Flash Floods Force Daring Rescue In Upstate N.Y.

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Parts of upstate New York were hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene — high winds and a wall of heavy rain swept away homes and bridges. Dozens of major highways, including sections of interstates 87 and 90, were closed to traffic.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan.

Drop a lot of rain on a coastal area, and the damage can be serious. But at least most of the water quickly runs off. Drop heavy rain in the mountains, and you get something worse. The water concentrates in the valleys, where most people live.

INSKEEP: And that's what happened when the remnants of Hurricane Irene moved over Vermont and Upstate New York. Heavy rain flooded whole valleys, sweeping away homes and bridges.

GREENE: Dozens of major highways, including sections of Interstates 87 and 90, were closed off to traffic.

INSKEEP: And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked President Obama to declare a federal disaster.

GREENE: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann made his way through New York's Adirondack Mountains yesterday afternoon.

(Soundbite of sloshing water)

BRIAN MANN: Leslie Trevor slogs through silt and water in one of the greenhouses on her wrecked farm just outside Lake Placid, New York. Sunday evening just after dark, the Ausable River surged over its bank, sweeping across her potato fields. Trevor and her husband raced to the barn and found their horses belly-deep in water.

Ms. LESLIE TREVOR (Farmer): The water was freezing. I started getting kind of hypothermic, because I was completely soaked to the skin.

MANN: A crew from Lake Placid's Volunteer Fire Department helped lead the horses down a flooded stretch of road to another barn on higher ground. Trevor says in the dark and the cold, it was terrifying.

Ms. TREVOR: We took the horses out. The water was at such a velocity, I could barely keep upright. I was holding on to the mane of my horse just to stand up. I almost lost my footing several times.

(Soundbite of radio static)

Unidentified Man: Ten, four, four, zero, (unintelligible).

MANN: Tory Hoffman was one of the volunteer firemen who helped rescue the Trevors. He says the Ausable River just went out of control.

Mr. TORY HOFFMAN (Fireman, Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department): It was the most impressive thing I've ever seen. I grew up here. I've never seen the water that high.

MANN: The flashflood moved so fast that Hoffman's crew was trapped and had to hike out on a mountain trail. That same story echoed all along this valley.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

MANN: In the mountain town of Keene, a half-hour drive away, a bulldozer is scouring silt from the main highway. Brian Marshall says he was digging a drainage trench around his yard Sunday afternoon and had no idea the Ausable River had jumped its banks, merging with a second mountain stream and coming right at him.

Mr. BRIAN MARSHALL: And then a wall of water came down.

MANN: Marshall scrambled back as the river swept down Main Street, sucking away the local fire hall, smashing homes and trailers, leaving them in piles.

Ms. ANGELA MURPHY: Ours is down there, where the river is now, severely damaged. We've never seen anything like this in the 30 years that we've been here.

MANN: Angela Murphy stands in the field of debris that used to be her neighborhood, surrounded by propane tanks, refrigerators, parts of cars. She and her husband Jim are wiped out after a night spent trying to salvage part of their lives. But they both say they're lucky, given the power of this flood.

Mr. JIM MURPHY: Everybody survived. There was no fatalities, and everything else can be replaced.

MANN: There have been no reports of serious injuries or deaths here. But New York forest ranger Brian DuBay says they're still trying to locate the hikers and campers who were in the mountains when Irene struck.

Mr. BRIAN DUBAY (Forest Ranger): We had a pretty good idea on the people that were staying in designated camping sites. But as far as people that wanted to be well off in the wilderness by themselves, you know, we don't have tabs on them right now.

MANN: Governor Cuomo says it's still unclear how much it will cost to clean up dozens of New York towns battered by Irene. Estimates already run into the tens of millions of dollars. Part of the recovery effort will be paid for by the Federal government. But some people here worry that because New York City wasn't hit, there might be less attention paid in Washington.

Farmer Leslie Trevor says she's still angry because FEMA refused to help this rural area after another big flood last May.

Ms. TREVOR: We couldn't get any help at all for the spring flooding. We lost two rounds of crops. And we've just got to get our elected officials to go and see what they can do for the North Country.

MANN: But even with aid, Trevor says her crops are ruined, and she'll be forced to let some of her workers go.

Ms. TREVOR: Oh, absolutely, it'll mean jobs. I wish it didn't, but I don't know what else to do.

MANN: With the Labor Day weekend approaching, tourism businesses in Upstate New York also fear that travelers will cancel their visits because of widespread power outages, closed roads and downed bridges.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York.

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