by Scott Stafford
The Berkshire Eagle, 05/04/2016 06:02:00 AM EDT
WILLIAMSTOWN — When the floodwaters receded from the Spruces mobile home park in August 2011, more than half of the 225 units were left uninhabitable.
For many residents of that community, the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene marked the beginning of an ordeal that would last nearly five years.
Within two days, a number of efforts popped up to raise funds and find shelter for the victims. About a week later, the various efforts coalesced into an organization that soon would be named Higher Ground.
“At the time, it was very chaotic,” said Susan Puddester, president of Higher Ground. “Some people lost cars as well as their homes. Some of them couldn’t even go back into their homes to get their stuff because of the damage. It was really frustrating for them. Very upsetting. And looters have been a concern through the whole process.”
Higher Ground now has fulfilled its mission to offer assistance and relief to more than 300 former residents of the Spruces with the help of hundreds of donors, thousands of volunteer hours from towns people, college staff and students and dozens of local companies. It also took millions of dollars gathered from the federal government and local contributors.
The last resident moved out of the park in the last week March, and demolition crews have removed all structures left on the property. During the coming weeks, utility crews will be removing electric and phone lines and other utility infrastructure from the property. Eventually, what is left of the roads will also be removed.
The only thing left will be the matched pair of lions at the entrance, the trees and the adjacent pond.
Torrential rains from the storm — as much as 9 inches was reported in some Northern Berkshire communities — swelled the Hoosic River over its banks and inundated the community of mostly retirees.
Some flood victims had relatives or friends who took them in, but many others needed food and housing — quickly.
“There were quite a number who needed places to stay, and we were negotiating with different hotels in local towns for good rates,” Puddester said. “We were also providing them with gas cards and food cards.”
Other accommodations shortly after the storm included vacant faculty apartments provided by Williams College. A number of pets had to be boarded or put into foster care for a time.
“That was a really big concern for them because they were being separated from their pets,” Puddester said.
She noted that many of the Spruces refugees, most of whom lost everything to the flood, were in hotels through October of that year. Volunteers at Higher Ground helped them through the next phase, finding permanent accommodations.
All of this took not only volunteer hours, but lots of money.
According to Higher Ground volunteer Cathy Yamamoto, $90,000 was raised from local donors immediately after the flood. Another $307,000 was raised locally after Higher Ground was formed. Altogether about 800 individuals contributed money to the cause. That funding was used to help with immediate needs and with cost of relocation to permanent housing.
And dozens of local organizations and corporations, including many Berkshire County banks and churches, made grants to Higher Ground for disaster relief.
About $6.2 million in FEMA funds also went to the town, which hired a relocation expert to help the victims through the transition. The federal funds also helped with cost of relocations, and will be used to purchase the property from Morgan Management.
Yamamoto also noted that over the last four years, there have been about 50 people involved with Higher Ground as board members, advisers and volunteers, and more than 50 Williams College students and alumni, along with groups like the Gale Hose Company and the Girl Scouts, who volunteered for the cleanup sessions at the Spruces. Several Williams College student groups raised money for the effort.
“It was a great community effort,” Puddester said. “There were lots of donations large and small to help with the cause.”
Eventually, Higher Ground began working with the college on replacing the lost housing with something affordable. After a multiagency effort, Williams College donated land and a variety of agencies and others were able to finance the construction of Highland Woods, with 40 units of affordable housing.
About 10 of them were rented by former residents of the Spruces.
“Probably under 30 people were able to stay in Williamstown,” Puddester said. “The affordability of the Spruces was tough to match anywhere, particularly in Williamstown.”
Now that the relocations and relief efforts are largely over, Puddester said, Higher Ground will take the next few months to evaluate its status as an active relief organization.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to begin a mission to help people with a clear goal, and to be able to sit back and say ‘We did it,’ ” she said. “It just shows what you can do when people pull together like this town did.”
As for the vacant housing community, once all the details are worked out, the town will finally purchase the property from Morgan Management for an as yet undetermined amount which is expected to be the range of $4.5 million, according to Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch. Ownership could transfer as early as this month.
Meanwhile, the Spruces Land Use Committee, appointed by the town, is exploring potential uses for the property.
According to Dr. Thomas Hyde, committee chairman, voters at the May 17 town meeting will be asked to authorize $41,500 to pay for an engineering study to evaluate the land for use as a recreational area.
After surveying residents, several options were proposed, including hiking trails, a parking area with water permeable surfaces, an open-air covered event stage, rest rooms, soccer fields, picnic tables along the river, boat access to the river, a toddler playground, and ice skating on the pond.
“I think it will be great for local residents to have access to that land,” Hyde said. “It has great views and it’s just a real nice area.”
Hoch said the lion statues at the entrance will likely be cleaned of the peeling paint and remain on guard, as a Williamstown landmark and a gateway to what will become a town park.
“They’re a symbol of that site, and sort of another welcome sign for folks coming into town,” he said. “So we’d like to leave them there.”