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Displaced by floods, Berlin manufactured home park residents seek to prevent a repeat disaster

A woman stands on a road and looks toward a manufactured home park lot
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
Corinne Davis Cooper looks at the site of the home she lost when the Berlin Mobile Home Park flooded during the July 2023 flood on Wednesday, June 5, 2024.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

BERLIN – Last spring, Corinne Cooper planted a garden around her home at the Berlin Mobile Home Park. Cooper, 60, moved there in 2021 after a divorce prompted her to leave her home of three decades. She expected her stay at the park to be brief as she got back on her feet, but the garden was a gesture toward rooting there: She planted strawberries and onions and cherry tomatoes, and put up a fence to defend the seedlings from woodchucks and deer that roamed the riverfront park.

“I’ll never know how well it would have gone,” Cooper said of her small garden, staring at the patch of dirt where it — and her home — once stood.

In July of 2023, floodwaters ripped through the Berlin Mobile Home Park. The 32-unit park, which lies between the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River and a set of railroad tracks, filled up like a bowl. The park had seen flooding before, but never like this: dozens of homes were totaled, and their inhabitants scattered.

Corinne Davis Cooper looks at the site of her former home.
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
Corinne Davis Cooper looks at the site of her former home.

Many manufactured home communities across Vermont face degrees of flood risk: many were built before regulations were in place that would have prevented them from existing where they do. For a handful, that danger hit home last summer. But the devastation at the Berlin park stood out among observers as some of the most widespread and dramatic. All of the park’s homes sat inside the river’s “floodway,” according to a 2023 analysis by the University of Vermont.

That’s the highest risk designation given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Kelly Hamshaw, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at UVM who has studied flood risk at manufactured home communities in Vermont for well over a decade. “It just means that that’s where the river is going to expand.”

Nearly one year later, much about the fate of the park — and the people who lived there — remains in limbo. While Cooper’s home no longer sits on the lot she rented, she has no idea where it has gone. As of early June, her old porch and shed were still there, askew, weeds growing up around them. Several of her old neighbors’ empty homes lined the road down the middle of the park; through a window, chairs surrounded a dining room table, as if the home’s former inhabitants had just gotten up from a meal.

A kitchen table with utensils is seen through a window
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
A kitchen table with utensils is seen through a window at the Berlin Mobile Home Park on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Homes at the park were severely damaged in the July 2023 flood.

Cooper has served as a sort of unofficial mayor for the park’s former residents in the year since the flood. She keeps tabs on their efforts to find new homes in Vermont’s tight housing market, as she searches and searches for one herself. Even as she struggles to find a stable home, Cooper, and many of her former neighbors, are adamant about one thing: No one should ever live at the flooded-out park again.

On a visit to the park in early June, she was disturbed to see signs of construction. Some small apartments, nestled among the old manufactured homes, appeared to have been rehabbed. A lot near the entrance to the park looked recently graded. New-looking manufactured homes were stationed in a parking lot right outside the park’s entrance.

Looking around, Cooper filled with worry.

“It’s just really devastating to think of anybody being down here, because it’s going to happen again – it’s just a matter of when,” she said.

‘These homes need to be destroyed’

Days after the flood, Randy Rouleau, the owner of the park, told residents he did in fact plan to reopen. “We have no intention of closing it permanently,” he wrote in an email, adding that if residents chose to return, they may “have to put up with some ugly surroundings but it may be more affordable than the alternative of other types of housing.”

Residents were by and large not tempted by the offer.

But for the first few months after the July flood, they were stuck. As long as their flooded homes remained where they were, Rouleau expected them to pay the monthly $490 rent on their lots. Yet residents had few decent options to get the damaged, mold-infested homes off their hands. If they sold too quickly to manufactured home dealers like Mike Bilodeau — who showed up at the park after the flood, leaving notes on people’s doors that read “We pay cash for flood homes” — they risked losing their ability to get recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Berlin Mobile Home Park seen on Wednesday, June 5, 2024.
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
The Berlin Mobile Home Park seen on Wednesday, June 5, 2024.

