Five years after Irene’s destruction, Vermont is buoyed by a fighting spirit
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QUECHEE, Vt. — In the darkest days following Hurricane Irene's assault on New England five years ago, lights shone from the Parker House Inn, a beacon for those who wandered amidst the wreckage and wondered what in the world to do next.
As I sat on the inn's back deck this past June, a hot air balloon drifted into sight. It was a peaceful place to drink my morning coffee before my kids woke up. I'd come to Vermont for the 25th annual Covered Bridges Half Marathon, an event Runner's World magazine calls "the prettiest 13.1 miles in New England." The race leads runners down country lanes and past rolling meadows, along miles of dirt road winding beside the Ottauquechee River and through historic villages. This is the stuff that New England daydreams are made of.
But it took hard work to restore these near-perfect views. I hoped the weekend would offer a window into the ways the villages along the course — Woodstock, Taftsville, and Quechee — rebounded after Irene forced the Ottauquechee to surge beyond its banks in late August 2011. Flash floods wiped out Quechee's beloved bridge, caused major damage to Taftsville's, and destroyed community mainstays like the Woodstock Farmers' Market, the White Cottage Snack Bar, and the area's stalwart, award-winning weekly, the Vermont Standard.
In the months that followed, folks from near and far banded together, feet clad in mucking boots, ski poles in hand, to dig tons of Ottauquechee silt.
My girls and I arrived at the Parker House on Friday night. Leaving our bags in the car, we quickly settled in on the porch to partake in luscious, fennel scented moules frites, salty cured olives, and creamy lobster risotto with crusty peasant bread. Adam Adler, proprietor and front-of-house extraordinaire, served his guests generous portions of British charm with their cocktails in the aptly named Bar Irene, the inn's tribute to the hurricane that took his family's home and almost destroyed their business.
Despite the gravity of their situation, Adam's wife and business partner Alexandra LaNoue-Adler managed to find glimmers of opportunity buried beneath the mire. "I said, I'm going to just shift gears and think of it as a new business now and really model it after a place that Adam and I would like to stay — he's from London, I'm from New York — and make it more of a boutique hotel rather than your granny's doily and potpourri-filled joint," LaNoue-Adler said.
The next morning, I roused my girls from their slumber — an easy task given the sweet, buttery scent of sugar-dusted pancakes that wafted through the inn. During breakfast in the sun-filled dining room, the perfect June day beckoned and we soon found ourselves next door in Simon Pearce's flagship showroom in an 1800s woolen mill beside Quechee's new bridge. Household glass sparkles on display shelves and adorns the tables in the adjacent restaurant.
We headed downstairs to visit the glassblowing studio — into which the Ottauquechee had poured in 2011, destroying the now reconfigured production space where the three of us stood. We were mesmerized watching a fiery dance of perfectly timed choreography between gatherer Claire Davey-Karlson and head glassblower Cory Duda.
"Today we're making a martini glass," said Davey-Karlson, leaning over to blow into a long metal pipe. My girls gasped as the familiar object began to take shape.
"We were completely underwater down here," Duda told us as he deftly opened the mouth of the glass. "But we're back even better than before."
Fifteen minutes west of Quechee, the town of Woodstock is as picturesque as they come, and along the way the barn-red Taftsville covered bridge adds a pop of color to the verdant landscape. During Irene, the bridge survived the rising water.
"That alone was contributing to a very positive spirit," said Phil Camp, owner of the Vermont Standard. "By gosh, we thought, the Taftsville Bridge is still there!"
In Woodstock, Gillingham's General Store, Yankee Bookshop, the Village Butcher, and other shops still line the Central Street area near Middle Bridge, one of Vermont's prettiest.
The Woodstock Inn looks good, too — but five years ago overflow from nearby Kedron Brook inundated the electrical and heating systems and the inn was closed for six weeks for repairs.
"I think I had five weddings that we had to displace," said Courtney Lowe, the inn's director of marketing. Now couples are again lounging in Adirondack chairs while children run barefoot across the vast front lawn.
For lunch, we headed over to the Woodstock Farmers' Market. This well-loved local grocery store — not to be confused with the outdoor market that takes place every Wednesday afternoon on the green — took one of the storm's worst beatings, buried in Ottauquechee mud.
Now, amid baskets of native strawberries and local greens, a small sign declaring "Hurricane Irene High Water Mark" hangs from a post about five feet from the floor.
Later that afternoon, we popped over to Suicide Six ski area, where Patrick Crowl, market owner since 1992, was getting ready to host the annual pre-race spaghetti dinner. Clad in a bright orange T-shirt with the slogan, "Come Hell or High Water, Woodstock Farmers' Market Can't be Beat!" Crowl talked about how his store's revival boosted post-storm morale.
"We're a big part of the community, and the faster we got back up and running the faster the community could heal. It was like, 'OK, if these guys can do it, maybe I can do it,' " he said.
After hearing all these stormy memories, I awoke early on race day to the threat of heavy rain. This stopped the morning's hot-air balloons from launching and soaked me to the bone by mile 12. Yet Quechee Main Street was packed with optimism — cowbells and hand-slaps, cheers of support, signs declaring, "We've Got You Covered." The entire community was standing out in the deluge to encourage friends and visitors alike.
"You can spell community easily, but you can't always feel it," Camp had said of the Woodstock area. Looking out at all those volunteers, I understood exactly what he meant.