Irene wasn't supposed to hit the Catskills. The western jet stream, which typically stalls a hurricane’s northward charge somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, stayed wide of the storm, allowing it to churn up the coast unimpeded. By the time the spiraling mass reached New York, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with winds reaching 65 miles per hour. But Irene’s strength wasn’t the problem; it was the size. The storm measured roughly 500 miles across—big enough that a chunk of the system stayed out over water, providing moisture for rain. And when a massive weather event like Irene hits the mountains, the topography forces the air upward, where it cools rapidly and creates the kind of torrential rain that’s measured in inches per hour.
Starting in the early hours of August 28 and peaking between 7 and 9 a.m., Irene dumped up to fourteen inches of rain on the Catskills, creating “exceptional rates of surface runoff and stream flow,” according to a postmortem study. At its worst, the force of the water equaled the flow of Niagara Falls. Some 50 stream gauges in eastern New York measured new record flow rates, including the one in Prattsville, which registered 50,000 cubic feet per second of water before it broke (but was estimated to hit 80,500 cf/s, nearly twice the previous high). Downstream, in Gilboa, a gauge hit 108,000 cf/s, shattering the previous record of 70,800, measured during the infamous 1996 flood.
Three hours south in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had ordered evacuations of low-lying areas, and the media panic over the storm’s projected path had scared many people out of the city entirely. When the waters wrapped around Moore’s Motel, just east of Betty O’Hara’s house, they stranded a group from Long Island in a motel room they had fled to for safety.
Pam Young lost track of how many times she thought her life was over. She sat on the roof of the addition in the pounding rain with the kids and the pets for six or eight hours, she still isn’t sure, running through scenarios until it finally seemed safe enough to hop back across the gap and into her house, where the floor had tilted so dramatically that it messed with their equilibrium.
Without a way of communicating with the outside world, Pam had no idea how soon help would arrive. She’d been staring at the Route 23 Bridge all day, using it as a marker of the water’s height, and she kept going back to the window to be certain it was receding. When it crested over the deck of the bridge and then dropped back, she knew she would live.
In the midafternoon, she spotted three men carefully crossing the swaying metal span, which was littered with debris and at risk of collapsing into the rapids. The water was down, but still flowing, so with the help of a neighbor who’d also been trapped, the men—one of whom she recognized as a 17-year-old junior firefighter named Cody Voorhees—were able to run a cable to Young’s deck. Using the line for stability, a rescuer made it across the lawn and, her eyes watering at the sight, Pam watched as he climbed up onto the roof and into a bedroom window. His boots hit the floor with a thud.
The man went downstairs, cleared away the ruined furniture and mud, shimmied open the sliding glass door, hooking the cable first to Young’s nephew, then to her son. Pam cradled her smaller dog, while a rescuer hoisted her 80-pound Golden Retriever over his shoulder and wrapped her 16-year-old cat in a blanket. He led the way through the watery yard to the trailer park, where Pam was told that people had watched her plight in horror from afar, unable to help.
Pam looked back at her house, nearly toppled, and her neighbor’s, which was in an even worse state, and then across the street at the spot where O’Hara’s service station had stood. The building, made of cinder block and anchored to concrete, was gone. Not crumpled. Not collapsed. But gone. As if it never had existed. Once again, Pam cried.
Across town, Brian, John, Jim, and Peggy Young spent four hours stuck on a metal roof in the pouring rain, huddled around a cupola, with only bags of mulch to keep them from sliding off. They, too, noticed the waters easing, and by midafternoon, the Young boys were able to move their parents and the dogs back across the water and into the store, which now sat six feet west of its original foundation. The four stripped off their wet clothes, picked new coats and sweatshirts from the surviving inventory, and waited for help to arrive.