Then, in September, Gov. Phil Scott’s office swooped in with a solution: The state would take ownership of the totaled homes and remove them, and give residents extra funds when FEMA aid or insurance came up short. The move finally gave residents of the Berlin park a path out of their leases — and a degree of closure.

But that sense of relief didn’t last long. In late October, Rouleau, the park owner, contacted Scott’s office. “I am uncomfortable with homes being demolished on site,” he wrote in an email obtained by VTDigger/Vermont Public.

Rouleau explained that, after seeing the state deconstruct manufactured homes at another flooded park he owns nearby, River Run, he worried the process would damage the park infrastructure. He asked the state to transfer ownership of the homes to him — so he could allow Bilodeau’s company to transport out some of the remaining homes and demolish others.

The state ultimately agreed to Rouleau’s proposal. “Although that is an extra step we had not anticipated, this will save State funds that would otherwise be used for the demolition and allow us to use those funds for other flood relief efforts,” Tracy Delude, Scott’s director of appointments, wrote in an email to residents in early November.

Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director, explained in an interview in June that the state would have risked legal liability had any property been damaged during the removal process. And, she said, because many of the flooded homes were officially condemned after last summer’s flooding, they would need to pass an inspection before anyone could live in them again. The agreement between the state and Rouleau emphasizes that if any of the homes were to be used again, they would need to comply with state health and safety standards.

Bent and mangled metal sits in a pile
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
Homes at the Berlin Mobile Home Park were severely damaged in the July 2023 flood.

The pivot made little material difference to the park’s former residents — they would still get compensated by the state, and would no longer be on the hook for their homes. But for some, it signaled that the state wasn’t taking seriously the risk of people living at the park again — and potentially in previously flooded homes.

Greg Quetel, another former resident of the park, worried the flooded homes would be shoddily rehabbed, with unsuspecting residents ending up living in them. After Tropical Storm Irene, Bilodeau bought up many flooded manufactured homes and flipped them to sell or rent in numerous parks he owns, according to Seven Days. Bilodeau was at the Berlin Mobile Home Park in mid-June, “getting the units out of here,” he told a reporter. Reached by phone several weeks later, Bilodeau declined to comment on his plans for the homes after hauling them out of the park.

A man rests his elbow on a railing around a small porch outside of a home and looks toward the camera. Yard tools lean against the side of the home.
Carly Berlin
/
Vermont Public and VTDigger
Greg Quetel poses for a portrait outside his home in East Montpelier on June 11, 2024.

It’s unclear where the homes transported out of the park have ended up. But some experts have raised concerns that flooded homes up for resale have not been thoroughly refurbished.

Hamshaw, from UVM, had seen a listing of a flooded manufactured home for sale in central Vermont since July that she suspected hadn’t been properly rehabilitated. Listed for $7,500 — and noted as flood damaged, and being sold as salvage — the home’s floors were still caked in mud. When manufactured homes are flooded, they need to be taken down to the studs and treated for mold growth, she said. She doubted whether the state had robust enough systems to track that condemned, flooded homes were properly rebuilt — and worried that a desperate buyer might take the risk of living in a flooded home, just to get a roof over their head.

“These homes need to be destroyed and that is the only way to assure that this disaster does not continue to victimize people in any way,” Quetel wrote in an email to his former neighbors in November.

Alarm bells

Quetel managed to purchase a used manufactured home in East Montpelier using the funds he received from the state and from FEMA. The place is a fixer-upper: The bathroom needs renovating, and the flooring and plumbing will have to be replaced. He paid about $15,000 for the house, but estimates that the renovations will cost more than twice that. Still, he’s grateful to be in his own space again after living with a friend all fall — and to have landed a home he can afford on his disability income.

Even as he has found some stability one year after the flood, observing the work underway at the Berlin Mobile Home Park — where, as of early June, his old home still sat, abandoned — has put a pallor over his recovery.

