While hundreds of volunteers, media reps and post-disaster gawkers flooded through downtown Waterbury on Thursday, residents of the Patterson Trailer Park across the Winooski River in Duxbury quietly salvaged what few mementos and personal treasures they could from their demolished homes.
"I'm just trying to save my little guy's toys and my wife's pictures," said John Santamore, as he spread out dozens of damp family snapshots on a tarp in the sun in an attempt to dry them out.
"My 2-year-old son's hard plastic toys I can wash off, so I can save those for him, but the rest are gone," he noted, pointing to a bright green toy ATV. "And I didn't think I'd be able to dry out these pictures, but it seems to be working."
The rest of Santamore's belongings were stacked nearby, ready for the dumpster.
He and his wife, his 2-year-old son and his teenage son had -- literally -- 15 minutes to grab what few precious belongings, clothes and food they could and evacuate their home.
"Within 10 minutes of when I first saw the water on the lawn, it was up to the bottom of our door," said Santamore. "I turned to my wife and said, 'We've got about 15 minutes to get out of here.'"
They just made it, but they did make it out. His family was staying with his sister-in-law while he sifted through the sodden belongings.The high-water mark in Santamore's trailer was 42 inches off the ground.
Residents noted, however, that the Winooski River backed up into the park from the north, rather than hitting it head on from Montpelier. (The Winooski River flows from Waterbury to Burlington.)
"I was watching out my back window toward the bank at the back of the park, watching for the water to rise," said Santamore. "It wasn't until I happened to look out the front door that I saw the water rising. I'm glad I did."
The Winooski River submerged the park in less than 45 minutes, according to various park residents and the park's owner, Mona Patterson. Her son, Ed Patterson, said he used a canoe to evacuate five residents and at times was up to his armpits in water, helping people escape the rising flood.
While several residents were able to drive out before the water reached the nearby main road, at least a half dozen cars stalled in the floodwaters and disappeared as the river crested.
Mona Patterson's house, which sits at the entrance to the park, was also damaged. Her basement was flooded, and water rose up to three feet inside her home. Her collection of antique dolls, Christmas decorations and handmade dolls was high enough to remain untouched.
The roughly two dozen residents of Patterson Trailer Park know they're not picturesque downtown Waterbury with a sprawling government office complex. But for three days this small community worked largely without outside help or food to get them through.
"When you're just little people like us and are living from paycheck to paycheck -- even a little recognition would be nice, because we can only do this on our own for so long. No matter whether you're wealthy or poor -- we're all in the same boat now," said Mike Lavigne, whose home was also destroyed by the flood. He was watching television that night around 6:20 p.m. when he received a call from his stepdaughter asking him what he and her mom were doing.
"Watching TV," Lavigne recalled telling his stepdaughter. "She then told me I might want to get out, because they were evacuating Waterbury. That was news to us."
Lavigne stepped out of his mobile home, saw the rising water and began to grab his stuff. Then he went next door to the two separate homes where his niece and sister-and-law live and alerted them to get their belongings together and get out. His nephew lived above Mona Patterson's garage and had to evacuate, too.
Lavigne and other park residents don't yet know why Duxbury residents weren't given the notice to evacuate the way their neighbors across the river were.
Lavigne said he and others struggled to dig out from the flood without the kind of volunteer help that neighboring Waterbury was receiving. By Wednesday, patience was beginning to fray, and by Thursday many residents were becoming increasingly angered by the lack of support.
On Thursday, when one park resident drove to Waterbury to pick up sandwiches and water for residents and volunteers, she was initially turned away, said Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury).
On Wednesday, a small crew from YouthBuild in Burlington started helping residents separate items that could be salvaged from those that had to be discarded. By Thursday, this crew of young Burlingtonians was guiding a new crop of volunteers from the Vermont Democratic Party -- marshaled to the park by Stevens -- to the hardest-hit parts of the park.
Stevens has been trying to make sure people don't forget Duxbury when they come to Waterbury, which has been the focus of state media attention and large volunteer efforts.
"This is probably the most impact of anything we've done," said Sarah Davis of YouthBuild. The organization helps youth earn a GED while learning trade skills. In exchange, they provide volunteer work in their community. "You can see the difference immediately here as we're working," Davis said, "where you don't always see that with other projects."
Davis was joined by Peter Nguyen, Jamie Russell and Alan Barrett and crew chief Brian Hsiang.
"This was quite a job for us," said Hsiang. "When we first got here, the thing we did was just to help the residents differentiate between what they could save and what they had to throw away."
The group also removed carpets, appliances and other items that will be discarded in dumpsters beginning this weekend.
"Because we got here on Wednesday, when the other volunteers showed up on Thursday, we were also able to help organize the labor force that showed up, and that was a good feeling for this group -- to provide some leadership while supporting the residents," said Hsiang.
Patterson Trailer Park was one of more than a dozen mobile home parks across the state that were damaged during the flood.
According to the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's statewide Mobile Home Project, the following parks were affected by flooding:
Shaun Gilpin, the program director of the CVOEO Mobile Home Project, said it's too early to determine just how many of the homes in these parks are now uninhabitable.
Gilpin suggests mobile home park residents take the following steps to ensure they receive help. First, they should call the statewide 2-1-1 emergency relief hotline to register their loss. Second, they should file an insurance claim, even if they don't expect the insurance company to cover the losses, because FEMA will need to see evidence of an insurance claim. Finally, they should reach out to their local community action agency, which can help with emergency housing money and find people shelter if they need it.
"It's too early to tell yet how many of the homes are a total loss and uninhabitable," said Gilpin. "That's going to take some time to assess and evaluate."
One problem in many parks -- evident in Patterson by the mixed odor of sewage, mud and kerosene and home-heating oil -- is that the soil has been contaminated by spilled fuel oil. To rebuild these parks, in some instances, will require removing eight to 10 inches of topsoil to get rid of any contaminants.
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