Tuesday August 28, 2012

At a ceremony over the weekend marking the one-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene's devastating pass over the Berkshires, Rosanne Marsh was looking for closure.

"I lost everything," said Marsh, a former resident of the Spruces Mobile Home Park in Williamstown. "I'm OK with it now. I'm lucky."

The storm hit a year ago today, dumping between 4 and 9 inches of rain onto ground already soaked from a month of off-and-on precipitation. Across the Berkshires, roads washed out and homes flooded.

Since then, progress has been made, but the hardest hit areas are still recovering.

The Spruces

Nowhere in the Berkshires is the wound still as raw as it is at the Spruces, a retirement community that was stricken by flood waters when the Hoosac River crested.

Of the 225 mobile homes, 159 have now been demolished or condemned and only about a third of the park's 272 residents have been able to return to their homes.

What was once a tight-knit community dispersed, and because of new building codes, it's unlikely many more residents will be returning, town officials said.

For Marsh that hurt still stings.

"What I lost was my community," she said. "My friends are scattered all over the place. They're not my neighbors anymore."

Many former residents have moved on to new apartments and homes. Marsh said she was lucky to find an affordable four-room unit in North Adams.

But others have struggled to find new living arrangements, and Higher Ground, a community organization that formed in the storm's aftermath, is working with the localities to address a shortage of affordable housing units in the northern Berkshires.

Even the residents who were able to stay in their homes face uncertainty. The park's operator, Morgan Management, has said it can't continue to operate the park with so few occupants paying rent. The company didn't return calls for comment, but the state attorney general has gotten involved. Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin said his impression is that the state won't allow Morgan to close the park.

Hard rain, wet ground

Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y. say Irene itself wasn't that impressive a storm. But the rain that preceded it led to extensive flooding in the Berkshires, New York state and Vermont.

"Basically the soil was very wet and close to saturation," said meteorologist Hugh Johnson. "Along comes a storm that puts down 6 to 13 to 15 inches of rain. During a normal storm, some of it could have been absorbed, but almost all of it ran off and that's why we had the epic flooding we did."

While the storm began as a strong hurricane, it spent most of its life as a weak hurricane, and had faded to a tropical storm by the time it hit the Berkshires, Johnson said

Still, tropical storms in New England are fairly rare. Johnson said that they hit only once a decade on average.

"It was definitely one of the nastier ones," he said. "We'll remember it."

Not all parts of the county were impacted equally. The northern Berkshires fared particularly badly, as did the hill towns in the eastern reaches of the county, while Pittsfield and most surrounding towns suffered from only routine and minor flooding.

Johnson said the higher elevations in eastern stretches of the county are to blame for the unequal distribution of rain.

He said storms typically blow into the Berkshires from the south. Irene, a tropical system moving in from the coast, hit from the east. When the storm moved into the county and over the hills, the moisture condensed and fell, Johnson said.

Surveying the damage

The storm cost Berkshire County municipalities at least $6.25 million, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agen cy. That figure is based only on damage that was reported for reimbursement to FEMA.

FEMA has committed to covering $5 million of the tab, the bulk of which has been set aside to repair damaged roads and bridges.

But a year after Irene, only $2.9 worth of work has been completed, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Administration, which is in charge of distributing FEMA funds.

"There's still obviously work to be done," said MEMA spokesman Peter Judge. "The recovery from events like this takes so much longer than people anticipate that they will."

Judge said it's up to individual cities and towns how quickly they can complete the work. Whether the work starts de pends on whether a municipality can come up with the funding to make up the difference between the project's actual cost and the 75 percent of that total that is covered by FEMA.

The repairs have played out differently in different places.

In New Marlborough, where dozens of roads were damaged, crews were wrapping up the final project last week.

Many other towns have a "dangling piece" left to take care of, as North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright put it. In North Adams, it's Crest Street. The city put repairs for the roadway out to bid last week.

In Adams, Town Meeting is charged with deciding whether a $200,000 bridge replacement project should begin. In Great Barrington, a portion of Seekonk Road that was undercut by the Green River remains closed.

Even as they're still dealing with repairs a year later, all the communities seem to appreciate that they could have gotten much worse.

"We were very lucky," said Alcombright. "Look at the Spruces and the high number of displaced individuals whose homes were ruined. Look to our north, to Wilmington and Readsboro, Vt., and all that happened there."

New England Newspaper reporters Phil Demers, Jennifer Huberdeau and Meghan Foley contributed to this report.

To reach Ned Oliver:
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