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Ulster County Artists Join Forces After Irene

As tree limbs are cleared from the streets and sump pumps growl in New York City basements, tight-knit artist communities upstate are coming together to cope with the damage from Tropical Storm Irene.

"Flooding in Phoenecia was really catastrophic and the damage is severe," said Bronson Eden, an artist who lives in the Ulster County hamlet of Phoenicia. "Right now, we're not really artists or anything. We're just all neighbors helping neighbors."

Data on exactly how much damage was wrought by Irene north of New York City is still unclear. On Tuesday, Govenor Andrew Cuomo declared that the storm had caused some $1 billion in damages across the state. Tens of thousands of New York residents are still without power. In Ulster County, dry ice distribution centers have been set up so residents can preserve their food. Neighbors are sharing perishable items so that nothing goes to waste.

County residents said that they never thought Irene would obliterate houses, destroy bridges or severely flood the community the way it did.

"The feeling that I get from talking to people is that they were blindsided," said Eden. "The first thing they said is that they never expected anything like this."

The biggest relief, he said, was that community members were helping one another out.

"Nobody has power and there's no cell service so you can't find anything out or be in touch," said Christina Varga, who owns and operates the Varga Gallery in Woodstock.

During the storm, Varga's gallery had an opening she called "Irene or Shine." Now, she's planning a benefit for Helping Hands of New York, a non-profit aid organization, in order to raise funds for community members who have been affected.

Although the storm has shut down many of Ulster County's arts events, the Woodstock Songwriter Festival is still expected to go ahead as planned this weekend. And for the most part, the local galleries are open.

"I hope we get some people in town," Eden said. "I don't know if anybody will be coming, but we'll be open for business."