In Brattleboro, Advocating, Exhaustively, For Flood Relief

11/07/11 7:50AM By Nancy Eve Cohen
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VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
Ariel Nelson of Brattleboro Flood Relief talks with Robert Chamberlain, whose trailer was damaged by the flood. Volunteer Sam Phillips listens in the background.
(Host) More than two months after Tropical Storm Irene, some people are still repairing their homes and getting ready for winter. In Brattleboro, some people need help navigating through FEMA-and finding money for repairs. VPR's Nancy Cohen reports on one woman's efforts to advocate for them.

(Cohen) Ariel Nelson has an unusual resume. She's repaired motorcycles, danced in a burlesque troop and is a trainer of teachers. After Irene slammed through this petite Vermonter went to her home town of Bethel to help out. When she got back to Brattleboro she heard not everyone was getting assistance.

(Nelson) "I heard something through the grapevine that West Bratt needed help."

(Cohen) So she headed over to Mountain Home Trailer Park in West Brattleboro and began knocking on doors. Since then she's got a handful of lawyers and contractors to donate their time. She's coordinated other volunteers to clean up debris. And she hasn't stopped yet.

(Nelson) "So three, five, seven probably looks urgent. You can tell they got hit. I think we should at least go and meet these guys and introduce ourselves and see what they need."

(Cohen) Nelson says flood victims often need FEMA regulations explained or help cleaning up.

(Nelson) "You see how messed up the land is the land got trashed?"

(Phillips) "Whose responsibility is that to fill that in?"

(Cohen) That's Sam Phillips. He's trailing Nelson today. So is his friend Sam Schwartzkopf. Nelson is training the two young men and others to work directly with people in need. They watch as she talks to 74 year old Robert Chamberlain whose lived in his trailer here for 20 years.

(Nelson) "My name's Ariel Nelson and I'm doing a lot of relief work for parks."

(Robert Chamberlain) "Oh, you are."

(Nelson) "Has insulation been removed?"

(Robert Chamberlain) "Insulations fine just needs to be jacked up and that log moved underneath the trailer."

(Cohen) Sam Schwartzkopf stoops and peers under Chamberlain's trailer. It looks like an entire forest was deposited by the flood.

(Schwartzkopf) "[It] looks like there's no insulation left. Really looks like river went right through here. Some of the cinder blocks are loose not doing anything."

(Nelson) "Did you get money from FEMA to help with this?"

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
Oil tanks were pulled away from trailers in the August flood.

(Robert Chamberlain) "[I'm] supposed to."

(Nelson) "I know a lot of people are supposed to. Doesn't mean they're getting it! That's what we're here to do help with FEMA. We have lawyers working for us for free. We have a lot of services."

(Robert Chamberlain) "They keep saying they're going to send it and they never do."

(Cohen) FEMA has been by. But no one has offered direct help. Chamberlain's biggest problem on this October day is heat. His oil tank is out of commission. The same is true with his neighbor, 79-year-old Virginia Welch

(Nelson) "You don't have any heat right now?"

(Welch) "They had to tank my oil tank out because it was leaning against the trailer. It's sitting right there."

(Cohen) Welch and Chamberlain are using their stoves to keep warm. Nelson introduces them to her two new volunteers

(Nelson) "Now these guys over here, this is Sam and Sam - easy to remember. They're here to help you guys out. We're getting people to do contracting work for free, insulation work for free. They're going to help you and keep track of everything that's going on in your situation. We need to get you heat really quick."

VPR/Nancy Eve Cohen
Virginia Welch doesn't want to leave her trailer home even though the area was flooded in August.
(Welch) "Yes, that's what I'm saying too."

(Cohen) The two Sams came back here several times since that day.

They've phoned FEMA, cleared out the tree trunks and rocks from under the trailers. And with help from other volunteers got the oil tanks reconnected - and the heat back on

Ariel Nelson concedes she's no expert in disaster relief. It keeps her up at night.

(Nelson) "You know I get scared because I don't know what I'm doing and I don't want to fail the people and I'm very public now and of course there'll be great satisfaction when the places are winterized again."

(Cohen) Nelson says the initial burst of volunteer efforts after Irene have dropped off. She says help is still needed, especially from people who can volunteer time and labor.

(Nelson) "This is what I believe. I feel people should take care of each other often in this country it's too much the individual and not enough of the community."

(Cohen) Nelson is getting help from the community. A contractor is installing insulation, at cost. She says the trailers should be insulated within a week. And she expects to scale back her on-the-ground efforts after the trailers are buttoned up for the winter.

For VPR News I'm Nancy Cohen.

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