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September 04, 2011

On a Tour of Damaged Trailer Park, Shumlin Consoles Flood Victims and Praises Recovery Efforts

IMG_2897 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.

IMG_2909He'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.

Geez, Shay, you must be dizzy from all that spinning. I'm wondering, however, if Shumlin ever offered any of his seven homes as a shelter for these folks?

"What's a homeowner supposed to say in response to the governor?"

How about "I don't appreciate being used for a campaign puff piece"?

I think it was wonderful that he was out there today....you might think it's a campaign piece but I think he made the day of many people just by getting out there and listening to them. It will lift their spirits and help them continue forward!!

If he did it without inviting the "friendly" media along, I'd be a little more impressed.

Politicians are politicians. Douglas made a career out of campaigning and we paid him all the while. Why is Shumlin any different?

We are so glad the Governor came to Waterbury and Duxbury. He really is listening and the face-to-face connection is so important to people. I can tell you that his office is following up on each of those requests - this is not campaigning, this is helping.

The Governor also came to Moretown, and he plans to return tomorrow. As you all know, Moretown was hit very hard. The majority of our village was 3-14 feet underwater. I was glad to see our Governor there. He kept up our peoples spirits and reaffirmed the outstanding effort the community is making in dealing with this disaster. He also heard from a number of community leaders that we wanted a National Guard or State Trooper presence during the overnight hours due to concerns about looting (as myself, the Second Constable, and volunteers from the Fire Department were becoming stretched providing 24 hour service). That same night the State Troopers began dust till dawn patrols through the village of Moretown. The Governor delivered.

Getting out there and consoling people is part of the job description for Chief Executive. Not all of them do it. Good for Schumlin.

"Why is Shumlin any different?"

You're right, he's not. So I expect that 7D will begin lambasting him mercilessly every time he shows his face in public. Douglas would have been excoriated here for this exact same stunt.

"Douglas would have been excoriated here for this exact same stunt."

Care to prove that assertion? Can you? Or are you passing off your guesses as fact?

The homeowners appreciated the gov's presence, and the constable's comments suggest he's listening and getting things done for small, hard-hit towns. It's awfully cynical to suggest every thing Shumlin does is campaigning. This is part of the governor's job: To get things done and do good for Vermonters.

"Care to prove that assertion?"

Prove that Douglas would have been criticized? Yeah, let me get in my time machine, convince him not to drop out as Governor and then I'll forward you the article that resulted from his inviting the press to a hug-the-locals event, genius.

It's definitely compelling that a random apolitical citizen like the constable wrote in to support Shumlin, maybe he can repost the message on his blog on the Progressive Party's website (www.progressiveparty.org/blog/390).

If you read past the first question of my comment, Jimmy, you'd see that I wasn't ACTUALLY asking you to get in your Delorean and alter history as a thought experiment. Or are you "playing dumb" too?

Shumlin can't do anything without the media following him, and if he stayed in his helicopter or his office, he'd be accused of being out of touch and a bad leader. Yes, I'm sure he wants to get reelected (wow! newsflash!). But he's done a very good job dealing with the recovery. He's known exactly when to step in and when to get out of the way.

Oh, but I'm SURE he's only helping towns run by Progs...of course.

"If you read past the first question of my comment"

To the rest of that paragraph, where you continue your clumsy attempt to disparage an opinion based on the fact that it's unprovable? Uh, yeah, I read that. I'm not sure what your point is, "prove it" is still about the most simple, ineffective retort of about a thousand that you could have come up with.

No one's asking him to stay in his office. Since you didn't seem to pick up on this the first few times, I'll make it a little clearer: he invited the press to a trailer park visit. Friendly journalist Shay Totten was right there to faithfully document and breathlessly recount the tears, the hugs, and the photo-coaxing. The Governor's office proactively turned what could have been a nice visit into a photo op, and the resulting article was cloying. That's all I'm saying.

He may be doing all sorts of great things under the radar, although when the two first hand accounts to that effect come from the chair of the Waterbury Town Democratic Committee and a guy who wrote "please join me in working with the Governor" not two weeks ago, you have to wonder.

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