On a recent afternoon Susan Allen gazed at a sun-soaked hillside cloaked in a wealthy autumn palette of red, gold, purple and green. The retiree from Lebanon, Ky., sat licking her lips after savoring a syrup-dipped pickle on the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier, Vt., a preferred stop on central Vermont’s leaf-peeping circuit.
“I adore it,” she said of the pickle and the place. “The weather’s been beautiful. The scenery is gorgeous.”
Her traveling companion nodded in agreement. The two of them had heard about floods that devastated parts of the state this summer but, Ms. Allen said, that they had not seen any sign of the disaster. Instead, they were in thrall of the farm’s sensible foliage and maple ice cream, maple fudge, maple kettle corn and, well, maple every part. Jake Shattuck, the Morse Farm owner, said his property was unscathed by the water, and quipped that Vermont “is 98 percent open.”
That wasn’t the case in downtown Montpelier, just three miles away. When record rain fell in July, causing the damaging flooding, two deaths, thousands and thousands of dollars in damage and lots of of rescue missions across the state, Montpelier’s vibrant downtown of outlets, restaurants and state offices was transformed right into a muddy wasteland. Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, was certainly one of the toughest hit cities in an extreme weather event Gov. Phil Scott described as “historic and catastrophic.”
On Oct. 6, Montpelier threw a street party and celebrated the reopening of a handful of companies but the town’s largest hotel, the Capitol Plaza, stays shuttered. Most of the town swirls with construction dust and reverberates with the din of power tools as downtown businesses labor to reopen by the top of the 12 months.
In early September, Vermont tourism officials launched a $200,000 marketing campaign proclaiming the state “Very Much Open.” The goal is to reassure visitors that Vermont is able to welcome them, not only the 2 million visitors who come every 12 months to see Vermont’s famous display of fall foliage, but in addition the greater than three million skiers who follow.
As the marquee on certainly one of Montpelier’s movie theaters wryly announced in black lettering, “We will likely be back after a temporary intermission.”
The wettest month ever
According to the National Weather Service in Burlington, Vt., as much as two feet of rain fell on Central and Southern Vermont from June through August, making 2023 the wettest summer on record for the state. Over a foot of rain fell in Montpelier in July, its wettest month ever.
On July 10, five inches of rain fell in Montpelier. Water poured down city streets and turned the downtown business district right into a lake. Photos of residents paddling canoes near the golden dome of the Vermont State House were splashed across national newspapers, broadcast news and the web.
At Bear Pond Books on Main Street, staff had prepared for the worst before the deluge by moving all of the books two feet off the bottom. They underestimated.
“Much to our horror, it rose to 4 feet,” recalled Robert Kasow, a co-owner. The store lost 3,000 books, most of its furniture and all its computer records. Some 125 businesses were damaged in Montpelier, a city of 8,000 people.
In Ludlow, Vt., water and rocks flowed down the paths of the Okemo Mountain Resort ski area to the downtown area, destroying homes and businesses. Across the state, some 6,000 people and greater than 150 municipalities have applied for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Damage is predicted to exceed $200 million, comparable to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
A toll on tourism
The summer washout took a toll on Vermont’s $3 billion tourism industry. In a typical 12 months, 13 million people flock to the small state of 647,000 people to enjoy mountaineering, biking, leaf peeping and skiing. This 12 months, summer tourism was down 10 to fifteen percent, but dropped as much as 50 to 90 percent within the weeks after the flood within the small variety of towns that experienced severe flooding.
“In the aftermath of the flooding, there have been a number of questions and concerns in the general public when it comes to whether Vermont was ready for visitors to come back back or not,” said Heather Pelham, commissioner of Vermont’s tourism and marketing agency. The goal of the “Very Much Open” campaign is “to encourage visitors to come back back in order that they might see that they were really as much a component of our recovery as residents.”
Vermont is world renowned for its vivid fall foliage. “We have an awesome mixture of species in our forests that lead to a diversity of colours on the landscape: Yellows from birches, oranges from sugar maples, scarlet reds from red maples and darker reds from species like oaks and ash,” said Josh Halman, forest health program manager with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “Having hills and mountains where folks can see this diversity in lots of locations helps too.”
But leaf peeping, which contributes around $600 million to Vermont’s economy, is facing multiple challenges, including Canadian wildfires, record-breaking rain and climate change. This 12 months’s damp summer contributed to the spread of leaf disease that caused some leaves to have black spots and drop early.
Compared to years past, “our falls are getting warmer with climate change and usually that is resulting in the onset of fall foliage later,” said William S. Keeton, professor of forest ecology and forestry on the University of Vermont. The warm temperatures “might mean that trees maintain their greenness longer with less vibrancy of colours. Or it happens a little bit later. Or it’s for a shorter time period. Or perhaps a little bit bit less sensible.”
“Vermont has probably the most spectacular fall foliage on the earth,” Dr. Keeton said. But pinpointing the mythical moment of “peak foliage” is getting harder to predict.
“Each 12 months the good reveal of color is a little bit of a mystery right up until the top,” he said.
Leaf peeping after the deluge
Despite damage in some localities, most of Vermont was unaffected by flooding. Fall foliage hotel occupancy levels in Stowe are at an all-time high, said Carrie Simmons, executive director of the Stowe Area Association, a nonprofit tourism agency.
“Stowe is among the finest places for leaf peeping within the country,” she said. As the town’s October traffic jams might indicate, many visitors agree.
About two hours south, in Weston, Vt., visitors crowded the narrow aisles on the Vermont Country Store on an excellent October day. Well-worn picket floorboards creaked underfoot within the family-owned store that dates to 1946. The racks were full of “the sensible and hard to search out,” including checkered flannel, cheese, maple treats, locally made Darn Tough socks, and all manner of Vermontiana.
Sheena Smith, the shop’s director of retail, said that greater than 1,000,000 people visit the shop annually, but there was a roughly 20 percent drop in traffic for the reason that summer floods. Weston and nearby Ludlow were flooded, however the store was not.
“Unfortunately, we still hear it to at the present time that individuals think they’ll’t get here. And then once they do, they’re quite surprised,” she said.
Across the village green, the Weston Playhouse, home to the storied 87-year-old theater company beloved by Broadway actors and its nightly audiences, sits empty. On July 10, the West River poured into the theater’s basement and compelled the closure of the playhouse until at the least next summer. But the actors improvised, moving their performances across the road, to the corporate’s smaller theater at Walker Farm. They placed on the musical, “Singin’ within the Rain,” and even made it rain — outside, visible from the constructing’s interior through a raised delivery door.
“We thought it was a little bit bit too soon to have everybody watch it rain contained in the theater,” said Susanna Gellert, executive artistic director of the Weston Theater Company.
On a recent fall day, Ms. Gellert stood outside as tourists photographed the picturesque white theater. “They ought to be coming back,” she said of the visitors. “There is not any more glorious spot than right here, truly.”
Looking ahead is Bruce Schmidt, vice chairman and general manager of the Okemo ski area. “We’re cleaned up, buttoned up, fixed up, repaired, replaced,” he said. “We may have no problem being ready for the winter.”
The Montpelier bookseller, Robert Kasow, is flood-weary but in addition hopeful. “The leaves are still beautiful, the parks are still open and exquisite. They just need to be patient with us a little bit bit until we get our stuff all cleaned up and glossy and able to go.”
After seven weeks of mucking out and rebuilding, Bear Pond Books reopened in early September.
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