BRATTLEBORO -- Abraham Lincoln once wrote, "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
Gov. Peter Shumlin spent Aug. 25 visiting some of the hardest hit areas following last August's Tropical Storm Irene. At each stop he honored the hundreds of people throughout Windham County that had greatness thrust upon them in the midst of the worst flood and most devastating disaster in the state's history.
"We are a tale of two states," he said. "There are those who didn't get hit that bad by Irene, the Vermonters that were there for their neighbors, friends and strangers, and that group has moved on. Then there's the other group whose
The tour began Saturday morning at the site of what used to be the Bartonsville Covered Bridge in Rockingham. When floodwaters rose on Aug. 28, 2011, it was too much for the historic bridge to handle and it was swept away.
In front of the crowd of 30 people the governor thanked two of the men responsible for keeping Rockingham, Bellows Falls, Saxtons River and Bartonsville safe during the storm.
Fire Chief William Weston and Police Chief Ron Lake were each given a "Vermont Strong" license plate signed by Shumlin as a "small token of thanks," the governor
The gesture would be replicated at the four other locations throughout that day.
He also spent several minutes remembering the six people who lost their lives as a result of the flooding.
Both Weston and Lake were quick to pass the thanks and admiration on to highway workers like Jerry Buffem and their superintendent, Mike Hindes.
"Jerry was the one who got the outboard motor working in the boat so the emergency crews could get to people who were stranded," Lake said. "They're the true heroes."
After shaking hands and taking photos it was on to the Whetstone Studio for the Arts in Brattleboro, where the building was nearly lost to the flooding.
"In my wildest dreams I never thought we'd have made such great progress," Shumlin said to the group gathered. "We did it with dignity, common sense and only because Vermonters reached out to friends, reached out to neighbors, to strangers, and helped one another rebuild."
The governor spoke about rebuilding the bridges, the culverts and sent a message to FEMA, that if they continued to say "no" his administration would continue to fight until they say "yes," because Irene wasn't a one-time storm.
"We are seeing the affects of our addiction to oil, to climate change," Shumlin said. "If this happens again FEMA will have to be back here to pay for it all over again."
On behalf of the town employees and officials, Brattleboro Town Manager Barb Sondag was awarded one of the license plates from Shumlin.
"I'm extremely proud of the people who work for this town," Sondag told the Reformer afterward. "The firefighters, police officers, Selectboard members, the public works folk, they are as much a part of our emergency team as anyone. You can see their hard work here."
David Parker, owner of the rebuilt Whetstone Studio for the Arts, said he was honored to have the governor return to his business.
"I'll never forget standing here with him looking at the building hanging out into the river," Parker said. "I was given lemons and I made lemonade. I just feel blessed to be part of this building again. This is miraculous."
Shumlin's next stop was in Wilmington, which may have been the hardest hit town in Windham County.
There he congratulated the residents for their spirit and their dedication to rebuild.
"There's not a better example of Vermont Strong than the people of Wilmington," he said. "For you all to muck out, to dig out, to continue to work is inspiring."
He thanked Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March, Police Chief Joe Szarejko and representatives Ann Marwaring and John Morran.
Shumlin stressed that it's not possible to give the 5,000 people affected by the storm their family photos back, the heirlooms and trinkets or their homes.
But, he said, it's possible to help them build something better, to put the state back together better than the storm found it.
March said there wasn't a better reminder of that than the empty space where Dot's used to be.
Owners John and Patty Reagan have committed to rebuild their historic diner and recently had the building split in two pieces and set back on their property while the foundation is raised several feet out of the flood plain. The result leaves a new view of the Deerfield Valley River.
"It's like a hole a cavity makes in a tooth," March said. "But they'll be back."
At the governor's last two stops, in Stratton and Jamaica, he was greeted by two much smaller groups.
Stratton Selectboard Chairman Albert Dupell said the lack of people was attributed to good weather on one of the last weekends of summer.
"We were lucky too," Dupell said. "Being so high up we didn't suffer much damage from the storm."
Helen Eddy, a resident of Stratton, echoed Dupell's thought. She added, however, that when she went driving around the areas of Jamaica and Newfane after the flood, it was a different story.
"Even when I drive around now I still feel the hurt," she said. "The first time I drove through Newfane I was with my granddaughter and we both just cried because it looked so different."
Shumlin make a quick pit stop at the Bondville Fair to get a snack and to talk to people, then it was on to his last stop of the day, Jamaica.
Emergency Manager Paul Fraser greeted the governor and as Shumlin tried to praise his numerous efforts, Fraser was quick to say he was just a tiny cog in a much bigger machine.
"I was just one person who helped control the chaos," he said. "We have more than 100 projects after Irene and each needs its own set of paperwork. That's been a nightmare, but other than that I'm too busy to stop and feel anything else."
Since the flood struck, Fraser has spent at least four days a week working to get FEMA projects up and running.
Shumlin said it was people like Paul Fraser that gave him strength, that reconfirmed what he already knew.
"I hope that we can recognize the extraordinary process that's taken place in this state," he said. "I don't know of any state in the country ever that has bounced back from a disaster like this as quick as we have. Let's use that to remain vigilant to help those who are still suffering. And we will, because that's what Vermonters do."
Josh Stilts can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.