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A 'forever home' destroyed in Barre leaves one future uncertain

 A two-story brown house that's partially collapsed
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
The remains of Rhoda and Doug Mason's home on Portland Street in Barre. The Mason's cashed out their 401k after Doug retired so they could purchase the property outright.

Families across Vermont have been mucking out their basements and tearing out drywall to get their homes suitable for occupancy after the floods. For other people, there is no house to return to.

Doug and Rhoda Mason lost their home in Barre, and all their belongings, in a landslide that nearly killed them on July 11. And the couple, in their 70s, is trying to figure out how they’ll afford new housing on the social security benefits they subsist on.

Doug and Rhoda met each other in the 1970s, when they became co-workers at a Washington County nonprofit that served people with developmental disabilities.

Asked what it was about Rhoda that first caught his attention, Doug didn’t miss a beat.

“Her personality,” he said.

They got married in 1979. Three years later, when Rhoda got pregnant, they purchased a home on Portland Street, in Barre.

The modest two-story structure has been a place of gathering and love ever since, first with their five children, then their 14 grandchildren, and now, their 13 great-grandchildren.

“This is where we were going to live the rest of our lives,” Rhoda said as the couple surveyed the remains of their home last week.

Those plans for their forever home changed profoundly in the early-morning hours of Tuesday, July 11, when Rhoda heard a loud “crackling.”

 Two people standing in front of a partially collapsed house
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Doug and Rhoda Mason, standing outside the home they've lived in for the past 41 years.

“I said to (Doug), ‘I think a tree just came down,’” she said.

Doug went outside to assess the situation and found a giant tree on the roof of their car. From inside the house, Rhoda heard more trunks snapping on the hill in their backyard.

“And I yelled to him, ‘You better come in, we need to call 911.’ He came in, we both went in the living room,” she said.

Doug made the call. As he explained the situation to a dispatcher, their living room ceiling fell on top of them.

“I ended up on my knees in the corner where the dog sleeps, and (Doug) was pushed up in his chair, still on 911, telling the woman, ‘You need to get somebody up here — the house just collapsed around us,” Rhoda said.

The nearly 8 inches of rain that had fallen on Barre was too much for the steep hillside behind their house to bear. Trees and soggy earth had pushed the house 8 feet off its fieldstone foundation.

Doug and Rhoda were miraculously uninjured, but the house was still heaving and creaking above them.

“I was so afraid because I could hear creaking and I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Rhoda said. “So I grabbed a cell phone to call our daughter here in Barre, to let her know that we loved family, and we didn’t know what was going to happen but the house had collapsed around us.”

It was a goodbye call, she said.

Firefighters eventually extricated the Masons and their 16-year-old dog and took them to a nearby hospital for observation. Since then, they’ve been staying a few nights at a time with different children, all of whom live in Vermont.

 A hillside that was stripped of trees and earth after a landslide
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
The remnants of a landslide that destroyed Doug and Rhoda Mason's home on Portland Street in Barre.

They’re not sure if they’ll be able to collect family heirlooms from inside before the structurally compromised building is demolished. Doug said people try to reassure them that it’s just stuff.

“But that’s not true,” he said. “There are things in there that can’t be replaced.”

Things like their marriage certificate, baby pictures, the Christmas village Rhoda sets up in the same spot every year.

“That’s irreplaceable,” Doug said. “There’s no possible way of getting that back again."

Rhoda quickly interjected — “But we’re just happy to be alive.”

Happy to be alive, but at a loss about what comes next.

“We really have no clue what we’re doing,” Rhoda said.

Doug cashed his 401k after he retired from IBM to buy the house outright, so they live on social security, plus the small amount they make stocking local stores with Hallmark greeting cards part time.

Rhoda turns 73 next month. Doug turned 78 on the same day the house collapsed.

“Happy birthday to me,” Doug sang sarcastically.

Doug said he’s been using humor to navigate the loss. Rhoda always laughs at his jokes. But they’re two people in their 70s whose only wealth was tied up into a brown house that looks like it’s going to crumble into a pile any moment now.

They say insurance isn’t looking promising. And the maximum amount homeowners in their situation can get from FEMA is $41,000.

More from Vermont Public: A guide to the FEMA aid process for flooded Vermont homes

Their kids have started a GoFundMe account to help them get into an apartment.

“So that maybe we can get some money … because you have to pay your first and your last and I don’t even know what — deposit. And we don’t have that, you know?” Rhoda said.

In the meantime, the Masons are doing their best to find moments of happiness and reasons to laugh. They talked with Vermont Public last week, a day before their 44 wedding anniversary.

“I think we’re going to McDonald’s for our anniversary,” Doug said. “About the only thing we’re going to be able to afford.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:


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