WILLIAMSTOWN - Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel installed themselves in Berkshire County on Wednesday, opening up two disaster recovery centers to field questions from residents of The Spruces Mobile Home Park and others who sustained home or property damage in Tropical Storm Irene.
The Williamstown office, staffed by representatives from FEMA, the state's Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration, saw 39 people as of late afternoon in its 430 Main St. location, most from The Spruces and a few from nearby towns.
"These are all seriously needy cases," said FEMA employee Richard Gerrior. "We need to spend time with each." FEMA and the SBA are helping people fill out applications to determine their eligibility for immediate help such as rental assistance or home-repairs grants.
At The Spruces, whose 270 residents were evacuated due to heavy flooding last Sunday and have been displaced since, 10 trailers may be livable "soon," according to Building Inspector Michael Card, pending restoration of electricity and gas.
As for the rest, the number of condemned trailers rose from 24 to 59 on Wednesday, and the approximately 160 units left will be inspected Thursday and Friday, according to a town news release.
The condemned buildings are not necessarily permanently unlivable, Card said.
"Once the conditions are corrected, you can move back in, certainly," he said.
Williamstown's Department of Inspection Services "has waived all fees for Spruces residents for building, electrical and plumbing permits," according to a bulletin from the town.
Many residents are staying with relatives or friends, but there are about 80 who have instead been living in local hotels. Continuing to fund their rooms until FEMA rental assistance grants come in is a persistent problem, several leaders said.
With the opening of the FEMA disaster recovery center, the state's disaster assistance center at Williamstown Elementary School closed Wednesday. The Red Cross shelter at St. John's Church closed Tuesday, according to a press release.
FEMA representatives were adamant that anyone needing any kind of assistance register with both FEMA and the SBA.
"Let FEMA determine your eligibility. Register. We're here to assist everybody," said public information officer Alberto Pillot. Back at The Spruces, Roger Boucher, 72, and his wife, Judy, were checking out their trailer Wednesday afternoon.
In Boucher's living room, mold has overtaken the arms of a large easy chair. FEMA and the Red Cross had been very supportive, the couple said, but they were still confused about what to do with the flooded room and were anxious for the electricity to turn on so they could dry it out.
"We're not going to be able to live in there until the air is clear," he said. "We don't know what to do."
In the midst of the otherwise hushed atmosphere, a water fountain in The Spruces' roadside pond gave off a different vibe - specifically, a message to the town, according to tenants association vice president Dave Rebello.
"That's to say we're going to do it: This place is going to reopen one way or the other. Kiss our butt," he said.