WILLIAMSTOWN -- As the water rose, town officials scrambled to tell residents remaining in The Spruces Mobile Home Park that they needed to leave.
It was the morning of Aug. 28, 2011, and Tropical Storm Irene had been dumping rain on the area for hours. Water was pouring off the hillside across the street from the retirement community, blocking Main Street (Route 2), and then gushing into the low-lying park. The Hoosic River, which ran behind the 225 mobile homes, was moving fast enough to turn it milky brown with kicked-up sediment.
Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said last week that the fire department had set up three, six-hour shifts the day of the storm beginning at 6 a.m. Each shift was manned by six firefighters, he said.
"By 10 a.m., we had struck the bell, and had everyone report to that station," he said. Between the evacuation at The Spruces and the calls they were receiving for flooded basements, they needed every person they had, he said.
Spruces residents who could, drove out of the park, while others boarded a school bus that was navigating the flooded streets. While some residents went to stay with family or friends, about 40 people went to the emergency shelter that had been opened at the elementary school.
Town Manager Peter Fohlin said that in the days before Tropical Storm Irene hit, town officials knew from the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., that it would be a momentous event.
"We know it starts to be a problem at 11 feet," he said. "We met with the management of The Spruces and the tenant association on the Saturday before the storm. We warned people to evacuate to the homes of family or friends, or a motel if necessary, and remove their vehicles from the park."
Prior to Tropical Storm Irene, The Spruces had experienced flooding on other occasions, most recently in 2004.
Just before noon, the swollen Hoosic River jumped the 12-foot berm at the northeast end of the park, sending water crashing under the homes nearest to it. In the hours that ensued, firefighters had to rescue five people from The Spruces by boat, and many park residents realized that what was happening was much worse than any flooding the park had experienced before. The river ended up cresting at 13.75 feet, more than three feet above its flood stage of 9 feet.
"We learned that everything we feared would come true," Fohlin said. "We also learned that when a community works together, we can save lives."
One year later, The Spruces, which was a premier retirement community for decades, is now decimated. Only 66 homes have been cleared for occupancy by the town, and the remaining 159 have either been demolished or are uninhabitable. A lawsuit was filed by the owner of The Spruces, Morgan Management, in October 2011 seeking court assistance in determining the future of the park, and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office has also gotten involved. Recently, Morgan Management withdrew a motion it had filed in November 2011 seeking court orders to resolve issues at the park that it had been dealing with following Irene.
Selectman Thomas Sheldon, who was chairman of the board during Irene, said the flooding of The Spruces and the aftermath have been one of the most heartbreaking things he has witnessed.
"It's emotionally overpowering to see people's lives destroyed. It's shocking, but at the same time as town officials, we have to start thinking about what we are going to do about it," he said.
While the future of The Spruces has been in limbo since the storm, Fohlin said he isn't worried about it closing.
"The town of Williamstown and the Attorney General will not allow the park to close in a way that does not allow the residents ample time and opportunity to participate in new housing," he said.
In the meantime, the mobile homes that did survive the storm are in no less danger than they were in 2004 or 2011, he said.
"The Spruces residents are an important part of our community, and we must find safe places to live for those who wish to live here," he said.
While it's obvious the park, which is in an 100-year flood plain, should have never been built in the first place, "that is the way things were done in the ‘50s," he said.
Fohlin said he has been working with Bob and Kevin Morgan, of Morgan Manage ment, with the knowledge of the company's mortgage holder and the state Attorney General, "in an attempt to craft an outcome that will provide safe, secure and worry-free housing for the remaining residents of The Spruces, and any of them who wish to return to Williamstown."
"That is all I can say about that at this time," he said.
He added that he hopes Williamstown as a whole can look back at Tropical Storm Irene and its aftermath as a time when everyone came together to help each other, and were dedicated to keeping Spruces residents in the town.
Calls to Bob Morgan last week weren't returned.
To reach Meghan Foley, email