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When tropical storm Irene wiped out a month’s worth of timber sales, Vermont logger Carl Russell, who lives off the grid, responded by going digital.

Russell is a sustainable logger and forestry consultant in Bethel, Vermont. In August 2011, Irene washed away approximately 25,000 board feet of timber he had hauled from the woods and stacked by the road.

Russell contacted the Vermont Digital Economy Project, which helped him acquire an iPad and use it to collect data, manage his logging plan, present information to clients and connect with other loggers.

“A lot of people draw this odd look because here I am a horse logger, and I built my house by hand,” Russell said. “I live off-grid. … But I’ve never really been afraid of digital technology. I see it as another tool in my toolbox.  I’m still out in the woods with horses rolling logs by hand, but I have my iPhone and my iPad with me.”

Russell wasn’t alone in having to reassemble the pieces after Irene struck. Throughout Vermont, small towns were devastated.   While the state began disaster relief, the Vermont Council on Rural Development began its own approach to community recovery.

The council established the Vermont Digital Economy Project, which used the immediate need for disaster relief as a way to help communities get ready for future disruptions. They created and shared digital tools with town governments, non-profits and small business owners.

[imgcontainer] [img:Carl+Russell+logging+taken+by+Lisa+McCrory.jpg] [source]Photo by LIsa McCrory[/source] Carl Russell and his logging "machine." [/imgcontainer]

Another participant in the Digital Economy Project was Bridport Creamery, founded in 2012 by cheese-makers Nicky Foster and Julie Danyew.

While Foster and Danyew knew a lot about making cheese, they needed help with their digital marketing.  The digital project paired them with an adviser to help develop their online store. 

“We’ve had a lot of visitors who never would have known about us because they found us online,” Foster said, “It’s definitely benefitted us.”

Strengthening local institutions through digital tools helps communities recover more quickly when difficulties like storms and natural disasters arise, says Paul Costello, executive director of the Digital Economy Project.

“We take the whole idea of resiliency and emergency preparedness and say, yes these things are great for emergencies and that’s very important,” he said. “But let’s do it for every day.  Let’s enrich the culture, enrich the community and enrich the business opportunities.  All of those things make us stronger as communities and better prepared for future challenges. ”

Starting in 2012, over the course of 18 months, the digital project has set out to make access to broadband ubiquitous in Vermont’s small towns. They expanded and established local social networks. They worked with libraries to provide digital literacy staff. 

They also recognized the need help the state’s innovation economy. “Vermont has always been a really creative place,” Costello said. “For such a small state of 625,000 people, we’re always at the top of the list for per-capita patent development.”

Vermont doesn’t have a large manufacturing base, so small businesses are even more vital to Vermont’s economy and quality of life, says Costello. The natural disaster put that into sharp focus.

[imgcontainer] [img:Nancy+Julie+-+Bridport+Creamery.jpg] Nicky Foster and Julie Danyew of the Bridport Creamery. [/imgcontainer]

“So many of these rural businesses are so fragile that anything we could do to strengthen their operation and reach and marketing, we wanted to do that, too,” Costello said.

The Digital Economy Project offered a range of services, including free website development, record keeping management, marketing help and “social media surgeries” that helped build social media presence. The project provided one-on-one sessions with 266 businesses to make sure they understood how to use these tools effectively.

Offering these services isn’t charity but an investment in Vermont’s small towns and communities, Costello said.  It’s a model that could work for other places in rural America, he said.

“We have to say that rural America is going to be the bread basket and the energy center for this country, but it’s also going to be a creative center for small business development across the board,” Costello said. “And we’re going to do that by using the most cutting-edge rural digital tools and having an enviable life as communities.”

Costello said the 2011 tropical storm provided the inspiration to implement ideas that state had been talking about for years.

“Never let a crisis go wasted,” he said.

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