Flooding damage ... Toll from summer storms at $115 million so far Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties hit the hardest
Hurricane Irene's deluge began early one Sunday morning in late August and dumped as much as 11 inches on the Hudson Valley by the time it let up that night, leaving washed-out roads and bridges, flooded homes and businesses and ruined crops in its wake.
Less than two weeks later, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee raked across the region, compounding misery with another round of torrential rain.
Six months after the punishing gusts and rainfall of those two storms, their full toll on the region is becoming clear: More than $115 million in damage was inflicted on Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, according to the amount of federal funds distributed or requested so far for repairs and the estimated value of crops that perished in floodwaters.
Orange bore the brunt of it, with nearly $81 million in damage. Ulster's toll has reached more than $32 million, including about $8 million in stream damage. Sullivan suffered the least impact, with about $2.5 million in destruction identified so far.
Those totals, which exclude private insurance claims, are certain to climb higher as counties and municipalities continue to seek reimbursement for the repair and replacement of bridges, roads, buildings and other public property that the two storms damaged.
One striking measure of the storms' widespread impact is the sheer volume of households receiving federal grants to replace belongings, repair homes and stay in temporary quarters. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, almost 6,400 families and individuals have gotten grants totaling $27.4 million for Hurricane Irene alone. An even larger number of households — almost 10,300 — had applied for assistance.
Among the aid recipients was Mary Beth D'Ercole, whose home in Tuxedo's secluded East Village neighborhood took in 6 feet of water. Many houses there flooded when the Ramapo River surged over its banks, aided by a dam break upstream that virtually emptied a private lake into the river. The resulting surge ruptured a giant oil tank at nearby SOS Fuels and left an oily mess throughout East Village.
"You could still smell it when I came back, five days later," D'Ercole recalled Wednesday as she walked her black Labrador along East Village Road, the site of some of the enclave's worst flooding during Irene.
Most East Village homes have been repaired by now. D'Ercole says FEMA funds helped her and her husband, Thomas, replace their appliances and heater and clean up the mold Irene left in their basement. They also benefited from private donations distributed within their close-knit neighborhood.
Almost half of the region's estimated damage so far was reported by its farms, many of which were in the midst of harvesting or getting ready to start when floodwaters submerged fields. In Orange County alone, as much as $50 million in produce was lost, much of it in the fertile Black Dirt region, according to the Middletown office of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Floodwater from the overflowing Wallkill River covered Black Dirt farms for days after Hurricane Irene, making it impossible for farmers to salvage onions or other crops that were ready to be harvested.
"Even if it was edible, it wasn't gettable," explains Maire Ullrich, acting program leader for the office's agriculture staff.
Having federal crop insurance proved little consolation for fourth-generation Warwick grower Chris Pawelski, who lost all but three of his 51 acres of onions in the flooding. Out of the $150,000 Pawelski calculates he spent growing his destroyed onions, he got back $26,000 in insurance.
For Pawelski, the devastation he and other Black Dirt farmers experienced painfully illustrated the need for both reforms in the insurance program and dredging of the Wallkill, which has flooded badly seven times since 2005.
"I can't survive another flood," he said.
Local governments and public utilities in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan have so far reported about $5 million in damages in requests for federal and state aid. Middletown, for instance, plans to spend $500,000 repairing a flood diversion wall on County Route 78 and a culvert at East Avenue and Fulton Street.
Not included in the $115 million damage total is at least $30 million Metro-North Railroad says it spent fixing 14 miles of badly damaged tracks between the Harriman and Suffern stations. That stretch of the Port Jervis line was closed for three months after Hurricane Irene, forcing the agency to spend roughly another $10 million on temporary bus service.
The $115 million estimate tally also leaves out around $31 million in damages reported by Orange and Rockland Utilities and Central Hudson Gas & Electric, two utilities that serve all or much of Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties along with other parts of the Hudson Valley from Rockland County to Albany.
Orange and Rockland estimates Irene caused $20 million in damage, including more than 100 broken utility poles, 250 smashed or flooded transformers, 50,000 feet of downed wires and cables and two flooded stations.
Relief for storm damage
At least $55 million in federal funds has been distributed or approved so far in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties to help homes, businesses and local governments recover from the one-two punch inflicted six months ago by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Here are the main relief programs and the most recent aid totals that funding agencies provided to the Record.
• FEMA grants Nearly 6,400 households in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan have gotten $27.4 million in grants from the FEMA for Hurricane Irene damage not covered by insurance. About $1 million has gone for Tropical Storm Lee costs. Grants, which can go as high as $30,200 per household, are used to repair or replace damaged homes and belongings, rent temporary homes and cover related costs.
• SBA loans The Small Business Administration has lent $15.5 million to about 430 homeowners and business. Applicants may borrow up to $40,000 for belongings, $200,000 for a primary residence and $2 million for a business. Interest rates are as high as 4 percent for applicants who can't borrow money elsewhere and 8 percent for those who can. Loans are for up to 30 years.
• Flood insurance claims More than 100 homes and businesses with FEMA-funded flood insurance had claimed more than $2.7 million by Dec. 31 for Hurricane Irene damage. Nearly $2.2 million had been paid in Ulster County alone. Less than $30,000 in claims for Tropical Storm Lee damage had been paid by the end of 2011.
• Agricultural losses
The Department of Agriculture has paid $5.6 million in insurance claims to 171 local growers whose crops were ravaged by Irene's deluge. The department also has paid $772,000 to 33 farmers through a separate program that covers damage to noninsured crops.
• Public property
A total of $4.9 million in public damage had been reported for reimbursement purposes as of Feb. 21. FEMA, which covers 75 percent of the cost, has paid or approved $1.9 million so far to remove debris and fix or replace roads, bridges, parks, government buildings and the property of publicly owned utilities.
Staff writers Judy Rife and Nathan Brown contributed to this report.