Rebecca Hoskins poked through the debris in her flood-wrecked house: a TV here, a light fixture there. Someone had been in and taken down the curtains. She blinked back a tear. It was a crisp early spring day and her first visit in a year-and-a-half to what had been her home for 15 years.
Hoskins, a supervising bus driver from Essex County in New York State’s Adirondack mountains, is one of 43 homeowners in the area still waiting to be made whole after Hurricane Irene blew through in August 2011, turning the babbling mountain brooks into a furious wall of water that washed away their lives.
After Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee the following month, 957 New York homeowners volunteered for property buyouts funded by federal disaster assistance money, most in a corridor stretching from the Catskills north to the Canadian border.
Twenty months after Irene not one property sale under the plan has closed, state officials say. Their experience is being watched closely by New York City area residents hoping to join a similar program for Superstorm Sandy victims.
The delay in Jay underscores the difficulties the state faces in dealing with major storms that New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo says are likely to become more frequent. The state has also started warning investors buying its bonds about the risks of “more intense storms” due to climate change.
For Hoskins the wait has been agonizing as she and her husband, a laborer at a apple orchard in nearby Peru, rebuilt their lives from scratch, bouncing around in temporary housing and fighting off foreclosure on their destroyed home when they could no longer afford to pay both rent and the mortgage.
“When you live from pay check to pay check anyway it’s almost like you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul all the time to try to pay one against the other,” Hoskins said, standing on the grass outside her old home. “You just get to the point when you can’t do it.”
Three villages make up the Town of Jay – Jay, Upper Jay, and Au Sable Forks – huddled by Whiteface Mountain, training ground for U.S. Olympic skiers and host of the Olympic alpine events in the 1980 Winter Olympics. About 2,500 people live there.
The area draws skiers in the winter and anglers and hikers in the summer. It is home to pricey summer camps where the wealthy send their children for several months a year.
Randy Douglas, Jay’s town supervisor, is no stranger to disasters. Occasionally stopping to mark the height of the water on his waist, he points out large junks of his town earmarked for demolition. He recalls streets where air boats ran rescue missions and shows a visitor where he was forced to turn back his truck because the flood waters were getting too deep.
“I’ve been here 9-1/2 years now and I have had nine declared states of emergency, so there’s an issue here,” Douglas said.
Standing by playing fields and a bare river bank, all that remain of around 20 houses that were demolished after a previous flood in 1996, Douglas said the effect on the community is often greater than the financial blow. Accepting a federal buyout means the land can never be built on again.
Many that left Jay after Irene are not coming back. Jamie Zeno, a ski lift operator at Whiteface, saw his entire lane flooded. The majority of the houses there are set to be torn down and Zeno now lives in rental accommodation in Lake Placid, about 20 miles away.
He is stoic about the buyouts, recounting the first meeting he and other residents had with officials.
“There ain’t nothing I can do about it,” he said. “They told us right from the beginning, the first meeting that we went to that it was going to be a long drawn out process, so everybody knew.”