“…and the creek was an untrustworthy fellow traveler. One day it would be a gentle rustic beauty smiling shyly at admiring fishermen; the next day–thanks to one of the heavy rainstorms characteristic of the Catskills–it might become an angry giant and destroy houses, barns, soil, and railroad tracks in its valley. One dweller along the lower Esopus used to say that the flooding creek had brought him all the materials and contents of his house and barn except for an anvil for his blacksmith shop–and he was expecting that on the next flood.”
(from The Catskills by Alf Evers)
As Hurricane Irene approached New York City a few weeks ago, in between the frenzy of mass media attention and social media skepticism there arrived a moment in which I decided that all prognostication was no longer possible. Something was going to happen, but what it would entail was anyone’s guess; the only task as I saw it was to prepare as best as possible without succumbing to either the carefree obliviousness of a Manhattan hipster joking of his survival kit of a bottle of bourbon or the extremity of taped-windows, stress and unnecessary gallons of milk. An anarchist on facebook joked of the lines of customers waiting outside Trader Joes and asked if anyone wanted to go “throw things at the yuppies”. Grasshoppers versus ants.
As I slowly started to imagine an apocalypse perhaps I was giving in to the media doomsdayers, with the slight difference being that instead of stressing and guessing, I rather decided to let each moment evolve my understanding of the storm’s severity. My worst case scenario involved the nuclear reactor at Indian Point somehow melting down, requiring us to flee to eastern Long Island perhaps, although the path of the winds would ultimately decide the safest direction of our escape–but wouldn’t a hurricane’s circular winds spread the radiation…everywhere? I think of it as a kind of celestial sense of humor known to good army generals who expect the worst and are unfazed by calamities. We filled many jugs and stock pots and kombucha fermentation vessels with water from the tap. That Saturday the first band of the hurricane’s spiral arrived mid-day, just as we were visiting a hardware store in order to buy paint for a home-improvement craft project (to keep our minds busy and hands active). The streets of Astoria immediately flooded with the rain (six inches perhaps in certain places) and knowing that the storm was supposed to reach full intensity 20 hours later on Sunday morning I temporarily attempted to imagine a rain of that intensity continuously falling and panicked– But as soon as that burst arrived mid-day Saturday, it was gone. It didn’t really start raining until 2AM.
We decided to fall asleep around 1AM. The rain was falling hard– As I kept checking windows I eventually heard dripping in our kitchen and had to place a pot underneath a window leak that was somehow entering the window in the floor above and seeping through our frame. Some of the water was even traveling across the ceiling so I knifed a hole where the water had collected and let it drip into another bucket placed in the center of the kitchen. Found another leak in the living room–The house is old, from the 1910s or 20s–But when we woke there was only the wind in the trees and a street littered with branches and leaves. A tree on our block had fallen into one car and as we decided to brave the sidewalks Sunday morning another water-logged and rotting tree fell into the second story of a house, breaking out the windows and even giving a resident a black eye.
Hurricane Irene was a dud, or so the story briefly went. The banality of this narrative of my wet weekend I include not because it is particularly interesting, but because it probably mirrors the experience of most residents of New York City. As the “weather” itself has no agency we respond to disasters in a way that is proportional to the degree which humans have exacerbated or prevented disorder and destruction. (Global warming of course complicates this analysis, but also strengthens it too). So this particular hurricane becomes a “dud” because the result didn’t live up to the media hype. Conversely we think of Katrina not necessarily as a powerful hurricane, but one which tragically overcame humans’ defenses against it. Without an obvious scapegoat or hero, the victims of a natural disaster are forgotten and left alone to rake the rubble.
I imagine something like that is happening now in Catskill Mountain towns such as Margaretville, Fleishmanns, Phonecia, and Windham. These towns are unfortunately situated on the confluence of a large creek such as the Esopus or the lower branch of the Delaware River with a smaller creek. Two large steep valleys that drain hundreds of thousands of acres meet each other at an acute angle and it is at these pleasant spots where the presence of a mill or tannery eventually grew into popular vacation destinations and eventually contemporary desuetude. Not that they don’t have charm, it’s only that the charms are limited and eclectic. And because of the accident of hilly terrain that allows water to slide down its contours rather than absorbing it, the question is not whether the creek will flood, but how much and how fast. Now that these mountain towns have been violently inundated, to the headlock squeeze of history is added a stiff uppercut from Mother Nature.
