Vermont native and golf course architect Steve Durkee has made the 12-mile drive from his Killington home to Rutland hundreds of times. But he's only hiked his way back once. After a brief check of Hurricane Irene-related damage to Rutland Country Club the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2011, Durkee attempted to drive back to Killington but never made it because sections of Route 4 were completely washed out. After failed attempts to drive through the Middlebury Gap and then the Brandon Gap, Durkee was stranded overnight in Rutland.
"I met with my construction crew the next morning at 6 a.m. in Chittenden and we hiked six miles on Wildcat Road through the mountains to get back to Killington," said Durkee, who designed Okemo Valley, Golf Magazine's Best Course You Can Play in Vermont. His house survived the storm intact, but a number of golf courses in central Vermont were not so lucky.
Hurricane Irene was the worst storm to hit the state in more than eight decades, causing six deaths, destroying countless homes and severely damaging bridges and roads. Total cost of the damages statewide has been estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion, according to Betsy Ide, executive director of the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.
Virtually every golf course in the state was affected as well, according to Dave Pfannestein, executive director of the Vermont State Golf Association, which has 65 member courses. "There was a big impact on any tourist-related business after the storm," he said, noting that September and October are the peak months for both golf and the state's famed foliage season. "People saw pictures of the damaged roads and stayed away until wintertime. It was really a big hurt. The munis lost green fee traffic while private clubs lost their second-home business."
(Related Photos: Vermont Courses, Before and After)
A year later, the scars left by Hurricane Irene are still visible. "When you drive around there are still houses off their foundations and others condemned," Pfannestein said. "Some stuff has been cleaned up, but other stuff is still sitting there like it was that day. But most of the courses are pretty much back to normal this year."
Vermont's central region took the brunt of Irene, receiving more than a foot of rain that flowed off local mountains and hit valley floors with tremendous destructive momentum.
The Quechee Club, a private 36-hole facility that has hosted the Vermont Open and New England Amateur, was among the hardest hit. "The thing that surprised everyone was how much damage the rain alone caused," said Ken Lallier, the Club's property manager. "Everyone thought it would be a non-event. The Killington basin area got a huge amount of rain in a 16-hour span and all of that comes right through our course and the Ottauquechee River."
The club's entire Lakeland course resides in a flood plain and was devastated. "It was filled with whole trees, tires, and other debris, plus up to six feet of silt," said Lallier. "Greens were washed out, and a 10-foot deep trench cut through some fairways. The devastation was staggering." Irene also damaged five holes on the club's Highland course.
"I've been at Quechee for 25 years," said Lallier. "Typically floods happen in the spring when ice jams on rivers and the ground is frozen. There's much less erosion damage then. But when you get the volume of water we did moving with debris, bad things happen."
The recovery work began immediately. Quechee members were playing on parts of the Highland course four days after storm (all 18 holes opened this past spring), but the Lakeland course did not reopen nine holes until last week, with the second nine expected to open next spring. Lallier estimated the total cost of the renovations at $4.5 million.
There was little doubt among members that the courses would be repaired. "I grew up in this valley and the courses have been here for 40 years," said Ken Lacasse, greens chairman. "We just can't let a freak storm like this take us out of the golf business. You just grin and bear it, move through it, and this too shall pass."
When the storm hit the Woodstock Resort and Inn, Chuck Vanderstreet was in Scituate, Mass., hooking up sump pumps in his mother's house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Vanderstreet, who is director of recreation at the Woodstock resort, said that Irene was expected to cause a severe flood tide on the Massachusetts coast, but the winds shifted and nothing happened on the coast. That wasn't the case in central Vermont.
"I kept getting texts from employees at the course showing me the course had turned into a river," Vanderstreet said.
He drove back the next morning but barely got into Woodstock because of road closings. "I could not believe the devastation," he said. "Homes gone, roads gone, bridges gone. The National Guard was here and they didn't want to let me back into my house, five miles from the course. It was just an unbelievable situation."
The Woodstock course, which dates back to 1895, is set on flat ground in the Kedron Valley. A five-year renovation project had been completed just prior to the storm — including all new irrigation, new greenside bunkers and repositioned fairway bunkers — but Irene left the course under water (pictured at right), knocking out six bridges and severely damaging 13 rooms and meeting space at the nearby resort.
"We had to deal with tons of silt and debris on the course, from bathtubs to gas tanks to benches to you-name-it," said Vanderstreet. "We decided to close for the season because no one likes to play on a course when a lot of work is going, plus the silt and the dust created an unsafe situation for guests."
The recovery work at Woodstock required specialized equipment, an environmental solutions company to get rid of silt and debris, and a local contracting firm to rebuild bridges. "We had a mild winter so the work was done in a timely fashion," said Vanderstreet. "We actually opened for this season on April 15, the earliest we have in a long time."
Access, not course damage, was the main issue at Green Mountain National in Killington. Roads in every direction were closed, completely cutting off the facility for about a week. "Two weeks after storm we had three days of double shotgun starts scheduled, our biggest outing of the year," said general manager Dave Soucy. "About 200 out of the 300 players did get here, but we still lost money." That loss was part of an estimated $120,000 in revenue the facility lost between September and October, he said.
If there was a silver lining to Hurricane Irene, Durkee said it was the way the storm united people throughout the state. "I think the indomitable spirit of Vermonters really shone through," he said. "Local contractors like Doug Cassella and Craig Mosher worked around the clock seven days a week to help rebuild local roads that are critical to the area."
While things are on the mend a year later in his native state, Durkee said that Vermonters will be living with the effects of Irene for a long time.
"There was such tragedy with the loss of life and people losing their homes," he said. "Golf doesn't seem very important in light of all of that. That said, the courses are in great shape. It's really been a remarkable process."
For more information about the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, go to vermontdisasterrecovery.com or call 888-707-8373.
(Woodstock course photo courtesy of Woodstock Inn & Resort)