Nearly two-thirds of the homes in the Spruces Mobile Home Park were damaged beyond repair by Tropical Storm Irene a year ago.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Aug. 28, 2011, is a date no one in the Spruces Mobile Home Park can forget, and a date that few want to remember.
But on Saturday, Aug. 25, current and former residents of the retirement community will gather to commemorate the day that flooding from Tropical Storm Irene changed their homes and their lives forever.
Higher Ground, the interfaith nonprofit service group formed in Irene's aftermath, and the Spruces Tenants Association will hold a celebration of the resilience shown by former and current residents on Saturday at 1 p.m.
"I think for one thing, it will bring residents past and present together," said Helen Leavens, who moved back to her home after the waters receded. "We don't get to see the ones who were displaced and are no longer living in the park.
"Another thing is there are a lot of people who donated time and money to help after the storm – more than we could have ever imagined. ... It will be nice to see a lot of those people and be able to personally thank them.
"The main thing is to let people know we are still here, and we are surviving, and we hope to survive for years to come at this park."
Leavens and her husband moved to the Spruces three years ago, she said. The couple sold their home and cashed in their 401(k) savings to purchase a home for their "golden years."
Their dreams of a peaceful retirement were dashed on the last Sunday in August last year.
"My husband and I kept saying, 'we're not going, we're not going, we're not going,'" Leavens said. "It was 10:30, and the firefighters came in, and I said, 'We have to go.'"
Though relative newcomers to the Spruces, the Leavens had heard of the park's propensity to flood, but like most residents they were not emotionally prepared for the impact of Irene. The storm forced the Hoosic River to the north to overflow its banks and sent a tidal runoff from higher terrain to the south into the low-lying park.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be this horrendous," she said.
The Leavens spent the night of the 25th at the Howard Johnson's Hotel across the street and then stayed with family in Easthampton while waiting for the OK to return.
And, like many of their neighbors, they came back to stay.
"This is our place," she said. "It was a beautiful park. We're hoping someday it can be restored back to what it once was."
Drive through the Spruces today, and you can still see the beauty, but you have to look past the devastation to do so.
Dozens of well-kept homes with careful landscaping and playful lawn ornaments are a testament to the spirit that will be celebrated on Saturday.
But turn your head left or right, and you cannot miss the vacant pads where mobile homes once stood. Some have been totally cleared off; on others, the home is abandoned and surrounded by weeds. Occasionally, only pieces of mobile homes or piles of water-damaged debris remain.
"The upside is the homeowners who were able to move back into the Spruces," Higher Ground coordinator Robin Lenz said. "There are about 65 households and about 100 people who have returned. One hundred fifty-three homes were destroyed, and about 65 became habitable again.
"Those who were able to return had to improve their homes in such a way as to make them able to withstand a similar flood. ... Many problems were discovered and repaired. The homeowners who are back are living in safer homes than they had before the flood. That's a good thing."
It is also good the way the larger community came together to support the Spruces residents, Lenz and Leavens agreed.
Lenz's group was born of grant money secured by the local Episcopal church, and she credited the Rev. Peter T. Elvin of 2nd Congregational with getting the ball rolling. But Higher Ground is an interfaith group, and a good example how town residents from different walks of life played a role in the recovery effort, Lenz said.
"The first responders and Peter Fohlin, the town manager, who is our emergency manager, performed their jobs perfectly and beautifully," she said. "They got everyone out and made sure everyone was safe.
"Before the federal government could make itself a presence, it was the local churches who stepped forward to put roofs over people's heads. The role of the churches cannot be stressed enough."
The churches and others will be honored at Saturday's event, which will feature a bagpipe tribute, words of remembrance and an ice cream social and music until 3 p.m.
"I have no idea how many people will come," Lenz said. "In addition to all current and former Spruces residents, we've invited all the individuals and organizations who donated either through Higher Ground or through the Community Fund for the Spruces.
"So many organizations donated. People came out of the woodwork. It was astonishing to me to see such a wonderful response to people in need. ... Part of what we wanted to do, the Tenants Association and Higher Ground but mostly the Tenants Association, was to use this as an opportunity to express our deep-felt thanks for everything everyone did."
As a self-described amateur historian, Lenz said it also is important simply to recognize the upcoming anniversary of the town's worst-ever natural disaster.
Current and former residents, and representatives from organizations that aided them after the storm, will commemorate the day this Saturday.
Two other upcoming events also will honor the memory. On Sept. 16, the David and Joyce Milne Public Library will host an appearance at the Williams Inn by author Craig Brandon, whose new book "Good Night Irene," chronicles the storm's impact in New England. On Sept. 15, the Williamstown Community Chest's fifth annual Fun Run will honor Higher Ground.
This Saturday's event, while recognizing the loss and upheaval caused by the storm, will not be a solemn occasion.
"It's a celebration of the spirit of resilience," Lenz said. "That's really what it is. People have come so far with the aid of the community and through their own strength and the strengths of their families."
That strength continues to be tested as current and former park residents look to the future. Some former Spruces tenants have permanently relocated. Some are still in temporary homes. And the ones who are back in the park are left to wonder just how long they will be able to stay.
Morgan Management, which owns the park, recently withdrew a lawsuit against the town, state and residents, but the western New York firm has not said whether it will continue to operate the park on a long-term basis.
In court documents filed last November, Morgan Management claimed that, "In order for the Spruces to operate functionally and financially, eighty (80%) percent of the two hundred twenty-six (226) home sites need to be occupied and paying rent."
If the current number of occupied homes stays at about 65 (and no one is saying it will go much higher), that would make for about 29 percent occupancy of the original 226 sites.
"Maybe two or three years down the road, they'll say, 'That's it. It's closing,'" Leavens said. "It's just a waiting game now.
"What we like to say in our family is: It is what it is, and it's going to be what it's going to be. We're just hoping it goes in our favor.
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