Spruces residents are escorted into the park to get personal belongings in the days after the storm.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Kaja Ross bought a home in the Spruces Mobile Home Park in 2007.
It was not a universally popular decision in her family.
"My husband was alive then," Ross recalled this month with a smile in her voice. "He thought I was absolutely insane, and so did my children. My dear children called me trailer trash."
Ross knew they were wrong at the time, and she never regretted her decision.
"It was not at all [trailer trash]," Ross said. "I met some really wonderful people there. I loved living on Champagne Avenue.
"I made a lot of friends when I was there. My next door neighbor on one side worked at the Commons here in Williamstown. She was a nurse's aid. She worked nights, and she worked with people who had dementia. I so, so admired her."
Ten years ago this week, Tropical Storm Irene roared through the Berkshires, tearing up roads, knocking out power, flooding the Spruces and setting in motion a series of events that led to the mobile home park's closure in 2016.
Five years after the last resident moved out and 10 years after the rain that precipitated the move, the word that comes up most in talking about the Spruces' residents is "community" — a small town within a small town where nearly 300 residents were left temporarily homeless when the nearby Hoosic River overflowed its banks.
"I was coming from Denver, coming back to this area," said Carol Zingarelli, who moved into the Spruces in early spring 2011. "I have family here in Western Mass. … The day I moved in, many of my friends I went to college were there, and they were impressed with the way my neighbors came over and said, 'We'll check to make sure her lights are on and she's OK.'
"I was amazed by the warmth and the welcoming reception I got. It was a tremendously welcoming community. I loved it. I really did."
Debra Turnbull never lived in the park but became intimately acquainted with the lives of its residents during the process of helping relocate them after Irene.
"When you look at the history of the Spruces, it was a fascinating place," said Turnbull, who was the assistant to Williamstown's town manager during the time of the closure. "They had their own system of government. They had all kinds of amenities — a library, movies, opportunities to go fishing. [Founder Albert] Bachand had strong rules about things like, if you kept your lawn mowed, you could get a break on the rent or if you put up holiday decorations, you could get a break on the rent.
"Those types of initiatives bonded the community. … Everyone was interested in keeping their homes in great shape. Everyone had gardens. I walk at the Spruces all the time, and you see the remnants of their gardens — all the perennials that bloom there. There was a real pride of ownership at the park."
'Waist-Deep in Water'
Many of the residents proudly remained in their homes even as Irene made landfall in New York City and began working its way toward New England.
Williamstown officials saw the potential for problems at the flood-prone mobile home park and met in the days leading up to the storm.
"Everyone and their brother-in-law expected there would be a flood down there," said Brian O'Grady, then and now the director of the town's Council on Aging. "When it became apparent there was a big green blob coming [on the radar maps], we were ready for it. We had a meeting the day before at Town Hall with park managers.
"They had gone around with yellow pieces of paper for people to put in their windows to signify that they had left the park. … It turned out some put up yellow papers and didn't leave."
Zingarelli said some neighbors had very personal reasons for choosing to stay in place.
"We knew by watching the news that the storm was coming," she said. "The park issued a notice that we had to evacuate and that the town had set up a shelter at the elementary school. But we couldn't take our pets with us. So most of us refused to leave because we weren't going to leave our pets behind.
"I was with a group of people who hung on until the very last minute to the point the Fire Department came and helped me get out of there because the rains were getting very high. My front porch was starting to be covered. … That's the point they said we could bring our pets."
Another contributing factor in resisting evacuation orders may have been the memory among residents of a 2005 evacuation. O'Grady said that was the first time the then-new Williamstown Elementary School had been used to house Spruces residents during a flood event.
"I'm not sure we brought them out [in October of 2005], but we went around and told them to get out," O'Grady said. "As the water receded, we sent people home. There was no structural damage or anything like that. … [DPW Director] Tim Kaiser and I went down to look at the water. Another six inches, and the Hoosic would have come over the berm."
Six years later, the river did breach, but the memories of '05 remained.
" was nothing like what we saw during Hurricane Irene," Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said. "I have a sneaky feeling that a lot of people who lived through that one thought, 'It didn't amount to anything.' And it was more of a precaution to get them out of there.
"I think when Hurricane Irene came around, people thought, 'We had this a few years ago and nothing really happened.'"
Some residents were adamant about their desire to ride out the storm in their homes.
"At one point, I was walking around in waist-deep water at the west end of the park," O'Grady said. "I knocked on a woman's door and said we were evacuating. She said she wasn't leaving and slammed the door in my face. I knocked again, and she told me she wasn't leaving without her father, and I explained that I could get her father placed in a nursing home where he'd be cared for. She agreed to that but then she said, 'I'm still not leaving.'
"Later on that day I was at the elementary school, and I turned a corner and saw her in the hall. She looked at me and said, 'Shut up.' "
'Adding Insult to Injury'
If the 2005 evacuation had been a "precaution," the evacuation during Tropical Storm Irene was anything but. When the waters receded, it was obvious that this time around, many of the homes at the Spruces suffered significant flood damage.
On Aug. 29, the town ruled all 226 homes at the park uninhabitable pending further inspection. Over time, a number of those homes were reoccupied, but many had to be vacated for good.