Pine Hill is a town in the Catskills named for the fact that if you follow the Esopus Creek up from the Hudson River into the mountains and keep heading west, opting to continue on Birch Creek (as the Esopus proper runs south up a steep valley to its source), you will eventually encounter a hill. The waters to the east of this hill empty into the Hudson whereas to the west the waters drain counterclockwise to the south towards the Delaware River. When the Ulster and Delaware railroad that followed the Esopus was constructed, the Pine Hill was considered such a steep obstacle that a tunnel was even proposed to bore through and open up somewhere near Fleishmanns. This plan was discarded and eventually a roundabout solution was found where the track would begin a slow ascent up the south slope of the valley and run high above the valley floor, head up a small stream bed on the Hill, cross the stream and turn 180 degrees clockwise following a contour line around the hill until another 180 degrees counterclockwise were attained and a short chug of a steep grade is all that remained before the valleys and tributaries of the Delaware spread out below.
The railroad no longer runs, but a whiff of the excitement of the thousands and thousands of vacationers it carried into the Catskills remains to some extent in the towns that dot the railroad’s path. Pine Hill is an ideal spot to explore two divergent watersheds that open into very different terrains, yet historically connected through the transportation links that bridged their geographic and psychological separation.
To the west, Margaretville was one of these towns where I bought food for a week in August when I was visiting the area. A multi-million dollar supermarket that had just been constructed on the shore of the Delaware branch sold food in a vigorously air-conditioned environment and was a surprisingly modern operation in such a sleepy part of the state. As the river swelled, water flowed through the supermarket and totally destroyed an adjoining drug store. Across a small canal lies Margaretville’s main street, which was lined with a number of dilapidated restaurants, a shuttered theater, a gem dealer and a few snazzy boutiques. These stores formed the banks of a deep river and also housed a few hold-outs who had to be rescued by a motor boat fighting the swift current.
To the east, Phonecia is a perhaps slightly hipper town that lies on the Esopus and was also seriously flooded during Irene. The narrative there is similar to that of Margaretville, though perhaps less severe– These narratives perhaps fail to capture the imagination as flooding in this region is an expected part of life. The river rises, it steals away a few lives of those who were unlucky, but one can’t really say that living on the flood plain is folly. Shovels, mud, and mildew. The real estate salesperson who sells the property and gently warns the buyer that disastrous floods are “100 year events” perhaps takes on a different shade when three of these events happen in 20 years, but there’s no one else to blame.
There is a dam high up in the mountains at the very source of the Esopus, which lies at the summit of a steep valley that rises among musty and abandoned hotels and at least one very successful event space that hosts scores of weddings each summer. The dam, which was created in the 1890s by the judge, politician and eventual Democratic presidential nominee Alton Parker, blocks the waters of the nascent Esopus which pool to form the Winnisook Lake. The Winnisook club owns the lake which is lined with several cottages. Although not nearly as large as now nonexistent Lake Conemaugh, it doesn’t take much familiarity with history to be reminded of a horrific flood when one hears of a privately owned lake on the top of a mountain that is used by millionaires who prefer to fish and row boats on private property. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 saw the collapse of the South Fork Dam and the emptying of the 2 mile long Lake Conemaugh into Johnstown below with a final death toll of 2,209, not to mention an obliterated city. The private owners of the dam which included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick were never held legally responsible for the disaster. Public outcry against the failure of the judicial system to find the robber-barons-turned-mass murderers-by-negligence guilty eventually transformed tort law in the U.S. and the eventual acceptance of strict liability: Intent does not need to be proven.
One hopes that the failure of the small dam that plugs up Winnisook Lake is a case that will never find its day in court. But as I drove by the lake and club on a beautiful Saturday this August before the hurricane–prime vacation season–I saw no one fishing or rowing or even milling about. One wonders if the dam is safe– “Shandaken is Screaming for Answers” reads the headline of a local newspaper and I don’t blame their skepticism.