In Ludlow, Vt., Main Street sits alongside the Black River. The small street is lined with cozy restaurants and shops, like the Book Nook.
Inside, customers in parkas and hats warm up while they browse the stacks. Outside, cars and an occasional tour bus pass by. It’s a typical January Saturday, but owner Patty Greenwood remembers a very different scene on Aug. 28, 2011, the day Tropical Storm Irene hit.
“We had a street in town, Andover Street, and for about half a block half of the road eroded away,” Greenwood said. “And pieces of that asphalt had gone down a little brook, which became a raging river [that ran] to the Black River and ended up a block away in someone’s parking lot.”Up the street there’s an old mill that now houses condominiums, but just in the distance Ludlow’s modern-day economic engine soars above the mill’s bell tower. In peak season Okemo Mountain Resort employs 1,400 people and attracts an average of 600,000 skiers.
Irene washed out the resort’s access road and flooded offices, but Vice President and General Manager Bruce Schmidt considers $200,000 in damages a lucky break.
“Unfortunately we had many employees who were more seriously impacted. Some of them actually lost their homes,” said Schmidt, a lifelong Ludlow resident. “As we [were] trying to get the resort up and going and get ready for the ski season, some of them [were] trying to decide how to make out applications for FEMA.”
More than 7,000 Vermonters applied for federal assistance. But day-to-day life is getting back to normal. Ludlow’s only grocery store flooded and people shopped in tents set up in the parking lot for five months until the building reopened last week.
According to the trade association Ski Vermont, Green Mountain State resorts attract 4.3 million ski visits a year, making it the third most popular skiing state in the United States. And skiers inject some $700 million in direct spending into the local economy.
Sue Minter is the Irene Recovery Officer for the state of Vermont. She says the resorts played a significant role in the response to the storm.
“Mount Snow, the community at the base of that mountain, the town of Wilmington was devastated. Almost every business in the downtown flooded out,” Minter said. “These resorts came to the aid of Vermont. The resorts were opened as shelters. The ski industry helped coordinate food drops from the National Guard and disperse them.”
Today signs of Irene’s force are still easy to see. On Route 100 in the town of Plymouth one house is missing an exterior wall and what once was a living room floor is now a beach of silt. At another vacant house, there’s a simple question in black spray paint on the plywood covering broken windows: “Why Irene?”
Route 100 is one of two main gateways to the largest ski resort in the Eastern United States: Killington. But on Aug. 28, the mountains there were an island.“[Roads] north and south, east and west all washed out,” Killington and Pico Ski Resort President Chris Nyberg said. “We were cut off officially for 17 days, but we found some routes through the woods. We had golf carts and whatnot that we were able to get in and out after about the fifth day.”
According to Nyberg, Killington suffered $7 million in damages. Roaring Brook runs down the mountain and normally fails to live up to its name, but during Irene it overwhelmed a large culvert and took a pub with it.
“We lost a building that was 6,400 square feet. And it went down in about 20 minutes,” said Nyberg, who can chuckle about it now. “No stopping it.”
Like Okemo, Killington’s insurance covered most of the damage and the resort made repairs quickly. There are two new bars next to – not over – Roaring Brook. Getting the resort back to normal was critical for local businesses like Darkside Snowboards. Owner Billy Langlands is still concerned that early reports about Irene’s impact turned an old New England punchline into a serious perception problem: You can’t get there from here.
“I had friends down in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut calling me up and saying, ‘Can we get there yet?’ I was like, ‘You could get here for a month! The roads are open!’ ” Langlands said. “We’ve done a great job getting our roads opened up, so [the misconception has] been a problem. Then the lack of snow certainly is a double whammy.”
And that’s the ironic twist. Mother Nature walloped Central Vermont last summer, but now she’s treating the Northeast with kid gloves.
Even with state of the art snow-making equipment, it’s hard to make and keep a base of snow when temperatures swing up and down.
Okemo GM Schmidt says the lack of snow in other states hurts, too.
“We always say, the best storms are Tuesday or Wednesdays about 6 inches down in Westchester [County, N.Y.] or Fairfield, [Conn.],” Schmidt said. “Even if we don’t get snow, the perception is that we have skiing, that we’ve gotten snow. We rely on that.”
On a fairly busy day at Okemo, the skiers include Jamestown, R.I., resident Lisa Bew and her brother-in-law Robert Donnegan of Townsend, Md., who came with family. Both say they figured Irene’s damage had been repaired, so snow was their chief concern before the trip.
“Since it was cold and they were able to make more snow and they got snow last week, we were very optimistic that it was going to be good this weekend,” Bew said.
“It’s long awaited, but it looks like we’re finally getting started,” Donnegan added. “Mother Nature has been asleep for a while, but I’m glad she’s finally waking up.”
The weather cooperated enough for Killington to host some of the world’s top winter athletes for a four-day Dew Tour competition last month, but the cold snap wasn’t meant to last. A rainstorm late last week forced an extremely rare January event: Killington closed for the day.
Resort president Nyberg says winter weather’s always unpredictable, but the story of this season won’t be about snowfall.
“People of Vermont have shown the nation that we can really pull together and get things done really quickly when necessary,” he said. “It doesn’t take nearly as much time as some people may think it does to recover from a disaster like we had if everybody pulls together.”
As for the skiing season, it’s way too early to panic. Historically, March is Vermont’s snowiest month of the year.