Thursday, September 8, 2011

Good Night Irene: A Hurricane Hits Clermont

In all likelyhood, you haven't missed the news for the past few weeks. You probably know that eastern New York got hit pretty hard by Tropical Storm Irene. Trees down, power out, and devastating flooding that destroyed whole towns all around us. Even historic Guy Park Manor along the Mohawk River was not spared by the muddy waters which tore the beautiful house to shreds.

Here at Clermont, we joined everyone else out there in battening down the hatches and holding onto our hats. The front windows were covered with plywood sheilds that would protect them and the precious contents within from flying debris or falling trees. In many rooms, we found the historic supports to hold bars that would keep the shutters closed in the event of window damage, and our maintenance guys cut new bars to fit them. Andrew Jackson's portrait by Thomas Sully (which has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in the past) was draped with plastic "just in case." Our fearless leader Susan Boudreau even came on Saturday (the night before the storm) put her cats in the safety of one of the staff rooms, and settled in for as long as it would take.

Well here at Clermont we were lucky. That's all that can be said. The Livingstons built on a bluff above the river where they would be visible to passing traffic, but also where they were well above flood waters. Sure we had flooding and erosion in a number of areas of the grounds, but the rain and first wave of wind left all of the structures mainly untouched. Susan reported by Sunday evening that the power had not even been lost for any appreciable time.

One of our chimneys sprang leak and down poured several pints of rusty red water. Thank goodness for Jackson's "just in case" covering! He was right unerd that leak, and the heavy plastic draped over him protected him from any damage.

And of course, then the tail end of the storm whiplashed in with its wild, gusty winds.

All around the house and woodlands and gardens trees came roaring to the ground. One even brushed the mansion, it's branches scraping down the stucco and finally cracking a storm window before it hit the gound! We've already lost a number of our favorites this year, and to lose still more was disheartening.

When the storm cleared, Susan and the crew went out to survey the damage. Large walnuts in the cutting garden and in front of Sylvan cottage were felled, leaving sun beating down on spaces once dappled with shade. Still others came crashing down on trails and roads--the parking lot fielded three trees, one of which came down on the director's car! (The car was amazingly okay once they got the tree off it--which was good, because after three days of living at work, she was ready to go home.)

The most dangerous trees were those that had not fallen but were leaning precariously over, like deadfall traps around the park. A giant catalpa tree near the Visitor Center split up the center and groaned to one side, threatening our major roadway and forcing us to declare the park closed.

And so the work commenced. Our crew of three maintenance guys set to work with chainsaws and the back hoe. New York Parks maintenance staff came from the Taconic Region headquarters and chipped in with their chainsaws and hardhats and good strong backs too.

When the tree count was in, we found 150 trees were downed throughout the property, but by some small miracle, not a single one had landed on any of our houses or auxiliary buildings. Nevertheless the skilled work required to remove some of those trees (especially the catalpa) meant we needed help. And after three days of moving trunks as big as four feet in diameter, our guys were tired and needed more hands!

In the spirit of unity, the Central Region of New York's State Parks sent us a crew of four men skilled with tree removal, including an arborist and some very large trucks. After a four-hour drive on Thursday, the crew of four and our crew five set right to work on the trees.

From my end it looked like magic, but I know that it was sweaty, grinding labor. While I stood there in my red hard hat reflecting on the old addage about Star Trek and danger of being the only guy in a red shirt, they went through the complex task of safely belting, guiding, and felling that giant catalpa. And they didn't stop there. By Thursday afternoon, the park could safely open to the public. By Friday, the mansion was open for tours. Working straight through the weekend, they made Clermont look more like itself again.

The process is not over. Of the 150 trees that fell, only a handful have been fully cleared. Our trails are closed until further notice. We are only beginning to think about a plan of replanting, though there is no way to truly replace a 200 year old tree. Volunteers have begun flooding in to pick up sticks, clear limbs, and bring us us back. But this process will take many months.

All I can think is how very lucky we are and how very many people weren't. There are many homes in Scoharie County and elsewhere that were completely destroyed; many people are still living in shelters and watching fresh flood waters stream in as Tropical storm Lee drenches us with its remains. There is much work to be done out there, and it will take a long time for everybody.

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