Speaking in the Catskills community of Prattsville, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that he expects damage from Tropical Storm Irene to reach $1 billion as the flood waters receded from rural communities in the mountainous region upstate and elsewhere to reveal the extent of the destruction.
The governor's remarks were made after President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in the state Wednesday. He toured the town with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who said there would be federal aid for rebuilding.
"It will be a process. It will take some time," she said. "There's a lot of damage — you can see it walking around and from the air. But we will be partners with you throughout this recovery period."
The storm destroyed roads, washed bridges away, knocked down trees and ripped buildings from their foundation. Of 191 storm-related rescues in the state, 124 were in the Catskills, and six people were killed, including one woman who drowned in a cottage swamped by floodwaters. Irene also destroyed 500 to 600 homes and thousands of acres of farmland.
The only grocery store in the hard-hit town of Margaretville was washed away by the raging floodwaters, and more buildings could be torn down.
"There are actually some businesses on main street here in Margaretville that may be condemned that were actually backing up to the Benekill stream ... that many be condemned and taken down because of the flooding," said John Tufillaro, a real estate agent and president of the Central Catskill Chamber of Commerce.
Tufillaro, whose Coldwell Banker office was destroyed, is working out of a makeshift office and said the only place in town to get milk is the Hess gas station.
There are also reports of people who are stuck in hard-to-reach areas.
"In Greene County and Schoharie County and up a particular road in Ulster County, these are smaller roads, not main roads, and people are totally isolated," said Julia Reischel, publisher for the blog Watershedpost.com. "I would say scores, perhaps 100 people across the Catskills, are isolated an haven't been in touch with anyone for days."
She said a summer camp at a YMCA was stranded up a road, trapped by a giant ravine on one side and an out bridge on the other. They had a generator, but she said, "they're completely isolated. And they are not alone. Green County is full of communities like this."
Water levels had begun to recede in some areas, but not all, according to Reischel.
Watershedpost.com has featured a live blog where residents can access information and provided a forum for citizen journalism to blossom. Another resident began mapping the devastation.
Tracy Allen, associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the State University of New York at Oneonta, said there was not much that could have been done to prevent the flooding that took place in the Catskills.
"Flood plains in mountainous areas are very small and the rivers run straight instead of meandering," Allen said. "When you get a big flood of it, there's going to be torrential floods and it's going to be flashing, exactly what we got."
(Photo courtesy of David Parise)
She also said old communities upstate had been built close to water in flood plains.
"We occupy those flood-prone zones and we are inherently taking the place of where the water would like to store itself," Allen said. "We are living in harm's way."
Cuomo also formed an Upstate Storm and Flooding Recovery Task Force to provide rapid response to New Yorkers.
The gut-wrenching images of muddied water surging down quaint main streets and the splintered houses where grand country homes once stood has been captured by residents using social media in rural villages of the Catskills ripped apart by Tropical Storm Irene.
In a video posted on YouTube and featured on Watershedpost.com, rescuers in a boat pluck someone from a ground-floor residence on Main Street in Margaretville as a wall of raging water charges down the store-lined street of the once-tidy town.
A separate video shows the muddied waters swirling around park benches, potted plants and the base of traffic lights that glowed green on Main Street.
"Our whole crop is covered with water, and we're just working at cleaning up here and see what comes out from under it," said farmer Richard Giles, of Lucky Dog Farm, in Hamden, New York, in another video.
Watershed Post - Storm Report, Hamden NY 08 29 2011 from VeccVideography on Vimeo.
Hurricane Irene - Margarertville 8-28-11 11am from Fred Margulies on Vimeo.
Bridge Street, Margaretville, NY - After Hurricane Irene from Fred Margulies on Vimeo.
Photos courtesy of David Parise
Courtesy of Schoharie County (NY) Emergency Services/Facebook
With the Associated Press