Select Board Chair Andrew Hogeland leads Saturday's memorial ceremony.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A decade after Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Spruces Mobile Home Park, one of the chief legacies is the knowledge of just how easy it was for the storm to wreak havoc on a vulnerable population on the edge of town and edge of consciousness for many of its residents.
"That night, we realized many of us couldn't afford to stay in a hotel," Carol Zingarelli said of her fellow Spruces residents. "I appreciate what was said earlier about so many people living on the edge.
"Living in Williamstown, people don't think of Williamstown like that."
Zingarelli was one of several former residents among the several dozen attendees at a ceremony Saturday afternoon marking the 10th anniversary of the storm that ultimately led to the mobile home park's closure.
She said it was something of a silver lining in Irene's storm clouds that it heightened awareness of Williamstown residents who don't fit the stereotypical image of the relatively affluent North Berkshire community.
Select Board Chair Andy Hogeland, who helped organize Saturday's ceremony, said the town needs to use the memory of the Spruces to spur increased efforts to address affordable housing needs in the town.
"Let's recognize that what happened to the people here is part of our common history, but that history has not gone away," Hogeland said. "I don't think that before Irene many of us thought that so many of our neighbors lived with so little. The shock opened our eyes to the fact that so many people live with so little of a safety net.
"And the conditions that confronted them then still confront other people today."
The need for affordable housing was a common theme throughout the commemoration, which came two days after Williamstown celebrated its largest subsidized housing project in years and on the same day Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity showed off its latest home on Cole Avenue.
Another theme: remembering the hundreds of Williamstown residents who called the Spruces home before the town was forced to close the flood-prone park under the terms of a hazard mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bilal Ansari called the Spruces, now a community park operated by the town, sacred ground and recalled family and friends who lived in the park.
"The first person I buried who died [after Irene] lived at that corner," Ansari said, pointing out the spot where the residence once stood. "Part of the reason he died was he believed this place was sacred, and he didn't want to leave.
"He died fighting."
Brian O'Grady, the director of Williamstown's Council on Aging, talked about growing up in the town and meeting the Spruces' residents — first as a boy exploring the park on his bike and later as a professional helping to serve its largely retiree population.
"I remember we drove by one day, and I said to my dad, 'What is that?' " O'Grady said. "And he said, 'That is a neighborhood where people live in small houses.'
"It was an extraordinary neighborhood with people who lived extraordinary lives. It wasn't a trailer park. It was a neighborhood where people lived in small houses. It was a great neighborhood with a lot of extraordinary people, and I'll remember it forever."
Tom Sheldon told the crowd how he remembered the Spruces in the immediate aftermath of Irene.
"I was here that day when the flood occurred," Sheldon said. "But the memories that are most enduring for me were the next day. What I saw was the stuff of people's lives on the ground in front of their homes. It was one of the most tragic and heart-breaking scenes I ever witnessed."
Sheldon, the chair of the Select Board in August 2011, was the first representative of that body to the board of the Affordable Housing Trust, which Sheldon continues to chair today. On Saturday, he praised the efforts of the town's employees to get the Spruces residents to safety and work a deal with FEMA that gave the residents some compensation in the face of a pending closure by Morgan Management, which owned the land and rented spots to the owners of the mobile homes.
But Sheldon also acknowledged the town's failure to replicate the park elsewhere in the community or to fully address the housing needs that were thrown into stark relief when Irene hit.
"I am proud of the short-term and longer-term response to the tragedy here," Sheldon said. "At the same time, I regret that more was not done for our neighbors here. I carry both pride and pain from the events here, what I consider the most cataclysmic event in the history of Williamstown.
"Thank you for coming today. Let's keep fighting the fight."
Williamstown.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.