CHAMPLAIN — High water in April came as no surprise.
But this time, said John Farbotko, still a little shell-shocked a year later, Lake Champlain kept right on rising.
Water first surged over Stony Point Road in the Town of Champlain on April 13.
“From April 15 to June 15,” Farbotko said, “we didn’t have our cars in our driveway — we had to walk to the main road” or travel by boat.
“It wears on you after a while.”
Everyone remembers Tropical Storm Irene roaring into the North Country on Aug. 28, 2011.
For many, the sudden and massive damage to homes, businesses and roads pushed the memory of the year’s earlier natural disaster aside. Yet some of those hit hard by the spring flooding were barely back on their feet again when Irene roared to deliver another blow. Others, though spared the Tropical Storm, were still making repairs, sparring with insurance companies or adjusting to new residences well into the autumn and beyond.
Lake Champlain rose above its 100-foot flood stage in early April, cresting at more than 3 feet higher in early May. Through most of June, the lake and many rivers and streams remained flooded, and those who battled the water paid the price physically, emotionally and financially. A year later, some are still recovering.
And they haven’t forgotten.
SLOW THEN FAST
Clinton County Emergency Services Director Eric Day called the spring flooding the slowest moving natural disaster ever.
Then, again, the violent
storm that nailed Essex County on April 27 struck lightning fast, collapsing bridges and roads, threatening the dam and Main Street Bridge on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. People trapped by rising water were rescued by emergency responders who worked nonstop for many hours that day and would keep busy for weeks as new flood crises developed.
A combination of massive snowmelt, rain and wind was blamed for the spring catastrophes up and down the Lake Champlain shores in both New York state and Vermont. Never in recorded history had Lake Champlain risen so high.
And north of the border in Quebec, the Richelieu River, fed by the lake, created unprecedented flooding there, too.
In the North Country, the first taste of the extreme conditions to come had been delivered via a south wind on April 23, when waves hammered the railroad-trestle boardwalk at Lighthouse Point Marina in Rouses Point, ripping away the old timbers and collapsing the store building they supported.
Helped along by heavy rainfall and wind, the lake inundated the Log Cabin Motel and Sportsmen’s Pier in the village, crashed onto Montgomery and Lake streets.
When the wind stopped and the water subsided some, there was no cause for celebration.
Within a week, lake water crept onto Point au Fer in Champlain, flooding areas it had never touched before.
It took possession of the Southwick home, inside and out. A few houses down, water filled Connie Cassevaugh’s yard, in places more than 3 feet deep. It was seeping inside, but the artist hoped she could just keep mopping it up.
“I kept watching the weather, and every day the lake was just eating away at the shore,” said Town of Champlain Highway Superintendent Allen Racine. “Eventually, we had to get people out of there.”
Cassevaugh was one of them.
With much of Point au Fer Road under water — so deep that fish treated it just like home, that debris such as logs and tree branches were floating hazards — Racine used a double-tandem plow truck and front-end loader to ferry residents out.
It was, he said, like driving through Lake Champlain itself.
“It was scary, especially at night,” Racine said. “I had to keep wondering if the road was still underneath my truck. Everything looked the same, in every direction.”
THE LAKE WINS
On Chazy’s LaPointe Road, Ron Foster had been building a wall of sandbags for several weeks to protect his home, his years on the lakeshore telling him something big was brewing.
Even so, the lake scoffed at his efforts, flowing over and around the barrier of 1,000 sandbags and into his basement. A powerful pump and many hours of labor by friends and neighbors wouldn’t keep it at bay, and when the watermark in the cellar reached 6 1/2 feet, Foster and his wife, Avis, had to get out.
So did others in that little community.
At Willow Beach Townhouses on Margaret Street in Plattsburgh, Jack Smith watched helplessly as water invaded his living room. It washed around in his unit for weeks, pulling up flooring, spawning mold.
“I had (had) flood insurance for 10 years, and last year was the first time I didn’t renew it.”
DRIVEN BY WIND
Just when it seemed the lake would subside, the wind would kick up and help it back ashore. A blustery breeze from the south would attack the south sides of Cumberland Head, Point au Fer; Eagle Acres, LaPointe and other roads in Chazy.
From the north, it attacked Algonquin Park on Cumberland Head, among other areas along the lake facing that direction.
Locals lost count of the times the north end of Margaret Street was awash. Many residents of Willow Beach were forced to leave their homes. Lakeside Apartments there was evacuated; the North Country Chapter of the American Red Cross set up a shelter at the Crete Civic Center.
“One minute, I looked out the window and saw water at the edge of Route 9,” said Jody Parks, executive vice president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, located there.
“An hour later, and it had reached the middle of the road. Another hour later, and we were pulling things out of the office to get them to safety.”
WADERS FOR WEDDING
Rivers did their part, too — the Little Chazy River in Chazy, the Great Chazy River in Champlain, the Ausable in Keeseville and AuSable Forks.
In Tupper Lake, many homes were invaded by the Raquette River and Upper Tupper Lake, and many were evacuationed there, too.
The Farbotkos considered themselves among the lucky, for while the flood stayed and stayed and stayed, their home remained high and dry. But all that time, they and their neighbors were forced to leave their cars at the entrance to Stony Point and either hiked out or used a boat.
“We bought a set of oars, a little motor,” Farbotko said.
They floated their dock into their driveway and tied their boat up there. When the couple’s son Matthew’s college term ended, they ferried the contents of his dorm room, including a small refrigerator, to their home with numerous trips by boat.
As the water level began dropping and became too shallow for boating, they — including their son Michael — donned chest waders, on one occasion when they were dressed to attend a wedding.
This year, spring arrived gently, with little snowmelt, unseasonably warm weather. The lake behaved itself; their driveway remained a driveway — for cars, not a boat.
“People think that living on the lake is all luxury,” Farbotko said, “but it has its drawbacks.
“Last year,” he said, “was quite a year.”
— Contributing Writer Shaun Kittle assisted with this report.