Jim Kenyon: Memories of Irene move residents of Woodstock mobile home park to act

Al Pristaw, 80, left, and his partner Pauline Holt, 82, returned to the Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., to find their home intact on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, after being evacuated on Monday due to rising floodwaters on the Ottauquechee River. The couple fared worse during Irene, losing a vehicle in the 2011 flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Al Pristaw, 80, left, and his partner Pauline Holt, 82, returned to the Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., to find their home intact on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, after being evacuated on Monday due to rising floodwaters on the Ottauquechee River. The couple fared worse during Irene, losing a vehicle in the 2011 flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

A shed washed free of its foundation behind the house at left at Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., during flooding of the Ottauquechee River on Monday, and came to rest a short distance away Tuesady, July 11, 2023. After Tropical Storm Irene, all buildings and fuel tanks on the side of the park nearest the river are required to be anchored to the ground and the shed is the only structure that moved during Monday's flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A shed washed free of its foundation behind the house at left at Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, Vt., during flooding of the Ottauquechee River on Monday, and came to rest a short distance away Tuesady, July 11, 2023. After Tropical Storm Irene, all buildings and fuel tanks on the side of the park nearest the river are required to be anchored to the ground and the shed is the only structure that moved during Monday's flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Riverside Mobile Home Park resident Dana Brink, right, looks on as Tom Young, of the Vermont State Housing Authority, left, and Bill Dimmick, of Pump Tech, check the septic equipment before pumping out floodwater and silt on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

Riverside Mobile Home Park resident Dana Brink, right, looks on as Tom Young, of the Vermont State Housing Authority, left, and Bill Dimmick, of Pump Tech, check the septic equipment before pumping out floodwater and silt on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. "In Irene, I got a canoe," Brink said of the boat that washed into his West Hartford yard during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. "Now I've got a basketball," he said of the ball deposited in his yard by Monday's flood. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 07-12-2023 5:15 PM

After losing her home and many of her belongings to Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters 12 years ago, Ethel Davis braced for worst as she made her way back to Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock around noon Tuesday.

“I told myself, ‘If the place goes again this time, I’m outta here, too,’ ” the 65-year-old Davis said after spending Monday night with relatives in Plymouth, Vt.

With the adjacent Ottauquechee River on the rampage, Davis and her neighbors were forced to evacuate early Monday morning. But unlike the fateful Sunday in late August 2011, the river behaved — for the most part.

The Ottauquechee snakes around two sides of the 20-acre park that features three-dozen homes. Route 4 runs on the other side of the river’s steep bank.

Walking through the park on Tuesday morning, I crossed a partially washed-out road and mud-caked lawns. The skirting around several mobile homes had been torn off by rushing water. River sediment was deposited underneath crawlspaces. A backyard storage shed was wedged between a clump of trees but remained intact.

With his elderly parents still staying with family, Brad Shumway worked at repairing their driveway. He smoothed out the mud and gravel with his dad’s lawn tractor, equipped with a small plow.

“It works,” he said, “and it’s easier than using a shovel.”

Riverside, like other parts of Woodstock, was still without water early Tuesday afternoon. The park’s septic system was also shut off while it underwent testing. But improvements made to homeowners’ lots, as well as the state’s use of crushed rocks to shore up the banks in the river’s sharp bends following Irene, seemed to keep the Ottauquechee largely at bay this week.

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“It looks a lot better than the last time,” said longtime resident Steve Frost.

On Aug. 28, 2011, Frost was the last person out of the park. While trying to save his motorcycle that he kept in a shed, Frost was trapped by swirling floodwaters.

With water up to his thighs and using a long stick off his woodpile for balance, Frost headed for the park’s entrance, where rescue workers tossed him a rope.

On Monday morning, Frost and his neighbors avoided such drama.

At about 6:30 a.m., Frost and his wife, Jane Maxham, heard a knock on their door. Woodstock firefighters and police officers were beginning to make the rounds in the 21-acre park. “We’ll be right behind you,” Frost told them.

Bill and Leona Hollenback didn’t hesitate, either. “I took it seriously,” Bill said. “We grabbed some food, clothing, meds, and out the door we went.”

