Sometimes you never know the human toll of a natural disaster until you are actually able to see it with your own eyes. This happened to me over the weekend.
Irene brought incredible amounts of rain to the northeast last week. I live in one of the mandatory evacuation zones in lower Manhattan. And, being a young professional living with two of my hometown friends, we did what any twentysomethings would do: stock up on beer and tuna to ride it out.
Turned out that Irene was a bust in Lower Manhattan's "evacuation" zone. They didn't even turn off our power like they said they would. I guess we lucked out. We still have loads of tuna. Not so much beer. (Roomies, if you're reading this, get on that.)
Then came the criticism. Too much hype. Too much media coverage. And after my Sunday mid-morning walk down the entire tip of Southern Manhattan, I pretty much agreed. My socks didn't even get wet, and I was right on the water.
Then I turned on the TV as I was waking up for work at about 4:30AM Monday. People trapped in Prattsville, NY. No way out. Vermont is getting washed away. Bridges, roads - entire communities getting wiped out. I then realized it was very serious for many people outside of my little bubble near Wall Street.
After a long day at work made even longer by the storm, I made my way home. And then, like a shot to the jaw - it hits me. My parents own a house about three miles away from Prattsville where the people were trapped. Reports said the town was basically gone. I spent my childhood summers up there, some of the best memories of my life.
I spoke to my dad during the week, and we decide to make the drive up together Friday night. As we approached the first town, Windham, the National Guard diverted us around. It looked bad, and we were told that, quote: "Windham is like Disneyland compared to Prattsville." Early next morning, we went into Windham to survey exactly how bad it was.
They estimate that about 6-7 feet of raging water flowed down main street at the height of the flood. You see, it's on a mountain top overlooking a valley. The water couldn't go anywhere else except right through the middle of town.
Over the past 5-10 years, Windham was in the process of reinventing itself to attract more tourists. But now, after the flood, it appeared that all could be lost for the town's small business owners.
One bright spot was that emergency teams, the Red Cross, FEMA and construction crews were already building the town back up. Half the sidewalks, gullies and ditches were already rebuilt just 4 days after the water hit. But there was still a lot of work to do.
We couldn't get to Prattsville by driving the normal route. The river, which normally lies about 60 feet below the roadway, had washed out the road. only one lane was left, and the engineers I talked to expected the rest to fall into the water at any moment. The main access point to three major mountain top communities was severed.
We took the detour and talked our way past the National Guard checkpoint to get down the hill into Prattsville. Now, remember, we were told that the town simply didn't exist anymore. Washed away, everything gone. We didn't know what to expect.
It turns out the main strip in town was still there. At a quick glance, it would appear that it was okay. But farther down was a different story. Homes were torn from their foundations. A Church with its congregation taking wheelbarrows full of mud out from the pews. People were piling up all their worldly possessions on the street.
At work, everyday, we see video of disasters, war zones and unsettling images that come in from across the world. It's easy to just look at it as another part of the job, just another disaster in some town or country that no one ever even heard of.
That was me, until this weekend. I've personally seen some disaster zones in my life, but nothing ever like this. And looking back on some of the other disasters here in the U.S., this wasn't even close to the destruction that a tornado could cause. Nowhere near a direct hit from a CAT 4 hurricane. Nothing like the recent earthquake in Japan.
I understand that Varney and Company Viewers are nationwide. But if you have a chance to visit this year, please do. It truly is a beautiful area, with beautiful, hard-working Americans - and they do need your help.
Stuart Varney joined FOX Business Network (FBN) as an anchor in 2007 and is the host of "Varney & Co." (9-11 AM/ET) on weekdays. Click here for more information about Stuart Varney.