Vermont State Fair muted amid Irene’s aftermath

RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) — The scene on the midway at the Vermont State Fair on Saturday was much like it’s always been. Carnival game barkers called out for customers to try their luck, the smell of french fries wafted over the grounds and 4-H children groomed their dairy cows in the barns.

But the 166th annual fair in Rutland showed signs of the times in flood-ravaged Vermont: There were American Red Cross flood victim donation cans at each entrance, a Federal Emergency Management Agency booth set up in one of the barns and fewer vendors, exhibitors and fairgoers.

With many roads — including parts of U.S. Route 4, a major east-west route leading into Rutland — closed and dozens of communities still digging out after torrential downpours last Sunday brought by Tropical Storm Irene, fair officials acknowledged that it will likely be an off-year, with the nine-day event struggling to achieve its typical attendance of 100,000.

Attendance at opening night Friday was off by about 2 percent, according to fair manager Richard Rivers, who says the detours facing some would-be fairgoers would add time to their trip or discourage them from coming. The fair’s office got plenty of phone calls this week from people wanting to know how to get there without encountering road closures or detours.

“There is going to be some extra travel involved,” he said.

Vendors and fairgoers interviewed Saturday said turnout appeared to be light, compared with previous years.

“It’s a lot slower,” said Grace Calvin, who staffed a T-shirt sales operation at the Rutland County Dairy Committee barn. She said she’s been going to the fair since the 1980s and this year’s version was noticeably quieter.

Wesley Parker, a community education and outreach supervisor for FEMA, stood at a table containing information about flood recovery and federal aid.

“We come so that we can provide the information that you see here to the folks that need it,” she said. “What we’re looking for is somewhere where we can reach people who may have been harmed by the event, or in the case of the people I was just talking to, neighbors of someone who was harmed by the event.”

About 30 people visited the booth Friday night and 10 more in the first three hours of the fair on Saturday.

Donations were being taken — and raffle tickets sold — at a booth operated by the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, a nonprofit that works with Vermont farms and is helping raise money for those that suffered damage in the flooding.

Business wasn’t brisk.

“I tried to sell a raffle ticket to a farmer who was damaged in the flood, and he wasn’t very interested,” said Whitney Lamy, of Castleton, who was staffing the booth.

Kim Eugair, 39, of Morning Meadows Farm in Florence, who was helping daughter Olivia Jones, 8, clip the hair on Averie, a 6-month-old milking shorthorn cow in the cattle barn, said there were at least seven farms that did not make it to the fair, at least partly because of the storm.

The fair, which runs through Sept. 11, nearly had to be postponed after the flooding, which turned a babbling brook that runs through the heart of the fairgrounds into a big brown lake, forcing the relocation of a petting zoo tent containing sheep, goats and a giraffe. No animals were hurt.

“There was logs, tree, tires, shopping carts and everything that came rushing down through there that clogged up the bridges that run through the fairgrounds,” said Rivers, the fair manager, showing a visitor the brook Saturday.

Vendors from flood-stricken communities — like The Phat Italian deli, in cutoff Killington — canceled, and some farms that planned to bring their animals for display couldn’t make it because of storm damage.

Fair organizers kept their eyes on the sky.

Forecasters have called for another round of heavy rains that could set back recovery efforts. The National Weather Service was forecasting rain Sunday that could cause problems for saturated grounds and still-receding rivers. A flash flood watch was posted for Sunday night through Tuesday for most of Vermont.

Meanwhile, state officials had to call the White House on Friday after realizing that a major disaster declaration signed by President Barack Obama on Thursday mistakenly listed the wrong effective date.

The Burlington Free Press reported that the disaster declaration, which will provide Vermont with federal money to help pay for recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, listed Monday as the effective date, when most of the damage had occurred a day earlier.

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