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Adirondack communities like Jay face tough questions about how to rebuild. Photos:  Brian Mann
Adirondack communities like Jay face tough questions about how to rebuild. Photos: Brian Mann

Irene forces flood-plagued Adirondack towns to think hard about their futures

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The clean-up effort is still in its early stages, with many homes in the North Country still without water or electricity. But now that Federal aid is on the way, local leaders, business owners and residents also face some tough, long-term questions.

How to pay for the recovery is one daunting challenge, but painful decisions also have to be made about how and where to rebuild. Brian Mann has this story from the town of Jay, NY.

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National Guard troops begin clean-up efforts.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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On the bridge that stretches across the Ausable River in Upper Jay, a caravan of humvees carrying National Guard troops and towing supply wagons, head across into one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the wake of hurricane Irene.

"This is the first outside help we've got since this happened," said Jay's fire chief, Jeffrey Straight, as he stood directing traffic across the bridge.

The clean-up effort here will be carried out on a massive scale. In the past, communities have seen parts of roads damaged or one or two bridges destabilized, but tropical storm Irene tore up whole stretches of highway and ravaged whole neighborhoods. 

Randy Douglas is town supervisor in Jay and heads the Essex County board of supervisors:  

"We've got county bridges beyond repair. You have county roads beyond repair. I wouldn't dare put a price tag on it."

Essex County already has a deep deficit and faces the constraints of a two percent property tax. The declaration of a Federal disaster will help by supplying emergency funding.

But after the devastating floods this spring–and now Irene–Douglas and others are talking about making bigger changes:

"The next section that we're going to is the Jersey section. And you'll see total devastation there: Sidewalks washed out, homes flooded for the first time this year, this flood season, and they've had enough."

The Federal government has a program that pays people to help them move out of flood plains, but Douglas says that’s a tough decision for close-knit communities:

"It's time that we look at it but I can't say that it's the best answer because you lose your identity, you lose your community.  These are people that, for generations and generations, have lived here and raised their families here.  If they take a buy-out they're gone and the community loses it's identity and it's sad."

But some people here say the river is forcing them to rethink their futures. Michael Bowen moved into his home six years ago and he’s been completely flooded out twice this year.

"Obviously we don't have any furniture. We need help with everything. It's overwhelming, I don't know."

Bowen says he loves his neighborhood, but the emotional and financial costs of cleaning up again and again may be too high.

"After this year, I think so," he said. "Because it's scary, obviously."

Some families have already made their decisions.  Jean Musso says she’s been forced to rescue her elderly mother twice this year –on one occasion scooping her out of danger in the bucket of a shovel loader. 

Musso says they’re done living at the river’s mercy:

"We're not putting her back in the house. We can't afford to fix it. We can't do it. We're done with the stress and worry," she said.

 There is one big quandary here, though. A lot of homes and businesses that were hit in this flood were on ground that most people considered safe. Back on the bridge, fire chief Jeffrey Straight said that means people will have to make some hard personal decisions about how and where to rebuild:

"People have a tendency to live where they prefer to live and I don't know in this country that you can dictate that you should live someplace else." 

But Straight acknowledged that he too is faced with the decision of how, or where, to rebuild his own firehall, which was hit by water from the Ausable River. 

"If our fire station were declared a total loss, would I consider putting it on higher ground? Absolutely. I think we would be foolish not to."

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