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‘We’re still here’

Deerfield Valley towns kick off Bright Lights

Bright Lights kicks off Dec. 9 to Dec. 11. Most decorators will keep their lights up until Dec. 31. To see a list of events and download a touring map visit www.vermontvalleylights.com.

DOVER—Tropical Storm Irene knocked out electricity from Readsboro to Wardsboro in August, but this December will reveal that the storm couldn’t dim the valley’s power.

Irene’s rains overloaded area rivers on Aug. 28, flooding the towns in their paths. The waters carried away trees, propane tanks, cars, roads, businesses, and homes.

Images of muddy, rushing water swamping Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington flashed across YouTube. The UK’s Daily Mail included coverage of the washout of Route 100 in Wardsboro and flood damage in Jamaica. Images of damage in Halifax, Whitingham, and Dover made regular appearances on the network news programs.

All the towns sustained damage. Officials estimate the damage to Dover’s municipal infrastructure near $1 million, while Wilmington’s municipal infrastructure estimates stand at more than $2 million.

To help lessen the shadow of Irene’s damage, the towns of Dover, Wilmington, Jacksonville, Whitingham, Halifax, Readsboro, and Wardsboro are participating in Bright Lights, a week of celebration filled with local events and a colorful (and bright) decorating of homes and businesses.

The celebration is an valley-wide version of Dover Bright Lights, which started three years ago and included a prize for the best decorated property.

“We [the Deerfield Valley] want to show the world we’re still here,” said longtime valley resident Linda Anelli.

“[After tragedy] there’s no alternative but to pick yourself up and dust yourself off,” she said.

Anelli said that after Irene, news outlets swarmed into Wilmington to report on the disaster and to tell the world “how pathetic we looked.”

That’s not the image that residents want the rest of the world to have about the valley, Anelli said.

Instead, she said, the valley wants to show people that “we’re back better than ever.”

‘Not about money or prizes’

Irene and the economy has strapped business and homeowners’ wallets, she said. Some local organizations, such as Rotary and Floodstock, have stepped in to help offset costs for some participants on lean budgets.

According to Anelli, Bright Lights started as a small Dover event three years ago. The Dover economic development group helped develop the competitive event and offered cash prizes.

After Irene, Selectboard Chair Linda Holland “challenged” Anelli to expand the Christmas lights to Wilmington.

Anelli only wanted to involve herself in Bright Lights if it included all seven neighboring towns.

She reached out to friends in Wilmington, and soon, Anelli said, participation in Bright Lights “grew like topsy” from Readsboro to Wardsboro.

Anelli said the decorating of properties won’t carry prizes as it did when the event was Dover Bright Lights.

“[This year’s celebration] is not about money or prizes,” she said. “This is fundamentally based on community pride and spirit.”

All the towns suffered from Irene as Wilmington did, but the “heartbreaking, compelling stories” play out “off the beaten track,” said Anelli.

She described portions of the Route 100 corridor as a “lunar landscape.”

Thinking of the communities’ damage still makes her teary.

According to Anelli, more than 100 homes and businesses have agreed to string fairy lights on their properties. Local schools will also contribute a variety of decorations in public locations.

WW Building Supply on Route 9 agreed to offer the fairy lights at a discount to people participating in Bright Lights.

Anelli said her “Pollyanna dream” is that Bright Lights will grow into an annual event.

“Wait ’til you see our picture window,” said decorator and Dover resident Chris Cooke.

Cooke, owner of Dover Cab, and his wife, Joan Cooke, have decorated their home this year in the theme of “A Christmas Story, the movie,” he said.

The Cookes and Joan’s 90-year-old mother, Fran Baccile, won the first Dover Bright Lights three years ago. This year, Chris Cooke said he is excited to participate even without the chance of a prize.

Before Irene, Cooke said, when he taxied people from the Amtrak station in Brattleboro or the airports, he loved watching passengers’ faces “light up” as the cab pulled into Dover.

“It made me feel so proud,” he said.

And in the post-Irene valley, Cooke said, Bright Lights will help boost people’s spirits and, he hopes, will draw people to the area for the winter season.

Cooke described a valley-wide Bright Lights as the best thing the area has done in years.

He said plywood still covers the windows of some buildings receiving strings of colored lights.

“But even with the plywood, it’ll be fantastic,” Cooke said.

Cooke said although his taxi company lost some income after Irene, he feels his home and business came through the storm “unscathed,” compared to the damage to the properties of friends and neighbors.

He also believes that although Irene left a sad mark on the area, the future shines bright.

“In the long run, more good will come out of this stupid storm than bad,” he said

That’s because, amid the storm’s havoc, the community’s spirit has endured and people have joined to help one another, Cooke said.

“That good far outweighs the bummer stuff,” he said, pointing to people like Adam Palmiter, who has raised nearly $200,000 for Irene recovery.

“That good is just special,” said Cooke.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #130 (Wednesday, December 7, 2011).

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