NY historic sites weather Tropical Storm Irene, still in recovery 1 year later

Chris Carola, The Associated Press

FORT JOHNSON, N.Y. - A single line of blue duct tape wrapped around Old Fort Johnson marks where the floodwaters crested when Tropical Storm Irene swept through the Mohawk River community a year ago. The tape is almost 7 feet above the National Historic Landmark's grassy lawn.

The 18th century homestead and its nearby contemporaries, Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam and Schoharie Crossing near Fort Hunter, were inundated when the storm came through Aug. 28, 2011.

Irene left little untouched in southern and eastern New York, as elsewhere along the Eastern seaboard when the hurricane-then-tropical storm struck, taking lives and causing billions of dollars in damage.

The assault cost an estimated $11 million to $13 million to some 40 state-owned parks and historic sites in New York. The torrential rains eroded sand at Long Island's Jones Beach, destroyed a water main at Bear Mountain in the Hudson Valley, damaged docks at the Coxsackie Boat Launch in Greene County and washed out numerous park roads.

Museum co-ordinator Alessa Wylie of the Montgomery County Historical Society, which uses Old Fort Johnson as its headquarters, recalled the frantic effort by staff and volunteers to protect centuries-old artifacts as the rains came. They moved what they could to the second floor of the old structure, built in 1749 by British government official William Johnson.

"When the water began flowing into the basement, it sounded like a waterfall," Wylie said.

The storm flooded the first floor of the museum as well as that of another Colonial-era building, which served as the visitors centre. The fort's original privy, believed to be one of only a handful from that era still standing, was knocked over and became lodged against a concrete wall, the only thing that kept the structure from being swept away.

Wylie opened the door to the now-upright outhouse to reveal its interior plaster cracked and fallen, but the original two wooden seats still intact.

"George Washington sat there," she said, detouring from her account of the storm. The commander of the Continental Army once noted in a journal that he visited Fort Johnson and dined with local militia officers at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Wylie explained. "We like to think that before he got back on his horse, he used the facilities."

But as disruptive as the storm was to Old Fort Johnson, the damage was even worse downriver at Guy Manor. Floodwaters tore away large sections from the Georgian limestone home and carried off about 2,000 of the 20,000 artifacts belonging to the Walter Elwood Museum, a local history museum that leased the building from the state. The floodwaters destroyed the entire contents of two exhibit rooms and ruined equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, Executive Director Ann Peconie said.

Since then, museum staffers have nearly finished sorting, cleaning and re-cataloguing items that survived the flood. The museum is using a former car dealership as temporary storage space until it moves to a new home in Amsterdam. Federal disaster aid helped cover some of the losses, she said.

The 1770s manor will revert back to the state Canal Corp. for its own use. The state parks department said it has spent almost $390,000 so far just to stabilize and clean up the site. The canal agency will be responsible for restoration work, but hasn't yet determined how the structure will be used in the future.

At Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, the storm had the proverbial silver lining. When the Schoharie Creek flooded its banks, it swept away the parking lot, revealing the remains of the frontier fort the British built there in the early 1700s to protect the local Mohawk Indians. After the flood, archaeologists spent several months excavating the exposed foundations and discovered numerous 18th century artifacts.

"It was a terrible disaster, but there have also been some good things that came out of it," said Janice Fontanella, the site manager.

She said the state is still deciding where to build the new parking lot and repairs need to be made to sections of the site linked to the original Erie Canal, which crossed the creek at Fort Hunter.

On Aug. 11, Old Fort Johnson reopened after months of work and $150,000 in repairs. Visitors can use their imaginations of what it looked like when the storm blew through. The blue duct tape is a reminder.

"We plan to keep it there for a while," Wylie said.