August 30, 2011 / 6:23 PM / 6 years ago

Irene a test to Vermont's 19th-century charms

WOODSTOCK, Vermont (Reuters) - The town of Woodstock, Vermont, boasts all the 19th century charm that draws tourist to New England: white picket fences, steepled country churches and a leafy town square.

But two days after Hurricane Irene dumped heavy rains on the inland state, flooding many low-lying towns and killing at least three people, Woodstock had some other 19th-century qualities that tourists do not prize: no running water or electricity.

"I couldn't believe it when they started directing people to the port-a-potties on the town green. That's sacrosanct, you usually can't do anything there without a permit," said Hasse Halley, a 70-year-old teacher who lives in the town.

Lack of basic services was just one of the many worries facing residents of the mountainous, rural New England state. Another concern was the storm's heavy toll on Vermont's valley roads, some 260 of which were damaged or washed away entirely in the storm, making travel a treacherous and time-consuming affair.

Thirteen towns were entirely cut off as a result of road damage, said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management. Five hundred state workers had been deployed to begin clearing and repairing the damage.

The state's death toll is expected to rise to four as one person washed away in Sunday's flood water is still missing, officials said.

All rivers in the state with the exception of Otter Creek in Rutland had receded below flood stage by Tuesday, according to Michael Muccilli, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Burlington.

Vermont is the northeastern U.S. state worst hit by the storm, which killed at least 38 people in 11 states.

THE 'WORST' TIME FOR A STORM

For people who depend on tourism, a significant chunk of the state's economy, that damage raised the worry that visitors would have a hard time making it through the state, or stay away entirely, during the normally busy fall season, which draws visitors to see colorful foliage.

"Of all the times of year for this to happen, this is the worst. We're heading into the foliage season and then the ski season," said Steve Ranoushek, an employee at the Woodstock Farmers Market. "If people can't get up to Killington, or can't come through Woodstock on their way to Killington, that's going to effect us."

On Tuesday, Ranoushek and a dozen other people were working to clean out the 19-year-old store, which had been filled with a foot of mud on Sunday after the Ottauquechee River flooded during the heavy rains brought on by Irene.

Ranoushek said he hoped his business would be able to reopen in a few weeks, which left him in a better position than the owners of many businesses in downtown Wilmington, where many buildings were left unusable by heavy flooding.

"There is not a business here that is going to be able to open in a month," said Joel Berg, whose wife's store, Picknell's Barn, was shuttered by the flooding. "Who has the money to rebuild?"

The storm's localized damage -- largely confined to low-lying areas -- surprised many in the state, which is unaccustomed to hurricane damage due to its distance from the ocean.

"We live up on a hill and we thought it was just a heavy rainstorm," said Barbara Loftus, 58, while working the breakfast shift at Dot's Diner in West Dover, Vermont. "When we went down to town we were shocked."

Reporting by Scott Malone

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