Pittsfield, Vermont – After helicoptering into this flood-ravaged town and delivering a pep talk to residents who had been stranded for three days and counting, Gov. Peter Shumlin asked if anyone had questions for him. It took a minute for anyone to speak up, and even then, the queries were polite to the point of apologetic.
“I keep pushing for generators,” said Peter Borden, the town’s emergency management coordinator. “I’m sorry, Governor.”
He may be lucky, skillful or both, but so far, Mr. Shumlin, the relatively new governor of a state unaccustomed to disasters, has encountered almost nothing but geniality as he has traveled the hardest-hit parts of Vermont, doling out hugs and reminding residents that “Vermonters are tough.”
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Eight months into a two-year term he expected to be dominated by health care and economic issues, Mr. Shumlin, a 55-year-old Democrat, now faces a complicated and costly recovery effort that could well be the defining issue of his governorship.
Dozens of homes were destroyed or badly damaged across the state on Sunday by the flash flooding, which also closed a state office complex and left roads and bridges in tatters.
Mr. Shumlin and his staff are working to get plans in place before patience runs out, making big promises, like to restore power to most towns by week’s end, provide school buses to take residents of isolated towns to grocery stores and not let the widespread damage interfere with leaf-peeping season and all the tourists it draws here.
“We’ve got enough roads to get around, and we’ve still got leaves on our trees,” Mr. Shumlin told a group in Rutland on Wednesday, adding that he would tell tourists, “It might be goat paths instead of highways, but we can get you there.”
Chris Graff, a former journalist and longtime political observer in Montpelier, said that while Mr. Shumlin had so far made good on promises — getting at least crude roads open to 13 cut-off towns, for example — it would get harder as the weeks wore on.
“He has a tremendous can-do spirit, and sometimes that can get ahead of his ability to put the plans in place,” Mr. Graff said. “There is no doubt that the state government is fully engaged and well aware of all the problems in these communities, but it’s just a huge undertaking down the road.”
Mr. Shumlin, a thin, spry man from Putney with a folksy air, was president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate before narrowly winning the governor’s race last November. Until now, his top priorities have included creating something close to a single-payer health care system, the nation’s first, and shutting down Vermont Yankee, a nuclear power plant in the southwest corner of the state.
In an interview Wednesday, he said such goals would not fall off the radar.
“I’m the kind of person, the more balls I have in the air, generally the more I can land,” he said as a helicopter shuttled him to Rochester, an isolated, hard-hit town in south-central Vermont. “We’ll just work longer hours and longer days. We can multitask, absolutely.”
Mr. Shumlin has used the rare national spotlight to call attention to another of his priorities: preparing for climate change, which he said was a factor in the torrential rains that dropped as much as nine inches of rain on parts of Vermont as the remnants of Hurricane Irene moved through.
“Any objective scientist will tell you that as a result of climate change, we’re going to get more intense storms in New England,” he said. “We’ve got to rethink where you build houses, where you build schools, where you build highways and how you build them. We have to redefine our flood plains.”
He has proven an agile communicator in the early days since the storm, posting frequent updates on Twitter and sending agency heads to answer questions from callers on radio shows. And he has traveled to many of the most damaged towns, asking people what they need and saying, time and again, how proud he is of their resilience.
“From an image standpoint,” Mr. Graff said, “Peter has had a tremendous week.”
Bright sun this week has helped keep spirits up; they could flag when the weather turns darker and colder. The fast approach of winter will also pose challenges for rebuilding.
“We’ve got a very short construction season left, and the snow’s going to be flying,” said Tom Pelham, a former state housing and finance commissioner who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans.
“At some point, Peter is going to have to understand he can’t be all things to all people,” he said. “Some choices are going to have to be made, and he’s going to have to explain them.”
So far, one of the few negative responses that Mr. Shumlin has evoked this week came when he quibbled with a CBS News correspondent’s description of people “stranded” in flood-damaged towns.
“Stranded is a bit of an exaggeration, to be honest with you,” Mr. Shumlin told the correspondent. Word of the exchange got to residents of Rochester, and some were miffed.
“That frayed some tempers,” said Martha Slater, a resident. “Every way to get out of town is basically blocked off.”
While outsiders have questioned why Mr. Shumlin did not order evacuations before the storm, he has said it made no sense to do so. And while some Vermonters have complained that rescue workers gave them minutes of warning instead of hours as the waters were rising, few appear to be taking it out on Mr. Shumlin, at least so far.
“We’re used to storms,” the governor said. “We’re used to taking care of ourselves in the winter, living on top of mountains in the middle of nowhere. You know, we know how to tough it out here. You’re not going to talk a Vermonter out of their house.”
Here in Pittsfield, where residents have taken it upon themselves to try to patch roads with local equipment and to fetch urgent supplies using all-terrain vehicles, Ray Rice, a resident of 11 years, said he had not even begun to think about what Mr. Shumlin and state government could do for the town.
“Oh God, no,” Mr. Rice said. “We’ve been taking care of ourselves pretty good.”
That kind of ethos, typical throughout the state, is helping Mr. Shumlin for now.
“Vermonters are incredibly tough and realistic and practical,” he said. “They know the governor didn’t create the storm. They know we’re working hard to respond.”