In Aug. 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Hoosic River and destroyed Williamstown’s Spruces Mobile Home Park, starting a years-long exodus that may reach some resolution this year with the construction of Highland Woods, an affordable housing project.
Former Spruces resident Cheryl Amato recalled the day before the flood: “My grandmother was always talking about the flood of ’38 and it was almost like she was tapping me on the shoulder.” Amato evacuated safely, but upon her return to look at the damage, she “got out, took a look and started to cry.”
Her home and 159 others that sat in a flood plain of the Hoosic River were flooded and had to be condemned. Only 66 homes survived, rendering nearly five percent of Williamstown’s population homeless that day.
In the week after the storm, former Spruces residents Don and Wendy Linnean had to move from one shelter to the next. First, they spent a day at Williamstown Elementary, then three days at Sweetwood of Williamstown Retirement Living Community, and then four days at St. John’s Episcopal Church with the Red Cross. Finally, after spending approximately one month with friends in Hancock, Mass., they moved to their current residence at Cozy Meadow in Pownal, Vt.
Along the way, the Linneans made trips back to the Spruces to clean out their waterlogged mobile home. Morgan Management, the last in a series of owners of the Spruces, told the owners of the condemned mobile homes that they were responsible for taking them out of the park. Morgan Management was not available to comment, but residents claim that the owners did nothing to help clean up the park. According to the residents, Morgan Management restored utilities to the undamaged section of the park, but refused to help remove fallen trees or clear out mud from the flooded section.
One former resident spoke on the condition of anonymity because she disobeyed Morgan Management by staying in her trailer after it was condemned because she feared burglars. She said that there was a security truck at the front entrance to the park, but that did not stop her neighbors or others from stealing from her. She would leave her home locked and then return, even during the day, to find her door open and something stolen. Eventually, she had to move out because winter was coming, and because her home was condemned she could not get gas or other utilities running to it.
Student volunteers from the College helped some residents break down their homes into dumpsters. Former Spruces resident Roseanne Marsh said that during the storm she “had five feet of water outside and three feet inside,” her trailer and the volunteers took it “out in two big dumpsters.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave residents who did not have flood insurance the market price of their lost homes and belongings. Many of those with homes that were not condemned needed to repair them to bring them back up to code. Many residents simply abandoned their homes.
The town paid homeowners to remove the abandoned homes and the homes of those leaving the park. This left the residents such as Amato, Marsh and the Linneans, who had been told to clean out their homes themselves feeling betrayed.
Today, only 27 homes are occupied at the Spruces. Marion and Hazel Wilkin, sisters who have lived at the Spruces for 35 years, are two such residents. Their home survived the flood, because it was on higher ground, but they lost their storage cabana and everything in it.
The remaining residents will have to find new homes by Feb. 29, 2016, when the town will close the park. The town intends to prevent any future development on the flood plain.
Many residents will continue to leave Williamstown, but some, including the Wilkins, have entered the lottery to live in Highland Woods.
Berkshire Housing Development Corp.’s Highland Woods development, which is intended to serve the remaining residents being forced to leave next winter, began construction in Dec. 2014. The $12.6 million development will be three stories tall and will have a mix of 40 single and double rooms available for low-income households.
It is located at the end of Southworth St. in Williamstown behind the Proprietor’s Field housing complex in a four-acre parcel of land donated by the College for the project last year. Before the College’s donation, town residents had argued over several other possible locations for the new development, including the former Photech Mill on Cole Avenue, 59 Water St. and the Lowry property.
Although the development is intended for the displaced Spruces residents, many are not interested in moving there. The reason, Amato explained, is that Spruces residents valued their independence. In the Spruces, residents owned their own mobile homes, so renting apartments at Highland Woods would be a loss in personal control over their property. Many Spruces residents had pets that they fear they could not take into apartments, and many maintained personal gardens, which they would miss at Highland Woods.
Marsh also explained that more than anything else, she and her fellow former residents miss the community of the Spruces. They miss the holiday parties, the pool, the library and the recreation room. They miss seeing their friends at meals and having bonfires together. Highland Woods will also offer communal spaces, but with the Spruces community scattered, those spaces will lack familiar faces.
In addition to members of the community moving away to different towns and states, many of the more elderly members have died since the storm. Marsh, like other residents, does not want to return to Williamstown. With her community in ruin, she says the town only has bad memories to offer her.