Two years after Irene, just 66 homes were occupied at the park. Morgan Management, which owned the land and rented sites to the owners of the mobile homes, could not sustain the park with that level of occupancy.
Morgan partnered with the town of Williamstown on an application for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The funds gave Morgan a partial return on its investment for the land, the residents a partial return on their investment for the mobile homes and the town funds to help relocate the remaining residents, remove the park's infrastructures (like the recreation hall and paved streets) and create replacement housing.
Then Town Manager Peter Fohlin negotiated the grant application with Morgan Management and sold state and federal officials on the idea. Fohlin also proposed that the "replacement housing" be built on 30 acres of town-owned land off Stratton Road known as the Lowry property.
That part of the plan ran into fierce opposition — first from residents near the proposed building site and later from conservationists who objected to taking land the town currently leased to a local farmer and developing it for housing.
The battle ultimately led to a special town meeting where residents elected for further study instead of deciding which side was favored by the majority of voters. And, although the town had an opinion from its counsel saying the Lowry property is not subject to protection under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, the town's Conservation Commission argued that it was.
Ultimately, the town contributed $2.6 million from the FEMA grant toward the construction of the Highland Woods senior apartments, built on land donated by Williams College near the existing Proprietors Field senior development.
Turnbull is still disappointed that the town chose not to pursue Fohlin's original plan, which ideally would have created single-family, owner-occupied homes on the Lowry parcel.
"We broke up the entire community," Turnbull said. "There was no place for them all to go collectively to re-establish that. That was the hardest part, how devastating the loss of community was to all of them.
"The people of Williamstown were not always supportive of them. They felt they were 'less than.' They felt not necessarily valued by parts of the community. … Peter Fohlin's thought process was to try to create another community for them. The Lowry property would have been a wonderful thing for them to recreate their community in a safer place.
"It kind of added insult to injury. You lost your home, and we don't care enough to find another place for you. It's kind of disappointing, but that's how people reacted."
In winter 2016, the last residents left the Spruces, which now serves as a community green space with walking trails and wildlife habitats beyond the iconic cement lions that guard the entrance on Main Street (Route 2).
'They Mourn that Loss'
Through third parties, iBerkshires.com reached out to a number of Spruces residents to ask about their memories of the park and how they have been able to move on in the 10 years since Tropical Storm Irene.
Several declined to be interviewed. Two who did admit they probably had a better experience recovering from the storm than some of their neighbors.
For Ross, the Spruces was a second home that allowed her to enjoy the Berkshires during extended stays away from her primary residence in Westchester County, N.Y.
"I was not there when [Irene] happened," Ross said. "I was in New York. I did go up a few days later just to assess the damage. This was a very difficult time in my life because the year before, in July 2010, my husband had died after two years of being very sick with lung cancer. It had not been an easy time for him or me, and a year later, this happened."
Since leaving the Spruces, Ross owned a second mobile home in the area before settling in an apartment on Water Street. She still stays in touch with friends from the park and still thinks about her neighbors who lost everything in the flood.
"I really sympathize with them," Ross said. "I'm luckier than most."
Zingarelli, who relocated to the area from Colorado had planned to make the Spruces her "final landing place." Today, she has landed in Northampton.
But first, she spent a few years working with Higher Ground, the Williamstown non-profit born out of the tragedy and dedicated to helping the victims of Tropical Storm Irene.
"Hearing the tragedy of neighbors having to move out of state, having to move in with relatives, not being able to settle — working with Higher Ground is what got me through it," Zingarelli said. "Being the Spruces representative on the board, as tragic as it was, that was actually a wonderful time in my life for me.
"It was a time for me, personally, of realizing how strong I was and that I could manage through tragedy. It was a very good growth experience for me."
For other residents, including those who kept fighting to hold onto their community in the years following Irene, it was a long and painful road.
A map of the mobile homes most affected by the flooding. The map would change over the months and years as the nearly 300 tenants moved out and the homes were torn down.
"I made some really good friends with some of the people there," said Turnbull, who managed the park in its closing days. "Some [residents] probably disliked me a lot, and others were very appreciative of what the town did for them. I'm sure there are some people today who wouldn't have a kind word for me. I'm the one who took away their keys and gave them their money [from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant]. They interacted with me a lot. Some transactions were easier than others. Some said, 'Please, God, get me out of here,' and some didn't want to go."
Turnbull said she returns to the Spruces now to walk the grounds of the park and remembers the faces of all those she helped transition away from the park. She doubts that anyone who worked on the project — from the town manager to the DPW workers who helped tear up the roadways and the pads that sat beneath the mobile homes — was unaffected by the experience.
"I don't think the community of Williamstown at large understood how devastating that was for people," Turnbull said.
"When I talk to [the former residents] now, I don't think they ever recaptured that sense of community. They mourn that loss. Even some of the folks who are living in the same places [like Highland Woods] are not necessarily near people they were close to when they were in the park.
"Some were happy to get out of there, and others left kicking and screaming, and I totally understand both reactions. It was difficult emotionally for everybody, and I don't think people necessarily understood that."
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