Irene Could Define Shumlin’s First Term

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(Host) In the two weeks since floods devastated the state, Governor Peter Shumlin has been a man in constant motion. He’s traveled all over the state, consoling those who need it and cheering along relief workers.

Along the way, he’s won near universal praise for his handling of the disaster.

But, observers say, Shumlin may face more difficult decisions – and more criticism – as the flood recovery continues.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Even before the floodwaters receded, Shumlin took to the air to survey the damage. In town after town, he’s offered an empathetic ear and delivered a cheerleading message. He says he’s been inspired by the community spirit he’s seen all over the state.

Here he is after visiting Rochester, a town where even the caskets in the cemetery were uprooted by Irene.

(Shumlin) "We go into the downtown green, and the two innkeepers, Bob and Chris, are cooking the third dinner after the third lunch for the entire community of Rochester. And they’re there on the green, taking care of each other, celebrating, bringing food in from their thawing freezers, making sure everybody is fed and getting the resources they need."

(Dillon) A few days later in Moretown, Shumlin fielded detailed questions from a crowd gathered in front of the flooded firehouse.

George Butler has a painting business and lost tools and equipment in the storm. FEMA won’t cover the loss. Shumlin gave him the phone number for the Vermont Economic Development Authority, which provides low-cost loans.

(Shumlin) "With very little bureaucracy, and very little forms filled out, we can literally have you a check within 48 hours. Up to $25,000 bucks, no payment in the first year, either interest or principal. And 1 percent for the following four. That will get you the tools, the things you need immediately to get back up and running."

(Dillon) The governor has brought energy and focus to the task, and he’s delivered on promises to reopen roads and reach isolated communities. He appears to have only misstepped once. On the Tuesday after the storm, he was live on the CBS morning news and was asked this question:

(TV Question) "Governor, any idea at this point how many people are still stranded?"

(Shumlin) "Well, you know, stranded is a bit of an exaggeration, to be honest with you. We’ve got folks in every community, Red Cross and others, who are getting help to folks who need it."

(Dillon) The governor’s comment didn’t sit well with people who really were isolated. M. Dickey Drysdale is publisher of the Randolph Herald, which covers several White River valley towns that were cut off by the flood.

(Drysdale) "He didn’t make any friends right at first, of course, when he said that it was much-to-do about people being stranded, and they weren’t. Where people around here knew that they were stranded."

(Dillon) But Drysdale says Shumlin has been back to those towns since and got a much warmer reception.

(Drysdale) "He’s trying to be very upbeat about the future. And that’s his job, I think."

(Dillon) And the future will bring tough decisions – about spending priorities and policy initiatives, says Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor. Davis says just as September 11, 2001, shaped George W. Bush’s first term, so will Irene define Shumlin’s first years in office.

(Davis) "So for the rest of his term, this is the issue on which he’s going to be focused. This is the issue that will determine voters’ assessment of him in November of 2012."

(Dillon) Davis says it will be hard for Republicans to criticize Shumlin’s flood recovery performance, especially now that the governor has hired a top Republican – Neale Lunderville – to oversee those efforts.

For his part, Shumlin says he’s not even thinking about politics. At a stop in Royalton, he turned a question about his own role back to how to help people whose lives were upended by the storm.

(Shumlin) "As extraordinary as Vermonters are about taking care of themselves, this is a time when we all need to pull together and give everything we have, and I’m one of those."

(Dillon) For now, Shumlin has struck a delicate balance between helping people in need and trying not to promise too much. His challenge will be how to maintain that effort for the weeks and months of recovery still ahead.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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