With Cassie, their 16-year-old Pekingese, in tow, they jumped into their pickup.

Unlike some residents, they didn’t spend the day at the town’s fire station, where evacuees were served pizza for lunch. When nightfall came, residents moved to motels or stayed with friends.

When Irene hit, the Hollenbacks lived in another part of the park. Their home weathered the storm fairly well, but seeing uprooted trees and homes knocked off their cinder block perches made a lasting impression.

The Hollenbacks sold their home, but moved back in 2015. “I like it here,” said Bill, 59, a dishwasher at a Quechee restaurant. “It’s peaceful.”

Sue Estes, 83, saw her home destroyed by Irene. She remained in the park, however, purchasing Frost’s home, which her family patched up for her. It survived the latest storm.

“At least this time, I was spared,” she told me.

Jamie Lee Fernandes wasn’t living in the park when Irene came charging through. Monday’s storm was scary enough. More than one neighbor checked to make sure Fernandes, who shares the home with her boyfriend and his two children, escaped safely.

“Everyone here is so helpful,” she said.

On Monday morning, Davis was the first to raise the alarm, so to speak. A flood alert for parts of Vermont went off on her phone at roughly 4 a.m. When she looked out her window, she could see the rising waters.

She called her brother, Everett Chamberlin, manager of Riverside, who lives at the other end of the park. “You better get over here and see this,” she told him. “The water’s coming up fast.”

Chamberlin hurried over. Woodstock’s fire and police personnel responded quickly too. But even before they got to the park, Davis had her daughter, Ashley Putnam, were knocking on neighbors’ doors.

“We try to look after our neighbors, especially the elderly,” Davis told me.

Putnam and her husband have two children, including a 3-week-old daughter. They share the mobile home that Davis and her husband, who died in 2018, bought with an insurance settlement after Irene destroyed their home. They were among the few residents to have flood insurance.

When I stopped by the park early Monday afternoon, it appeared flood insurance might again come in handy.

After leaving my car near the mailboxes at the park’s entrance, I walked behind Davis’ home. The Ottauquechee’s rushing, muddy waters slammed against the river’s banks. A steady rain pelted the metal roofs of the homes in the deserted park. Residents told me that only one of their neighbors — an elderly widower — insisted on staying.

Al Pristaw, a retired optometrist, and his longtime partner, Pauline Holt, live in one of the homes nearest the river.

After being among the many residents who lost vehicles to Irene, Pristaw and Holt moved her Toyota to the front entrance before leaving for a friend’s house.

The couple returned late Tuesday morning to check on their home. Pristaw was relieved to see that his workshop, a fly rod’s cast from the river, was in one piece. (Although he’s too humble to say so, Pristaw is a master fly fisherman who has been catching trout in the river for years.)

He was also pleased to see that his blueberry bushes and raised beds of squash and tomato plants survived unscathed.

Basketball hoops in driveways and swing sets on back lawns speak to the families with young children who live in the park. Many of their neighbors are retirees living on fixed incomes.

Riverside, which started out as a family-owned park, dates back more than 50 years. Residents own their homes but rent their lots for a little under $500 a month.

After Irene, rumors spread that state officials wanted to shutter the park. In their eyes, it wasn’t worth saving.

I suspect some of Woodstock’s upper crust also wouldn’t have minded if the park, known disparagingly as “Tin City,” hadn’t been rebuilt.

But in a testament to residents’ resiliency and help from volunteers, the park came back stronger than ever.

The Housing Foundation Inc., a Montpelier-based nonprofit, hired Dale Snader, owner of Dale’s Homes in White River Junction, to bring the park back to life. Snader’s crew spent five months clearing debris, rebuilding roads and improving homeowners’ lots to reduce the risk of future flooding.

Last year, the Vermont State Housing Authority took ownership. Tom Young, who manages eight mobile home parks for the authority, arrived at Riverside on Tuesday morning.

He’d already lined up Snader to start making repairs. “We’re going to get the park right back to where it was,” Young told me.

Frost, a retired carpenter, was glad to hear it. “Many of us can’t afford to move, even if we wanted to,” he said. “This is our home.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.