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Too Much Rain Damages New England Ski Resorts

Tue November 08, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

The mountain communities of New England generally welcome moisture that falls to earth, whether it comes as rain or snow. The rain feeds the forests of hardwood trees that explode into vibrant colors in the autumn and lure free-spending tourists into the region. Snow that follows a month later gives skiers white stuff to plow through, skim over and tumble into, all to the delight of ski resort operators.

Construction companies also benefit from this combination of ample precipitation and sloping terrain. Water constantly seeks a lower elevation, so after the snow melts or the rain gushes toward the sea, heavy equipment operators periodically start their engines to remove displaced gravel, replace faulty culverts and smooth eroded areas.

However, the remnants of Hurricane Irene were too much of a good thing. The August storm dumped 13 in. of rain on New York, 11 in. on Vermont and generally drenched all of New England. In its wake, business plans of resort operators and contractors alike were staggered by the storm.

The Associated General Contractors of Vermont was not exempted from the blow: 18 in. of water invaded its new Montpelier office just 8 months after staff moved into it.

“Please be patient with us as we try to get back to a normal work environment over the next several weeks,” the association’s vice president, Cathy Voyer, announced on Aug. 30 with high-water marks still wetly evident on furniture and walls.

Two months later, not only has the association recovered its footing and reclaimed its office, it has helped the state’s business community throw off the effects of the storm to greet October’s leaf tourists and November’s skiers. What the AGC chapter did was become a clearinghouse for towns and contractors wanting to connect.

“It worked well in the immediate sense and continues to work well,” Voyer said in October. Because towns still have work that needs to be done, AGC match-making still is going on and Voyer believes it will continue for a while. Though roads have been made passable, and some temporary bridges have been erected and made winter-ready, much of the work is stopgap, Voyer said, so that towns “can have a little longer to project just what they can do” more permanently.

“This is a long-term recovery,” she said. “It’s not going to happen in a three-month period. It will take three to five years to really get back to where we were.”

Many of the AGC chapter members work on the various ski properties, but not exclusively.

“Vermont is too small to focus on just one area of contracting,” Voyer noted. “If someone is building a ski resort, he also is working on a water facility somewhere.”

Resorts and Resort Towns

Ski resorts and towns from New Jersey to Maine reported August storm damage. Bridges and roads serving Loon Mountain, Attibash and Waterville Valley ski resorts in New Hampshire and Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine were heavily damaged. But Irene slugged Vermont the hardest, with Killington punished the worst.

Killington Ski Resort lost a building to the tropical storm when a foundation was undercut, collapsing the K-1 Lodge Superstar Pub. As in other ski areas, the resort’s snow-making pump houses, base lodges and other buildings were damaged; skiing and hiking trails and roadways on the 3,000-acre property were eroded and mudded. Killington Resort officials decline to put a price tag on the damage.

However, Rob Megnin, director of sales, marketing and reservations, reported in late October that repair and erosion mitigation work was finished; construction of a new pub would essentially complete the resort’s recovery from Irene. The resort dismantled the collapsed wing of the older building and restored Roaring Brook to its pre-flood streambed before constructing the replacement facility — a beer-and-sandwich place dubbed the Roaring Brook Umbrella Bar. It is expected to be complete when Killington Resort opens for the ski season.

This was the first flooding crisis for New England since 1927 — and far exceeded the earlier one in damage — but construction and re-construction at ski resorts are not tied to weather events. Every off-season brings some building and rebuilding. At Killington, the most extensive project was removal of the South Ridge Triple chairlift after 34 years of hauling skiers to the upper reaches of trail runs. The lift was memorable for skiers who rode it because it contained an unusual 90-degree turn.

The other major off-season Killington project was the dismantling of the deteriorating Killington Peak Lodge atop Killington Mountain. A new peak lodge costing about $7 million has been designed by architectural firm Robert Carl Williams Associates. It is scheduled to be open by Christmas 2012.

Lower on the mountainside, the community of Killington was hard hit by Irene. It was isolated from the rest of Vermont when rushing streams severed Route 4. After the waters receded, the highway looked like something out of a war zone, its pavement crumpled and gouged; National Guard helicopters dropped in supplies in the days following the storm.

Craig Mosher foresaw the isolation. As Irene drenched Killington on Sunday, Aug. 28, Mosher knew that Monday would bring problems, with the torrents of water eating away at infrastructure. Mosher is president of Mosher Excavating.

“I knew what it would be like,” Mosher recalled in late October, “so I just grabbed my loader on Monday and started cleaning up the road. Some employees made it in on foot or on four-wheelers and we went to work.”

Mosher’s initiative was welcome because Vermont State Highway Department district officials couldn’t get into town to supervise. The storm damaged 500 mi. of roadway and 200 bridges. In Killington, small boulders, dirt and debris clogged the pavement and washouts had been crudely carved from it by the scouring runoff. Route 4 reconstruction was an infrastructure project waiting to happen.

“We just started,” Mosher said. “I knew the state couldn’t get to me and that it had to be done. They were busy and this is what we do.”

