Gov. Peter Shumlin spent nearly an hour Saturday morning touring a heavily-damaged Duxbury trailer park and nearby homes — offering hugs to residents on the verge of tears and promises of help to those left homeless by the disaster.
For days, the residents of Patterson Trailer Park felt isolated as they watched hundreds of volunteers pour into neighboring Waterbury and watched as helicopters flew overhead, distributing food and supplies to isolated communities further south.
Shumlin toured much of central Vermont and the hard-hit Mad River Valley on Saturday.
"It's nice to get some recognition," Mike Lavigne told the governor. "For a few days there we didn't think people even knew about us."
As word spread Thursday of their plight, Waterbury volunteer coordinators began directing volunteers toward Duxbury. Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) who represents Duxbury, also brought in about a dozen volunteers and has helped to make sure that residents are talking to proper federal and state authorities about getting needed housing vouchers and other emergency relief help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Lavigne told Shumlin that he and his wife, Susan, are staying with her daughter in Waterbury for now. "We're in the basement, but at least we have a place to stay," said Lavigne.
"We're going to get you a place with some windows, OK?" Shumlin said to Susan Lavigne, who teared up as she talked about how the flood washed away all the supplies she uses for her home cleaning business.
"We're going to get you some new supplies," Shumlin said as he put his arm around Susan Lavigne. "We've got a lot of cleaning to do right now and we want to make sure you're back out there working, too."
As Shumlin went from trailer to trailer, the stories were largely the same: With little time to grab their belongings before a surging Winooski River overtook the 19 mobile homes, residents were now trying to salvage what few mementos, toys and other personal belongings they could from the mud-encrusted insides of their homes.
An aide tagging along jotted down names, contacts and concerns of residents and snapped photos of the governor posing with them.
As Shumlin coaxed people into taking photos, it seemed more like a campaign swing than disaster assessment. But his goal, Shumlin told Seven Days, is to offer some personal support — whether it's a hug, or a snapshot — as well as to hear directly from people impacted by the storm.
"I hate going up in the chopper anymore because I just can't stand to see the swaths of devastation," said Shumlin. With more roads passable by vehicle, Shumlin is now touring the state daily in a Ford Expedition to meet directly with residents, first responders and volunteers.
At each trailer, Shumlin's questions to the occupants were nearly identical, and always started with: "How are we doing?" Followed quickly by, "Where are you staying now? Have you talked with FEMA yet?"
Robert Champine and Tracey Towne told Shumlin they were at a local Best Western, but only had enough money to stay through Tuesday at best and then would have to leave. To which Shumlin quickly replied: "No, you're not going. You stay put and we'll pay the bill."
Towne also told the governor she had been having trouble getting FairPoint Communications to turn off her service so she's not charged for a phone that she can no longer use and is unlikely to be hooked up again anytime soon.
Shumlin, dressed more casually in jeans and a blue Oxford shirt, took note of the problem and his aide jotted it down. "We're going to look into that for you," noted Shumlin. "Don't you worry."
Nearly every conversation ended the same, too, with Shumlin urging residents to "Keep smiling. We'll get through this. Keep up the good work."
Many residents, dirty and tired, would jokingly beg off Shumlin's offers of a hug or even a helping hand. "Oh no, you don't want to hug me. I'm covered in dirt," one woman said. Another said, "Oh governor, we don't want you to get hurt or get all dirty."
To which Shumlin would almost always reply, "Nonsense."
It was during these embraces that residents would often tear up and sigh, and when the tears did arrive, Shumlin just kept his arms around them and offered words of support. Though he is leading a recovery effort that is among the most immense in Vermont's history, Shumlin is most comfortable and most in his element during these one-on-one encounters with residents.
He's using his exceptional skills as a retail politician to become a kind of consoler-in-chief. At the same time, he's documenting real-life, real-time concerns about Irene's impact — from relaxing road limits to allow heavier supply vehicles to get through, to helping displaced residents find temporary housing.
Shumlin also met with members of the Duxbury Selectboard, who are facing not only challenges near the banks of the Winooski River, where the trailer park sits, but also along Camels Hump road. Much of that road and several bridges were heavily damaged, leaving close to 200 residents on the mountainous road isolated.
After visiting with several park residents and the park's owner, Mona Patterson, Shumlin walked to several single-family homes next door to talk to residents who were piling debris by the roadside.
There Shumlin put his shoulder to a giant wooden box a family was rolling toward the roadside. "Here let me help," said Shumlin.
No, was the general response — they could handle it. "What do you mean? Come on. Everyone grab on. We'll get this done," said Shumlin.
What's a homeowner supposed to say in response to the governor? So, they all grabbed on and heaved the giant box to the roadside for pick up by town road crews.
Shumlin's day began in Waterbury and swung through Duxbury before he was off to the Mad River Valley and back to Montpelier for an afternoon press briefing. Today, his schedule had him starting in South Burlington and later going to Royalton for a press briefing with the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which houses FEMA.
"You can't get to places fast enough around the state, but we're doing it," said Shumlin.
For a comprehensive list of how to help in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, check out this previous Blurt post that is being regularly updated.