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The Spruces: Only vacant land remains

Related | After Spruces flood, Higher Ground charity rose to help the victims

WILLIAMSTOWN — Carol Zingarelli clearly remembers that chaotic day in August 2011 when firefighters helped her and her three panicky pets out of her home, through the floodwaters wrought by Tropical Storm Irene, and on to safe shelter.

The previous night, she said, residents of the Spruces mobile home park were told to get out, but the park had weathered other storms, so most of them stayed.

But by morning, the rain-swollen Hoosic River rolled spilled over its banks and headed straight for the park. In all, the storm dumped up to 9 inches of rain on Northern Berkshire communities.

Firefighters had come through the park earlier in the morning again to urge residents to evacuate to a shelter that had been set up in the gym of Williamstown Elementary School. But pets weren't allowed. So Zingarelli, like many others, refused to leave their pets to the rising river.

Around noon, as the water was threatening to spill over her front doorstep and into the house, Zingarelli recalls, the firefighters returned and the evacuation — pets included — began in earnest.

And so did commence an emotional, yearslong transition for residents of the neighborhood, which was devastated by the storm.

That transition is now complete. The last of the park's 325 residents moved out in late March, and the remaining structures have been razed.

The once-tight knit Spruces community of mostly retirees has now scattered throughout the county and beyond; only about 30 were able to find lodging in Williamstown. The vacant park is now desolate, but the memories remain, as do the stately matched pair of lion statues marking the entrance to a neighborhood that no longer exists.

"It was a wonderful community," Zingarelli said. "And that's what it was — a community."

A transplant from Denver, Zingarelli had moved in just three months before Irene. At 58 years old, she was ready to settle in.

"I was convinced this was going to be my last place to live," she said, "and of course it got washed out from under me."

On the day of the flood, she finally got to the shelter with her dog and two cats in crates. Exercise mats had been spread out over the gym floor for folks to sleep on.

Zingarelli was recovering from a recent stoke, and had limited movement. And all the pets in the shelter were agitated, as were most of the displaced flood victims. Knowing she wouldn't be able to get any rest, she rented a room at a local motel that allows pets, and the four of them stayed there for two nights.

She had the chance to return to the park later that afternoon to check on the fate of her home.

"The water was over the windows of the mobile homes and the rec center," she said. "And the water was still pouring in from all sides. It was coming from everywhere. I knew at that point that the mobile home park would no longer exist."

Zingarelli lost everything in the house. Because the damage to the trailer's support structure, she wasn't permitted to go back inside for three more days, leaving everything inside soaking wet in a closed and flooded trailer.

"There really wasn't anything that could be salvaged," she said.

After two nights in the hotel, Zingarelli was out of money, so she checked in with the Red Cross, but it was apparent that state and federal emergency relief efforts were spread thin by Irene's wrath along the East Coast.

With no place to stay and nothing left to live on, about a dozen evacuees, including Zingarelli, decided to try to find help at a church. They stopped in at the First Congregational Church of Williamstown.

The pastor of the church at the time, Carrie Bail, and the former church administrator, Gail Burns, told them to relax. The pair then started contacting parishioners, who quickly came through with help.

"They told us, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you,' " Zingarelli recalls. "Within an hour, we each had hotel rooms for a week, gas cards, and gifts cards for food. That's really how we got through that first couple of weeks."

With the need for shelter and food taken care of for the near term, the Spruces refugees were now in a holding pattern waiting for FEMA and the Red Cross to respond.

But from the beginning, a loose group of volunteers had started raising money and handling logistics of housing and food for the flood victims. The group gelled quickly, with Susan Puddester at the helm of an energetic, focused and growing team that named itself Higher Ground.

It was a gargantuan effort that involved local churches, Williams College students and staff, and other individual community members, with Higher Ground coordinating the effort to provide Spruces residents through the difficult transition physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially.

"Higher Ground started raising money, and the Williamstown Community Chest got involved, and FEMA funding started coming through," said Zingarelli, who now serves on the board of the organization.

She wound up staying in a motel for three months.

"Really it was the local folks who came to the rescue," she said. "There was even emotional support. People were in shock. Our lives were in shambles. But they opened their arms to us, said 'We are here for you. What do you need?' "

After three months, with help from Higher Ground, she bought a mobile home from another Spruces resident whose trailer was among about 66 that were still habitable, but had decided to get out. At the time, the fate of the Spruces was still undecided.

So Zingarelli moved back into the park,.

"It was a very frustrating process for all of us,"she said. "[The information coming out] wasn't consistent. We really didn't know what was going on. I knew they would close the park at some point, but there were a lot of people who were hopeful they could stay in their homes."

By October 2014, it became clear that the park would close, with March 2016 set as the deadline. Along with more than 100 others, Zingarelli started looking for another home in Williamstown.

But because of her compromised mobility, Zingarelli needs to live on the ground floor. And she had three pets, and she needed something affordable. She was unable to find anything in Williamstown to meet those criteria.

She found a place in Northampton, and now drives back to Williamstown periodically for meetings of the board of directors of Higher Ground.

"Higher Ground is a remarkable organization and I am so honored to be a part of it," she said. "The heart and soul of that group was to help out the people of the Spruces. The community, Williams College, the churches all worked with Higher Ground. It was amazing, all that pulling together in a campaign of good will for folks in real trouble."

But still, having been gone from the Spruces for more than a year, the sight of the empty park prompts an emotional reaction for Zingarelli.

"When I drive by there now, it all comes back — the flood and a flood of other memories," she said. "It's pretty devastating."

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.