“I’m not going to let it last,” Gov. Peter Shumlin says authoritatively, waiting out a downpour in the passenger’s seat of his black SUV Wednesday. The rain slows but doesn’t stop. Shumlin gets out, umbrella-less but undaunted, and heads toward the Rochester green for the fourth and final stop on his two-year Tropical Storm Irene state tour.
It wasn’t the first time that day the governor had assumed the role of weather god. One stop earlier, he had taken credit for last winter’s plentiful snow crop at a small roadside event in Killington. “I told you I’d bring you snow,” he told Mike Solimano, the president of Killington Resort. The snowfall, Solimano had just explained, helped the resort get back on its feet after Tropical Storm Irene and the terrible ski season that followed it.
But Shumlin admits he hasn’t always been spot-on with his weather predictions. He remembers listening to the forecasts ahead of Irene, and worrying about his daughter in New York City, thinking it would bypass Vermont.
“I was sort of a skeptic,” he said. “I’m usually a skeptic about that kind of hype.” When his brother, Jeff Shumlin, texted him a photo of an overflowing brook in Windham county, Shumlin’s next thought was, “Windham County is getting whacked, but the rest of the state is going to be fine.”
Two years out from the storm, with four other extreme weather events under his belt, Shumlin is practiced in the role of reassurer-in-chief.
At each stop — Wilmington, Taftsville, Killington and Rochester — the governor made the rounds, shaking hands, hugging and grinning for photo after photo.
“I never doubted we could make a recovery faster than other states,” Shumlin told reporters between stops.
Confidence in the people
Shumlin, like other state officials, attributed the state’s recovery to the hard work and camaraderie of its residents. Several times, he relayed a conversation he had with a National Guard member who was returning to South Carolina after helping out with storm relief. “The people of this state don’t wait for the government to come help,” Shumlin said the man told him.
Sue Minter, who was appointed the Irene Recovery Officer, recalled Shumlin telling residents, ‘We will recover.’” Minter said she marveled at the statement, made “with great confidence” five days after the disaster, at a time when she was feeling utterly overwhelmed.
But the governor was careful not to strike too triumphant a tone Wednesday.
In Rochester — the most decidedly festive event of the day — a flash mob danced to the music of the Black Eyed Peas and people milled about with red cups of local beer. But when Shumlin took to the bandstand to make his final speech, he dredged up one of the most heart-wrenching memories from the storm — the deaths of a Rutland father and son, both named Michael Garofano, who had gone to check the city’s water supply system. They were two of the six deaths in Vermont attributed to Irene.
At each of the events, Sue Allen, Shumlin’s press secretary, collected names on a pad of paper as people approached him, hoping the governor could give them a boost in their ongoing bureaucratic odysseys.
Wilmington resident Frank Sprague is one of a number of Vermonters still floundering in FEMA world. Sprague, a mason and a welder who specializes in stone birdbaths, said Irene filled his business with 13 feet of water.
He applied, and won initial approval, for a buyout through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant program. But when FEMA did a first round of inspections, they found a trace of petroleum in the soil, which, a year-and-a-half later, is still holding up the process.
Sprague said he is counting on that cash — he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to relocate his business, and he took out loans to finance the bulk of it.
“I was debt-free. I had just paid off everything. Now I owe almost half-a-million dollars,” he said.
Sprague said he’s hoping Vermont’s highest state official can do something about it. “I was just talking to the governor a minute ago, and he said he will be on it, so we’ll see.”
During a detour to drop off a fishing rod for his daughter’s boyfriend in Putney, the governor ate a macaroon, pumped the last bit of coffee from the carafes at the Putney Coop, and did a on-camera interview with WPTZ in the parking lot.
A man approached and told Shumlin he’d been at the Waterbury State Hospital, being treated for schizophrenia, when Irene hit, flooding the complex. He thanked Shumlin, though it wasn’t clear for what exactly.
“I’ve managed to get my life back,” he said. “I know you’ve done a lot to try to help.”
Back in the car, Shumlin interpreted the interaction. He credited the man’s turnaround to the state’s transition to a regionalized mental health system, prompted by the closure of the state hospital after Irene. “I think he was saying he’s getting the community-based care he needs.”
The governor was upbeat about how the new system is shaping up, but he also acknowledged that it isn’t fail-safe. “We’re going to find out whether I’m right or wrong pretty shortly.”
Best of everything
“Did you check your coffee? There was a black thing in it,” Allen informs him, belatedly. Shumlin shrugs, and starts gushing — not for the first time — about the chili at Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington. The restaurant was decimated during Irene and has yet to reopen, but owners and staff used a makeshift kitchen to served up bowls during the anniversary event.
Shumlin often speaks in superlatives — Vermont is the best state in the nation, it has the best congressional delegation in the nation, the best Selectboards, and so on. Dot’s, according to Shumlin, has the best chili.
Shumlin made neighborly love the theme of the day, and he was appropriately cordial throughout. But while he took an apolitical approach to the day, and remained insistently diplomatic about the state’s dealings with FEMA, there were occasional lapses.
At the Taftsville Country Store, Shumlin couldn’t resist taking a jab at state legislators for the tax proposals they floated last session, including a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and bottled water, which, he said, would have hurt stores like the one in Taftsville. Shumlin successfully helped quash those proposals.
The governor was expecting a long-awaited funding announcement from FEMA — they allocated $42 million in funding for the Waterbury State Office Complex the following day — but he alluded to the frustration he’s had dealing with the agency in the aftermath of the storm.
“I cannot deny, as a Vermont boy who likes to get things done, that the federal government is a bureaucracy that would drive any sane person crazy,” he told reporters.
“Hey, let’s stop by that cemetery,” Shumlin said, directing his driver into a U-turn on the way into Rochester. “That cemetery” was Woodlawn Cemetery, a quaint plot of land with a view of the Green Mountains. Two years ago, it was the site of one of the most macabre scenes of Irene, when floodwaters swept up some of its graves. On Wednesday, a pile of tombstone fragments sat on the grass beside a dozen or so stakes, marking the spots where they’d be repositioned.
Shumlin scrutinized the stream bed, which takes a sharp turn just above the cemetery grounds. Seven hours into the 11-hour road trip, Shumlin looked troubled for the first time. “It’s that corner there that worries me,” he said. Turning to Allen, he asked, what’s there to stop that from happening again?
Shumlin raised the concern again during small talk with Duane Bowen, one of the men who’d been hired for excavation work at the cemetery. “That’s where I’d put my rocks,” Shumlin said, pointing back up to the bend. “Guess that’s why I’m not an engineer.”
Then, taking advantage of the spare moment and the cell phone service, the governor propped himself up against a gravestone to squeeze in a few calls.