Upstate New York and Irene

A day after Irene fled New York City with less wind and rain than anyone had thought possible, friend and family reports from upstate began to come in, with fear, with agony, with astonishment. When you have grown up upstate, far upstate -- near Syracuse, the Adirondacks, Tug Hill, Albany, the Catskills -- you already know the state of affairs: swaths of poverty not much different from Appalachia, and once-proud towns, some there since before the French and Indian war or the Revolution, now hanging on to hundreds or maybe thousands of citizens, many without jobs, or overseeing small farms, remnants of their past. Revolutionary-aged houses tilt, as do the faded signs noting the Revolutionary drill grounds, now hay fields. Towns from the 1800s boast Greek names and old farmhouses with fancy, Greek-revival columns or octagonal houses and barns, and Victorian houses in little ski towns now feature jewelry shops or second-hand stores off their porches; they all hang on for winter and try out small festivals and farmers' or flea markets to see if they can find economic life in the summer, or anytime, for that matter.

Upstate is a high-altitude place for this state, with several large and small mountain ranges, some of the coldest and highest plateaus in the state, and small creeks everywhere, flowing into larger ones, and dammed up into New York City reservoirs scattered throughout the Catskills. Snowmelt from the Catskills and the Adirondacks and the beginnings of the major rivers flow through almost everyone's land. We own about 100 acres on a steep hill in the northern Catskills, and our creek flows into the local tributary of the Schoharie Creek, which, in turn, a mile or so from our house, flows into the Catskill Creek, a trout fisherman's heaven. In some places like the Schoharie Valley, the Schoharie River sits low. In Middleburgh, it has a history of overflowing every 20 years or so, but when you see it at its quietest behind its stone and log wall, it is hard to imagine it misbehaving. It lies 15 to 20 feet below River Street, which has a parade of large, proud, Greek-revival homes, all huge and white with gracious lawns and elegant pasts. The bankers and lawyers and merchants who once served the wealthy Schoharie Valley farmers lived in Middleburgh. Although a nearby highway recently gave it a small boost, Main Street now has only a few strong going concerns; most stores come and go depending on the strength of the economy.

Upstate was once one of the richest areas of a new country; the Schoharie Valley was the breadbasket of the Revolution and a prize for the British who attacked Schoharie at the Old Stone Fort dring the Revolutionary War. The French and Indian War raged through that part of upstate, as well, and through the Cherry Valley, a bit farther west and north. Small functioning farms still sit in the rich Schoharie floodplain, and when you drive on the western arm of the Thruway, you see the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal on one side, and beautiful, huge, old farmhouses of red brick near the road on the other side, land truncated from the glory days of wealthy famers. Herkimer had such history and wealth, Troy and Utica, as well. But much of that upstate wealth is gone. Governors have tried to revive upstate and have had some success, but this beautiful, haunting, green-in-summer, cold-in-winter, water-riddled land is mostly forgotten. Those who know it are loyal to it: they love the mountains, the lakes, the hiking, the kayaking, the cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, the isolation, the quiet -- except, very often, for the sound of water.

That water flows by almost everyone's house in much of upstate: the Schoharie and Mohawk and other rivers and creeks flow past corn fields and cows, under willows and near old farmhouses and new ranch houses, restaurants, plant nurseries, bars, hardware stores, car repair garages. Our house on the hill has a creek subsidiary, and then a secret creek that only comes alive in rain storms, following its usual path down the hill, going so fast that when we first moved in, we were terribly disappointed when we heard it, because at first we thought it was traffic, a sound one rarely expects in rural upstate. It wasn't; it was the rushing water, of course. And these last weeks, those streams destroyed much of what remained of old upstate and its fragile economy. Almost no one has flood insurance in upstate; even if you could get it, it is too expensive for most.

It took almost five days of reporters telling stories of the cities of Connecticut and Vermont before some of the newspapers remembered upstate. Perhaps someone sent them photos from the Windham Times or the Business Gazette from Schenectady or the Albany Times Union, photos of downtown Windham, with its main street a raging river and cars in sinkholes, businesses destroyed. No photos of Preston Hollow appeared, its small restaurant virtually gone, houses twisted and muddy. The Schenectady Stockade, the place that the settlers built to protect themselves from Indian raids in the 17th and 18th centuries, was emptied as the Mohawk rose. The Schoharie Valley evacuated due to fears that the City's Gilboa dam wouldn't hold; it did. The governor appealed for more federal aid as he visited more and more of these already-ravaged towns, many now facing even more destruction. It is not at all clear how this land of isolation and water will survive.

My brother sent me the story of a neighbor in Schoharie, a vivid, poignant tale of loss in a place full to the brim of losses before the floods of Irene:

Our house was unscathed, but after we got back in, a neighbor stopped on the road to talk to us. She was on her way to check her house which always floods in the really bad floods. She stopped to talk a minute, and said she was hoping it hadn't gotten into her attic. Unfortunately, her entire house had disappeared. The lower portions of our road were inundated, but we drove around on high ground and looked at her home site. Nothing was left but a concrete slab covered in mud.

She's staying with a widow friend on the road right now. Pam went down to talk to her, and she was in shock -- just saying she was only trying to get thru the day. Her son lived in Montreal, and will try to get here I'm sure. I don't know if she had flood insurance -- I'm sure they won't let her rebuild there even if she did.

She used to have all the neighbors down to play petanque, a French version of bocce. She had her last get-together Saturday night. We went once and everybody made French dishes and drank French wine. It was a very peaceful spot with huge willows hanging over the house and the creek murmuring over the rapids. The house was full of art, antiques and cool things she'd found or bought thru the years. Very sad.