“You’re setting people up for life-threatening situations.”
Greg Quetel, former Berlin Mobile Home Park resident

Since his letter to residents last July, Rouleau has largely remained mum about his plans for the park, leaving former residents and public officials in the dark. (He did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.) But with construction work now taking place in plain sight, Quetel and other residents have felt that officials haven’t done enough as their former home appeared to be gearing up to reopen.

“It’s not so much the personal loss…it’s just the concept of knowing what can happen and not doing anything about it,” he said from his new home, in June. “It’s just not right — it’s wrong. It’s inhumane to an extent, because you’re setting people up for life-threatening situations.”

Recently, however, officials have taken notice. One day after Cooper’s visit to the park — when she stood before what once was her garden — a truck poured a long rectangle of concrete near the park’s entrance.

A gravel driveway leads to a spotless concrete pad
Carly Berlin
/
Vermont Public
A new concrete pad appeared to have been recently poured near the entrance to the Berlin Mobile Home Park on June 11, 2024.

This set off alarm bells for Berlin officials, who included a photo of the concrete pouring in a lawsuit filed against the park owner on June 11.

In its complaint, filed in state environmental court, the town alleges that redevelopment work at the park flouts the town’s rules for building in the floodway. The unpermitted work could both endanger the lives of future park residents, the town argues, and jeopardize flood insurance eligibility for people living in Berlin.

“As terrible as it was for all the residents at the park last July, we were in fact lucky that nobody lost their life,” said Berlin’s acting town administrator, Ture Nelson, in an interview. “That’s what we’re trying to protect here, you know, with the permitting and the floodway designations.”

In a court filing, a lawyer for Rouleau notes that his company, HARR LLC, “is losing $20,000 per month for each month it is unable to restore its mobile home park.” Unlike the park’s residents, the lawyer writes, Rouleau “has not received any compensation for his staggering economic loss.” The lawyer also claims that the park should be grandfathered in under the town’s floodplain building rules, since it’s been in existence since the 1960s.

On June 21, the court ordered Rouleau to stop pouring more concrete at the park, and to halt construction there — except for repairing water damage to existing homes. The next hearing in the case is set for July 11, one year after the flood took its catastrophic toll.

Doug Farnham, Vermont’s chief recovery officer, said in a June interview that the site of the Berlin Mobile Home Park would be difficult to protect against future flooding. The park is across a bridge over the river from the main road, making it easily separated from emergency services during a flood, he said. If homes are elevated on stilts, they could still get swept away by fast-moving floodwaters.

In his eyes, the park would be well-suited for a buyout, an option he said officials plan to encourage the owner “to strongly consider.”

‘Waiting for life to begin again’

A buyout would assure that no one will live at the site of the Berlin Mobile Home Park ever again, preserving it as open space where the river can spread out when it rains. That’s the future its former residents want for the park. But removing homes from Vermont’s already tight housing market only puts further strain on the state’s housing stock — and doesn’t help people who lost their homes in last summer’s flooding and are still trying to find somewhere to live.

Cooper is living in a temporary apartment in Barre, funded by FEMA. The place is filled with things tucked away, “waiting for life to begin again,” she said: a single drawer salvaged from her old teacher’s desk, which was ruined by floodwaters; a drawing of horses from a neighbor of her grandmother’s back when she was a little girl, waiting to be hung up again. She recently decided to buy some flowers and vegetable starters — a hump she had to get over, her mind still stuck on her old garden caked under mud.

A woman stands in a room and holds up a drawer
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
Corinne Davis Cooper pulls out a drawer from her old teacher's desk that she salvaged from her flooded Berlin home.

She can stay at the apartment until January of 2025, “but trust me, they want to see you out as soon as possible,” she said. She meets with FEMA workers monthly to talk about her progress looking for new housing.

And that process has been grinding. Cooper wants to stay in Berlin: It’s her community. “That’s where our family has put on chess tournaments and game nights, and you know, been on the school board,” she said. She runs the town’s historical society, and spent close to a decade as the assistant town clerk. These days, she works for the town’s UVM Extension office.

“I want a home — an affordable home,” she said. “I have a decent job — I should be able to afford a home. That was the plan. I don’t want the flood to take that away from me.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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