By Zach Howard
SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass (Reuters) - Sell-out crowds of autumn leaf admirers are flocking to the flame-colored hills of New England, quashing fears tourism would suffer collateral damage from last summer's Tropical Storm Irene.
Just seven weeks ago, the storm shut down 557 miles of state roads and closed 193 bridges in Vermont alone, but nearly all of them have been repaired and reopened in time for the annual brilliance of scarlet, orange and yellow.
Shop owners in some towns had fretted over thin traffic during weeks of rebuilding efforts across several states. But over the weekend tour companies reported full buses of foliage lovers, and store owners were thrilled to see souvenir buyers lining up at the cash register.
In Massachusetts, where the rain-swollen Deerfield River flooded downtown streets and buildings and forced evacuations in Shelburne Falls, Jacinta Hunting isn't sure whether most tourists are coming back to view the autumn leaves or if they're just curious about the storm damage that captured headlines around the world.
"This weekend has been right on par with last year at this time, but it feels like the peak hasn't hit yet," Hunting said at Mo's Fudge Factor, the sweet shop where she works.
Some 3.3 million people are expected to visit Massachusetts during the foliage season, loosely defined as the month of October -- the state's second-biggest month for tourism expenditures after August, said Betsy Wall, director of the Massachusetts Travel & Tourism Office.
In that time, tourists will spend an estimated $1.3 billion at businesses like shops, hotels, and tour companies, Wall said.
"Experts' observations that foliage may be peaking a little late this year -- about a week late -- may be true," she said. "But it should be no less spectacular."
Peak foliage hues are forecast until about October 24 when vistas again will start to fade in much of inland Massachusetts.
SOME TOURISTS UNDETERRED
Allen Charlton, who with his wife Paula drove up from Meriden, Connecticut, stopped along a Shelburne Falls promenade facing the Deerfield River rapids to snap pictures of the "beautiful" foliage on the vibrant landscape beyond.
There, visiting groups also pointed to piles of debris still visible from the August flooding near the water's edge, such as uprooted trees and a smashed former quilting studio.
Fifty miles to the north, southern Vermont was especially hard-hit by Irene. But the state quickly mobilized comprehensive road and bridge repairs and launched a marketing campaign to lure visitors back for the fall.
"We were very concerned at the end of September that our message was not getting heard that roads were reopened and we were ready for business," said Megan Smith, commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing.
"But October has proved to just be extremely busy," she said. "People have been attending fundraisers and visiting communities that were hardest hit and having a very generous spirit."
Vermont draws about 3.6 million visitors generating $332 million in spending between September and November, said the Vermont tourism office's operations chief, Greg Gerdel.
Experts say the most brilliant fall foliage changes occur when the days start to shorten but the weather often stays pleasant.
For the best so-called "Indian summer" colors, trees need plenty of rain and lots of sunshine during spring and summer.
Considered one of the best fall foliage viewing spots in the country is northern New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains, which reopened in September after two weeks of repairs.
"So far, tourist traffic has been really, really good for us," said Kim Barnes, tour manager for Travel Kuz, a bus company based in Gill, Massachusetts that features trips to the "Kank," as it is known locally.
"All three tours going out this weekend were sold out," Barnes said.
(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)