest organizer.
At the time of Irene, Maggie Uhalde was a student at Gilboa-Conesville Central School. She was the chief of the Conesville Explorers and was living in Conesville with her parents.
"That's the week I discovered my comfort food—beverage actually—is coffee,” says Uhalde, who is now a 19-year-old college graduate. “I could go on and on about that week.”
Both of Uhalde’s parents were firefighters with the Conesville Volunteer Fire Department, and her mom was also an EMT. Since the family's house wasn't affected by the storm, they spent that first week assisting their neighbors in nearby Prattsville.
"The first night we didn't even go home,” Uhalde says. “That night, my sister and I slept on tables, and my little brother slept on a gurney.”
Uhalde's job was to listen to the radio and report back to the fire chief when there was a call for help. She also helped distribute emergency supplies. There was a whiteboard to keep track of which roads in town were destroyed or impassable, but the list grew so fast that it was quickly abandoned, she remembers.
"At times, we were just completely helpless, listening to the tones go off over and over again, and all we could do was just sit there,” she says. “We could see huge trees floating down the creek behind the fire house.”
But something beautiful happened that night, in the midst of all the destruction.
"At some point, a call came in that a woman was going into labor,” says Uhalde. “And my mom, she helped deliver that baby on the way to the hospital.”
There were other amazing things born from the unforgettable storm.
Above: Prattsville the morning after the flood. Photo by Rev. Greg Town, MudFest organizer.
MudFest, a town-wide party, was inaugurated on the first anniversary of the flood to celebrate the Prattsville’s rebuilding process. It was also a symbol of the town’s refusal to be beaten by Irene and its muddy waters.
MudFest included a muck-boot parade, art exhibitions and truckloads of fresh clean mud brought into a local park for folks to play in, with a local fire truck hosing down the participants throughout the afternoon.
"Prattsville’s citizens were determined to fight to keep the town alive," says Barton.
MudFest was held annually for four years after the storm. But this year, complications with insurance and funding shut it down, Barton says.
"Perhaps there was also a sense that, for those who are still struggling with the aftermath of the storm, this was no longer the occasion they most wanted to celebrate," she says.
Also emerging from the recovery planning that followed Irene was the Prattsville Art Center and Residency. Along with MudFest, it was one of the first tangible signs of recovery in the town, Barton says.
Thanks to a “Creative Placemaking Grant” from ArtPlace America, one of the severely damaged historic buildings on Main Street was rebuilt as an art center to nurture creativity and resilience, "especially among rural youth," says Barton.
Uhalde was one of the rural youths who benefited from the new art center. She was one was one of the center’s original interns, and helped restore the building, which needed a "crazy amount of work,” she says.
The Prattsville Art Center’s first show, “The Art of Mudfest,” opened on August 27, 2012, on the one-year anniversary of the flood.
Above: NYC artist Jane Grissom, left and Nancy Barton, right, in front of the Prattsville Art Center. Photo by Katy Hamer, for the art blog “Eyes Towards the Dove.”
"The art center is a place that I feel I belong to, but it also belongs to me, and to everyone else that's ever felt safe there," says Uhalde.
This year, although there is no MudFest, but there is a new 12-hour music festival in Prattsville.
"With the end of MudFest, the creation of a Prattsville Music and Art Festival in this beautiful mountain valley seemed like a natural evolution," says Barton.
Musician Patrick McGuinn came up with the idea to replace the MudFest with a music festival. He drew on his network of musicians and artists, and, on July 24, 2016, over 20 bands of local headliners and NYC musicians playing rock and roots music performed for free on the grassy lawn of Prattsville's town green. In the evening, the festival moved indoors to the Prattsville Art Center with electronic music, funk, rap and video art accompanied by a free barbecue and art events.
The artists called it the "Headin’ for the Hills” festival. Hundreds of people attended, according to Barton.
There are plans to make the festival an annual event. "As a nonprofit, we are seeking funding to be able to expand the festival across several sites and pay our musicians," she says.
To keep momentum going, the Prattsville Art Center will be hosting a free follow-up mini-festival in Prattsville on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, with headliners the Babes, JFP and Evvergreen—Uhalde’s band.
"There will always be more work to do, but I know we can do it," says Uhalde, "and we'll make it even better than before."
This article is part of our series of stories commemorating the five-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene in the Catskills.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that René and Carrie Garcia were the owners of La Cabaña Mexican Restaurant. They are the managers.