Irene Showed Vulnerabilities And Value Of Mobile Home Parks

08/21/12 7:50AM By John Dillon
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VPR/John Dillon
Weston resident Sandy Gaffney shows off her new porch.

Every Irene flood survivor has their own story about when they first realized this was no ordinary storm.

For Red Gallagher, who lives at Weston's mobile home park in Berlin, the moment came when he saw the Dog River spread like a rising tide over the road and toward his home.

"I see the water come up through here like this, like it does on the ocean on the shore, when it comes up deep, and I said: ‘oh no. It's happening,'" Gallagher recalled. "So I put my birds in the car, and my dog backed out and by the time I go over there we had a foot and a half of water."

When Irene tore through the state last year, the floods took a particularly heavy toll on those who could least afford it.

Like Gallagher, many residents of mobile homes lost everything - including the roofs over their heads. The re-building process has been slow, and, in some cases, incomplete. Several parks remain closed.

Gallagher drove up to higher ground and spent a long night waiting out the flood from the shelter of his van.

"So that night I stayed right up on First Street, and watched it," he said. "I didn't believe it. It just happened."

The storm highlighted the vulnerabilities of mobile homes, but also their importance as affordable housing.

The Weston's park was devastated by Irene. Of the 83 homes in the neighborhood, 70 were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by the floodwaters.

The park was closed for months as buildings were torn down, repairs made to water and electric systems, and the ground elevated to protect against future floods.

Weston's was not alone. The floods did disproportionate damage to mobile homes. One hundred fifty four homes in 14 parks around Vermont were damaged in Irene and in an earlier spring storm.

Before Irene hit, Dan Baker, a professor at the University of Vermont in the department of community development and applied economics, was studying the vulnerabilities of mobile home parks to floods and other natural disasters.

"Irene unfortunately confirmed a lot of the issues that we were concerned about," he said. "Roughly 20 percent of the parks in Vermont have at least one mobile home in a flood plain.

And those flood plains turned out to be a risky place to live. Fifteen percent of all the homes damaged last August were mobile homes.

Baker and his team of UVM researchers found that the parks are susceptible to floods, both because of their location, and because of the construction of the homes themselves. The residents also face challenges in recovering as they're often on fixed incomes or don't make enough money to financially survive a catastrophe. And since they don't own the land their homes sit on, they're dependent on park owners to repair the property before they can move back in.

"Irene highlighted the vulnerabilities," Baker said. "And I think right now in kind of the reconstruction period, it also to some extent highlights the opportunities."

One of the positive developments that Baker said came out of the storm is the awareness that mobile homes are a key component of Vermont's tight supply of affordable housing. And, he said, Irene inspired mobile home residents to organize, and advocate for themselves

Some, like Weston's resident Sandy Gaffney, lost her home but then found her voice.

I thought, this is where I can make a difference. This is where I can have power with other people," Gaffney said.

The Weston's homeowners faced numerous problems after the flood, from insurance issues to unscrupulous contractors.

With the help of the Vermont Workers Center, Gaffney became a community leader. She spoke out at select board meetings, organized residents, and watchdogged issues at the Legislature.

"Other people didn't feel comfortable doing that. And even though I didn't either at first, I became more comfortable doing that, because it means so much to me," she said. "And if that's something that has to be done, I will do it."

Gaffney is back at Weston's now, and proudly shows off her refurbished home.

"I have hardwood floors in the dining room area, and the kitchen area. I have tile in the front foyer," she said.

Her favorite feature is a new, covered porch.

"It's totally awesome and I cannot wait for it to be finished. So I have a lawn chair here right now, so I can just sit out here and feel the breeze," she said.

Nearby her home, heavy equipment grades gravel for another mobile home. About 30 sites are now occupied and owner Ellery Packard hopes to get back to full occupancy soon.

But reopening parks and making them more flood resilient isn't cheap. The non-profit corporation that owns the Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, for example, spent $400,000 dollars to improve the site.

And some owners simply haven't had the resources to move quickly.

Ed Patterson sits at his mother's kitchen table in Duxbury. He talks about the struggles they've faced in re-opening the park she owns after Irene. All 19 homes were destroyed. And although five people want to move back, the site near the Winooski River isn't ready.

"You know if we had a big checkbook, you could have gone out and hired somebody and been done by now," he said. "But we don't have that big check book."

Patterson says it's been a challenge meeting the state's permitting requirements for the water system. And it's expensive.

"My mother's got a family business, and my two brothers and I help her maintain it. And we're not a company; we're not a corporation so we don't have a lot of access to those kinds of resources," he said..

Mona Patterson will turn 88 in February. She estimates the repairs overall - to the water and electric systems and to elevate the sites - will cost $50,000. Yet she refuses to consider closing the park for good.

"My husband left it for me in good shape and I want to leave it to my boys in good shape," she said. "That's all there is to it."

Her son Ed continued the thought: "I think we're committed to helping to those that were here to maintain their livelihood because they're as much a part of the family as the four of us are today."

The Pattersons hopes to re-open by late fall. But there's no guarantee that parks like Patterson's or Weston's won't flood again. Climate models predict heavier and more frequent storm events. Dan Baker at UVM is worried about the future.

"The vast majority of mobile home parks and mobile homes that were at risk before Irene are still at risk," he said. "I think our hope is that some of the ones that have been relocated into parks that flooded are better secured and elevated to protect them."

Much of that work has been done at the parks that have re-opened. The homes and fuel tanks are anchored; house lots were raised above historic flood levels.

Baker says residents have to be consulted in any discussions about re-locating parks. He says the parks offer friendly neighborhoods, stable communities and the promise of home ownership.

"And there aren't a lot of other good options," he said. "Aside from the fact that it would disrupt their lives to move, but move to where? And people don't want to be taking a step backward, where they're spending more for a house maybe that they don't own. They want to be moving forward. And I think that's our question: how do we use the lessons of Irene to significantly change the landscape of affordable housing in Vermont?"

Baker says he's confident that changes can be made. He says that since the storm the public, non-profit organizations and state officials are focused on finding better locations and better designs for affordable housing.

At Weston's park in Berlin, Red Gallagher doesn't ever want to move again. Like Sandy Gaffney, he's proud of the new porch on the front of his red mobile home. But is he worried about future floods?

"No, I don't worry about floods," he said firmly. "Bah! Don't bother me at all. If it started raining like hell, I'll just go to bed, I don't care."

Gallagher says he likes the people around him, and he appreciates owning his own place. And like other residents, he said the rented apartment he found last winter was just too expensive.

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