Vermont is a state blessed with exceptional natural beauty.
The turning of the leaves in autumn is spectacular. In winter, the mountains are covered in snow and the chalets and hotels are filled to the brim with skiiers. And there’s no shortage of happy couples who want to tie the knot with a stunning backdrop.
Together, leaves, snow and weddings generated $829 million dollars for the state in 2009. The tourism industry pumps reliable money into the state’s economy.
Tropical Storm Irene, however, has the potential to put a rather big dent in that number this year.
Cameraman Geoff Mills and I travelled to Vermont to see how the people and the government are coping, one month after the devastating storm ripped through the state.
The good news is most of the state has recovered and is at, or close to, full operational speed. Ninety-five per cent of the roads are usable. Lodgings and hotels are ready for business. Much of the damage to infrastructure is in the southern parts of the state, with some bridges still impassable and roads cut off.
The bad news is tourists may have already been scared off and are fearful that Vermont simply isn’t ready for them. That means they’re taking their dollars elsewhere.
State officials are pushing a strong message out to visitors that Vermont is open for business. Are they listening? It’s too early to tell. The leaves are only just starting to turn and the skiing season is still a couple of months away.
At a time when many US states are reeling from economic hardship for far too many reasons to list here, mother nature has made an unwelcome contribution to Vermont’s finances.
Some of those that live in this far northeastern corner of the country year-round are still suffering from Irene’s wrath. As President Obama would say, let me be clear: Irene was very frightening.
I spent an hour with Eric Michaels from local radio station WDEV, based in Waterbury. He has been an announcer and go-to media presence in the town for decades. Through the darkest hours (literally) of Irene, he broadcast with little more than a flashlight and a microphone. For hundreds of residents, Eric’s voice was the only contact they had with the outside world. He kept them informed, and in turn, they kept him informed.
Listeners sent him text messages, telling them they had just seen whole houses float by on a raging torrent of water. They told him they had parked their car on the top of a mountain and had no idea how high the water was or where it was going.
They emerged from the storm to find homes and businesses ruined, entire streets submerged underneath two metres of water.
The state offices in Waterbury used to be the workplace of 1,500 employees, working for departments such as justice and agriculture, parks and recreation or correctional services. Two hundred patients were evacuated from the onsite State Hospital. The complex of buildings was swamped vital files, records, facilities and equipment were destroyed. There’s a reluctance to move back to the office space because officials are fearful of a repeat flooding.
As is often the case with natural disasters, though, Tropical Storm Irene has also brought people together. And in Vermont, you get the feeling they’re going to be OK.