Flood plains come with the territory

Above: Main Street Phoenicia during Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Jay Conasa.

Tsunamis aren’t a concern here in the Catskills. Neither are forest fires, really, or major earthquakes. Hurricane storm surges will never threaten us, and hurricanes themselves rarely make it up this way, even though a weakened Irene just did. No one will ever call the Catskills a tornado alley, and major dust storms never smother us. Our occasional droughts are pretty mild by world standards, especially if you focus on effects here locally, putting aside New York City’s constant need for water.  We have no active volcanoes to threaten us. Heat waves may kill scores across the country but thermometers in the Catskills (or at least in Shandaken) essentially never hit three digits. And though climate change is causing the seas to rise, our feet won’t get wet as a result.

Yes, the Catskills have cold winters and occasional blizzards, but we avoid "lake-effect" natural snow machines and a lot of coastal storms. Winters tend to end on schedule around here, unlike further north, and the blizzards that we do get in the Catskills seldom reach those central-U.S. epic proportions. Which leaves us with floods to contend with, and they can be as destructive as any natural disaster known to man.

Our floods aren’t like the ones that sometimes occupy the Mississippi valley. Floods here don’t claim hundreds of square miles of countryside.  Like most mountainous regions, we face flash floods, and rarely are they as severe as the ones we face now. But flash floods can kill, and flash floods do destroy. So, like virtually everywhere else in the country, it is fair to ask, of both Shandaken and the larger watershed region, when and where is it appropriate to rebuild after a natural disaster? Or, more specifically, when is it appropriate to rebuild on a flood plain?

If you aren’t a long-time resident of Shandaken or of a few of the other towns that fall within New York City’s designated watershed, you can be excused for not catching the hidden edge buried in that question, intentionally or not. Near to here there are already nine towns permanently buried below flood waters, but that wasn’t because of any natural disaster. They were buried intentionally, though they were all full of life shortly before the waters rushed in to cover them. They were flooded to create the Ashokan Reservoir, for use by New York City, and they were flooded even though many of their residents objected and refused to voluntarily evacuate. 

That event is never very far from the memory of most life-long residents here today.  On the Sunday that Irene hit, while floodwaters off the Stony Clove stream coursed down Main Street in Phoenicia, I separately heard two civic leaders here voice words to this effect: “The city is going to use this to try to take over Phoenicia."

Would New York City really try that?  On that, opinions vary from "unlikely" to “damn right," but no one can say with total certainty that it will never happen here because, well, it has happened to hamlets next door. There already are some ongoing unresolved issues between New York City and Phoenicia. Take a look at the local sewer system controversy. (I will in future dispatches.)

That is why a September 4th New York Times story with a Phoenicia dateline left some residents here feeling distinctly uneasy. Its title: "On Flood Plain, Pondering Wisdom of Rebuilding Anew."

In general, it’s a thoughtful, well-written piece, but by choosing Phoenicia as its focus, the story fed fuel to a concern that some dismiss as political paranoia. It did so by juxtaposing comments like this one about Phoenicia with more general commentary about the seemingly increasing severity of flash flooding in the Catskills.

About Phoenicia: 

In this hamlet, set in an Ulster County valley, two creeks swelled violently, their waters temporarily swallowing parts of town and turning Main Street into a rushing river. It was the third time since last October that flooding had inundated the hamlet.  

About the Catskills:

Recent studies have asserted that the region’s weather is getting more severe, including heavier rainfall and more frequent and intense flooding… 

Environmentalists and others in the region say these developments should force a reassessment of the Catskills’ building and zoning regulations, possibly even leading to a moratorium on further construction, or even human habitation, in certain flood plains.

And then the reporter “went there," specifically about Phoenicia, when he wrote:

In an interview here late last week, Mr. [Shandaken Town supervisor Rob] Stanley, who has been leading round-the-clock recovery efforts, said dredging had been used for years to forestall flooding, and he dismissed the suggestion that some buildings, or perhaps even the entire hamlet of 400 people, should be relocated.

There is no named source for the suggestion that “perhaps even the entire hamlet of 400 people should be relocated."  Just like there is no place where the entire hamlet of Phoenicia can be relocated. Just like there were no places where the entire hamlets that were inundated by New York City Reservoirs could be relocated back then.

For the record, Phoenicia was not inundated by Irene “for the third time since October;" only the surface of Main Street was. In all three events, no stores in the business district were destroyed, and in all three events, most of those stores didn’t flood at all while waters rushed past them on the street. Rebuilding hasn’t been needed on the Main Street Phoenicia flood plain, just repeated clean-ups and some limited repairs. 

Some individuals in the lowest lying areas of Phoenicia have been far less fortunate, and they have suffered serious losses this time from Irene, and even from earlier floods. But the vast majority of those living in the hamlet have not.  Natural disasters are a part of life no matter where we live in America. We should all think hard about where we build and how we build, and about if rebuilding is justified after a disaster strikes.  But in the case of Phoenicia, at least, let’s not throw out the baby with the flood water.

Tom Rinaldo writes the Dispatches from Shandaken column for the Watershed Post's Shandaken page three times a week. Email Tom at tomrinaldo@watershedpost.com.