WILLIAMSTOWN -- Carol Zingarelli recalls what life in her neighborhood at The Spruces used to be like before the tropical storm. People on leisurely walks. Conversations, laughs with the folks next door. A comfortable place to live.
Most residents saw The Spruces as the place they'd call home until their dying days.
But Irene would have it otherwise.
On Aug. 28, six months ago today, torrents of rain -- nearly five inches within the span of a day -- descended. The Hoosic River, bordering the park's north end, surged. The Spruces would be swallowed by the water to become the most devastated community of any in the Berkshires.
Today, scores of homes in the retirement community off Route 2 remain condemned. Dirt patches mark the spots where mobile homes once stood. Others have been fixed. A few homes were on ground just high enough to go unscathed.
For all of the more than 300 people who called the place home, Irene would leave her cruel twist in their lives.
Yet for some people, enduring Tropical Storm Irene and its aftermath would make them stronger.
It never occurred to Carol Zingarelli that her home might be in danger.
"I don't think it registered because the people that had lived here for many years were saying, ‘Don't worry about it, we've flooded before. It's never really been serious.' So that's what I expected."
Zingarelli, 56, had just moved into the Spruces in April 2011, four months before Irene.
She needed an inexpensive place to retire and focus on her recovery. She had family in Massachusetts, and she saw an ad on Craigslist offering a trailer at an affordable price.
In the process of buying her new home, the fact that the Spruces is in a flood plain never came up. But when the Hoosic River crested on Aug. 28, the water that rushed into the park destroyed her modest trailer, ruined her furniture and eventually even forced her to give up her dog.
The firefighters knocked on her door at about 11 a.m. on the morning of the storm. Water was pooling around the stairs to her front door. The rescuers helped her pack up her pets. Zingarelli left without giving the situation too much thought.
"I still wasn't really taking it seriously," she recalled. "I still thought I'd be back that night when the rain stopped."
Instead, Zingarelli was one of about 30 residents who would spend the next three months living in motel rooms in Williamstown and North Adams, living on junk food and a FEMA allowance. She gained 27 pounds and her health suffered. And because it was the height of fall foliage season, on the weekends, she had to drive to a Motel 6 in Springfield because all the motel rooms in Berkshire County were booked up by leaf peepers.
Zingarelli was eventually able to buy a trailer at The Spruces that only sustained minor damage from an elderly couple that wasn't up to repairing it. She moved in mid-December. The new home cost her $1.
The whole experience has been unequivocally horrible. Zingarelli, however, is focused on what she describes as the incredible acts of compassion that graced her life in the aftermath of the storm: The priest at the local church, who was the first to offer real help and housing, the neighbors who helped her clean out her wrecked home and the community that is still rallying together to find long-term housing solutions for the displaced.
The one thing that still throws her, though, is how her neighborhood has changed.
"I've been through a lot in my life. The thing that impacted me the most is it's not the same park. It's just a few streets now," Zingarelli said.
"People would always be out walking, having conversations, laughing. Now it doesn't have that.
"I used to walk around the park, but now -- it's, you know, depressing."
Of the 225 homes in 38-acre park, 213 were occupied by more than 300 people.
Today, only 64 mobile homes have received certificates of occupancy, while 158 will never be lived in again. Of the condemned ones, 54 have been razed and 104 are on the list to go.
Some Spruces residents have moved to other states, but most have found new living situations locally. As many as 50 people are still in temporary living situations, and many others are still awaiting financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"There's a tremendous amount that still needs to be done," said Robin Lenz, who heads Higher Ground, an organization formed to help residents of The Spruces. "People affected by this kind of disaster, they expected within six months to be back on their feet. And that so many are not it makes it even harder because you thought it would be better by now."
In the days that followed Irene, the water receded and the devastation became evident. Several inches of mud covered the scene and personal possessions had been scattered throughout. But with the damage came an outpouring of support.
FEMA soon arrived to provide assistance. More than $100,000 in private donations were raised to help victims find shelter and pay for necessities, such as gas and food.
Six months later, questions about the site remain. Williamstown Town Manager Peter L. Fohlin said it's the responsibility of those who receive a grant from FEMA to pay for the removal of their former homes, and it's the responsibility of the property owner, Morgan Management, to remove the rest.
Morgan Management last October filed suit in Berkshire Superior Court, naming the town and the state Attorney General's Office in the suit, asking a judge to make a determination of responsibility, both financial and physically, for the site. According to court documents, the company requires 80 percent occupancy at the site to remain viable. In The Spruce's current state, Morgan Management argues that it's "unable to provide the level of services" it did before Irene.
New England Newspapers staff writer Andrew Amelinckx contributed to this report.