He and his crew cranked up several pieces of equipment for the task, including Cat 3290, John Deere 200 and Volvo 140 excavators, a Deere 850 dozer and a couple of off-road trucks. One load at a time, the roadway began to regain its utility.

“We worked hard at it, but we weren’t the only ones working. This is Vermont. There’s a backhoe in every yard. Competition is pretty stiff around here,” Mosher said.

Mosher has been in construction since 1979, first building ski trails and then switching to residential and commercial site work. He and his 12-person construction crew later were invited by the state to storm-recovery projects near Pittsfield. Eventually, they returned to work on reconstruction projects in Killington. Paving work is mostly what remains to be done in Killington, Mosher said, but infrastructure projects elsewhere in Vermont could run into December.

Government Response

State governments responded quickly to the situation. In Vermont, the swift administrative response of Gov. Peter Shumlin made all the difference, in the view of Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

“The governor and his administration didn’t suspend environmental regulations; they fast-tracked approval of necessary road and river work with verbal signoffs,” he said. “They still had Department of Environmental Conservation experts at each site, but rather than a much longer paper trail, the approvals were given expeditiously in person or by phone so they could get on post haste with the efforts.”

Riehle said such short-circuiting of the rules was justified because suspension of normal administrative procedures is stipulated in emergency situations. The result was an “astounding” response by state and private sector construction teams. Roadways and ski areas were restored in time for the critical fall foliage tourism season. With early snows forecast, all is well in ski-land.

“We applaud the efforts of the governor and his administration,” Riehle said.

On the other hand, the ski association executive is not as pleased with “disaster-hungry” national media coverage of the tropical storm’s assault on New England.

“There is no question the national coverage was 1,000 percent worse than the tropical storm itself,” he said. “This was a localized event. Maybe 1 percent of the population was affected, granted they were 100 percent affected, but the vast majority of the population was not affected. The challenge for us was to get out the word that Vermont was open for business.”

In New York, where the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo also responded efficiently, Windham Mountain Resort was not spared the effects of Irene. Route 23 that serves the Catskill Mountains resort community was torn apart by the fury of rushing water. The resort itself sustained flood damage.

“When we first went to the pump house area, we just saw a 20-foot pile of debris. We thought the entire pump house was washed away,” said George Driscoll, Windham’s director of marketing and sales.

It turned out that, under the debris, the pumps and house foundation still were intact. The pumps were extracted and sent away to be refurbished and a new house constructed before the pumps were returned. A new infiltration containment area also was built.

Several culverts on the property were overwhelmed by the volume of downslope-rushing storm water. The concrete structures were undercut and left propped at peculiar angles, Driscoll said. They were removed and replaced by larger-diameter culverts.

Reconstruction of Windham’s pump house and lodge — repairs in the lodge were limited to sheet rock and floor restoration — was undertaken by Bette & Cring, a construction management and general contractor out of Latham, NY. The contractor also worked on the nearby Enclave residential complex, which experienced flooding.

Just four weeks after the storm hit, the bulk of the clean-up of Windham lodge was complete and most of the resort’s employees were back to performing routine duties, according to Driscoll.

“When there is a disaster and you need to have something put back together, call a ski area. That’s what we do.”

The resort plans to be open by Thanksgiving — provided snow is flying.

Non-Storm Construction Activity

Most of the construction activity last summer at Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey had nothing to do with the tropical storm. The resort certainly experienced some of the havoc flung around by Irene, including soil erosion that interfered with utilities and undermined foundations, as well as some structural damage to facilities.

However, such repair work was incidental to the bulk of construction activity at Mountain Creek in 2011. The resort is in the last stages of spending about $40 million in a major facilities upgrade. The resort again is owned by its original ownership group from nearby Crystal Springs Resort, and the change of ownership spurred new investment that had the resort’s work crew scurrying long before Irene loomed.

The resort is the closest to the New York metropolitan area and has become a four-season getaway spot. This summer, the Mountain Creek property dramatically expanded its winter resort attractions. The signature change is the 50,000-sq.-ft., three-story “Red Tail Lodge” at the base of Vernon Peak, which will open in December. It contains retail areas and five food and beverage outlets.

Several hundred truckloads of dirt disturbed in excavating and landscaping the site for the new lodge was hauled to Vernon Peak. There, the terrain was reconfigured for easier access to ski and snowboard trails. More visible evidence of change at Mountain Creek are two new or expanded modes of downhill travel: a wintertime rollercoaster in a ski setting called a “Mountain Coaster” will have guests barreling downhill on rails, and a “Drop Zone Snow Tubing Park” with 30 snow-packed lanes will have bundled-up resort guests sliding down the mountainside without fear of banging into a tree.

“We try to stay busy and up to date in an ever-changing industry,” said Ray Banta, heavy equipment manager at Mountain Creek. Much of the site preparation and construction work at the resort is performed by in-house crews, according to Banta. The projects all are completed or near completion and ready for the first snow. CEG

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