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Please God Stop the Rain

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At the fire station, Rikard and the rest of the fire crew were finally able to get out of the building around 4 p.m. The water was still four feet deep, and in some areas where it had fully receded, they saw trenches eight feet deep that had been cut into the earth. It was still too dangerous to cross Main Street, so Dave and Sam picked their way through the carnage, around crumpled houses and through torn-up yards, until they had a good view of his house. It sat half-collapsed into the front yard, but that hardly mattered. He watched as a rescue crew on a raft formed a human pyramid to pull Anastasia from a second-story window.

At the Hideaway Hotel, Betty O’Hara could barely sleep. Prattsville’s cell-phone tower had failed that night, and the phones and power were severed during the storm. Betty had had no contact with her grandsons or anyone else in Prattsville since she got into the back of the ambulance and headed up the hill. Determined to get home, she packed her bag, wandered out to the road, and raised a thumb in the dim light.

She hadn’t even been waiting five minutes before a car pulled up. It was Debbie Baker. Debbie and her husband, Steve, own and operate Moore’s Motel, as well as the town’s trailer park and a modular-home business. It’s likely no one in town suffered more total damages. They lost a garage, fifteen trailers, and six model homes worth more than $500,000, all of which was swept away and left crushed in the twenty-foot-high piles that accumulated in the woods just west of town.

With all the mud and debris, Debbie’s car was unable to reach Main Street. Betty thanked her, got out, and waved down a four-wheeler driven by Jim and Peggy Young. They told Betty to hop on.

As the sun rose, so did the temperature, and the day after the storm was suffocatingly humid. Helicopters buzzed overhead. First responders were everywhere. The National Guard had arrived to seal off the damaged roads and a neighborhood watch discouraged looters.

So catastrophic was the damage that Betty didn’t even notice that her car had busted out the back of her garage, or that her shed and barn were in shambles. Clumps of trees had vanished. Entire houses were obliterated. And, worst of all, her family’s service station, including the foundation and the pavement around it, was gone.

Every structure on the strip that comprises Main Street was partly or fully destroyed, including all 22 of the town’s businesses. Eleven houses collapsed in the flood, fifteen were condemned and torn down, more than 100 homes were so damaged that the residents couldn’t return to them, but, amazingly, there were zero fatalities. It took the contractor who won the job more than a month to haul all the junk out of Prattsville. Today, much of the town still looks, as Betty put it that afternoon, like it had been hit by a bomb.

Prattsville was not alone in suffering the wrath of Irene. Across the region and the Hudson Valley, more than 600 homes were destroyed, 150 major highways were damaged, and 22 state bridges were forced to close. Upstate New York “paid a terrible, terrible price for this storm,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said. He estimated the damage from Irene would come close to $1 billion and announced, when he visited with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at his side, that Prattsville was among the worst-hit towns. But nearly a year after the storm, Prattsville is piecing itself back together: A town that lacked jobs, had a dwindling population, and was increasingly boxed in by watershed lands was given another chance.

Betty O’Hara’s home has been stripped back to its creaky wooden bones, but with the help of various grants and volunteers, Prattsville’s oldest house is in the process of returning as an even nicer version of its former self, right down to a new, more solid foundation. Like everyone in town, Betty lost invaluable artifacts—family photos, her wedding dress, her grandparents’ antiques. But one very important object made it: her late husband’s ashes. After the storm, the urn was found upside down and filthy, but still sealed.

Across the street, Kory and Kipp began rebuilding O’Hara’s station on the exact footprint of the original, as soon as they could clear the junk from the site. It’s unpainted, and still has a dirt parking lot, but it’s open for business.

Dave Rikard’s yellow house became the symbol of Prattsville’s destruction. A photo of the place, crumbled and covered in graffiti (one scrawl read, “God Save Prattsville”), appeared in papers around the world. Within weeks, it was razed. He plans to rebuild.

Peggy Young and her husband have agreed to borrow $500,000 to rebuild the store that had been paid off for decades, but she’s feeling happier than she’s been in years. As her son Brian told her, If you think you’re going to die and you end up living, even if you lose everything around you, you still feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

It seemed like most everyone in town was finding a way to resume their lives—everyone except for Pam Young. Pam was one of the few town residents who had flood insurance, and as soon as her adjuster released the check, she arranged to have what remained of the house demolished. She flattened the land and planted four trees as a memorial. One of the only things that remain from before the flood is a section of the hedge her grandfather had put in.

With the insurance money, Pam bought a house outside Albany, closer to her job and her son’s school. She’s spent $70,000 in out-of-pocket costs replacing every plate and fork and hammer from her previous life. But Pam isn’t giving up on Prattsville. She held on to her land, and now thinks she might rebuild someday, perhaps in retirement.

At least she has her grandfather’s rocking chair. It was one of two chairs that sat on a patio next to the garage, and while the garage vanished on August 28 along with two sheds and an aboveground pool, the rocking chair was still there when the waters finally gave way. Pam remembers seeing it as the rescuers rushed her out. “It made me feel like my grandfather was watching us,” she said.


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