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Luskin: Remembering Irene

08/20/12 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) The Rock River has been destroying homes, bridges, roads and businesses in Williamsville and South Newfane ever since the villages were settled. Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Lee Luskin lives on the Rock River, and she credits the river for something constructive, as well.

(Luskin) No fewer than five devastating floods made it into Newfane's First Century, the town's first history. The floods of 1815, 1856 and 1859 washed out mills, bridges and a factory along the Rock River, between Williamsville and South Newfane. Two later floods damaged roads and bridges throughout the town: The flood of 1869 was considered the worst-ever in the Connecticut River Valley, but the one six years later, in 1875, was reported locally to be even worse.

Only two floods were recorded in the history celebrating Newfane's second century. These, of course, were the famous floods of 1927 and 1938. According to this book, "The 1927 flood is the gauge by which all high water was measured through the rest of the century." In 1938, however, severe damage to South Newfane tested that measure. The history reads, "On both occasions, the washed-out roads, battered or missing bridges, and splintered buildings, were eventually repaired and though the scars and memories of the damage done remain to this day, Newfane and its people made a relatively speedy recovery."

The flooding from Tropical Storm Irene has surpassed all previous high water marks. The Smith and Bruce Brooks raged through Newfane Village. And again, it was the Rock River watershed and the villages of Williamsville and South Newfane that were hit worst. Houses, bridges, roads, and the old grist-mill all slid into the water and washed away. Some houses withstood the water's force but are uninhabitable. Other houses were unscathed, but lost their leech-fields, septic tanks, driveways, and surrounding land. For months after the flood, the murky river roiled down a new, straighter and wider course - a perfect set-up for the next flood.

Nevertheless, the destruction brought out the best in civil behavior. We met for meals, information, and solace in the Williamsville Hall, where volunteers were matched with recovery tasks. A landline and WiFi were installed, so flood victims could dial back in to their lives. The highway crew worked every daylight hour.

Within weeks, the Rock River was back in its pre-Irene banks, and the Dover Road, where the greatest destruction took place, was reopened, although a string of homes along it remains vacant - or missing.

It's along this route that nearly thirty groups will march in the first-ever Rock River Revival Parade, to be held on the last Sunday in August.

The parade starts in South Newfane and ends at the Williamsville Hall, where a mid-day meal will be served. Proceeds from the event will benefit the South Newfane - Williamsville and Newbrook Fire Departments, whose members helped evacuate people imperiled by rising water and who helped maintain public safety throughout the recovery.

The parade will also give those who survived a chance to reconnect and remember.

Connection is key.

For if there's anything to be learned from history, it's that floods will recur, and our social capital is what really provides disaster relief.

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