This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
From elderly couples to young families, residents of two manufactured home communities devastated by this summer’s flooding filed into the Berlin Elementary School gym on Monday night. It was the first time many had been in one place since scattering two months ago, bunking up in tight quarters with friends and family across central Vermont. As kids raced around and people wheeled walkers to their seats, former neighbors compared notes on navigating a circuitous federal disaster aid system that has so far come up short for many.
State officials had gathered the residents of the Berlin Mobile Home Park and River Run Manor, also located in Berlin, to bring some hopeful news. The state of Vermont will now compensate owners of flooded and condemned manufactured homes up to $41,000 — the maximum award the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides to repair or replace a home. The assistance will work in tandem with a state effort to remove flooded manufactured homes at no cost to residents.
In a number of cases, the state has determined that flooded manufactured homes were completely destroyed, while FEMA has considered them repairable, which reduces the amount it will pay out to residents. Now, the state is stepping in to bridge that gap, while not duplicating any disaster assistance people have already received.
“What we’re going to do to help, while we’re trying to help close the gap, we know that’s still not going to be enough,” Alex Farrell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, told residents on Monday night. “While we’re doing everything that we can to help, we absolutely know it’s not going to make you whole.”
The state decided to put up its own money after discovering that — unlike after Tropical Storm Irene — FEMA is not always paying out the maximum award for manufactured homes that were so damaged that they have been officially condemned.
“At the start of this, when the flooding happened, it was our understanding that the owners of condemned mobile homes as a result of the flooding would receive the maximum award from FEMA,” Farrell said. “We quickly learned that FEMA changed their process.”
FEMA officials have indicated to the state that “they no longer view the state condemnation as relevant to the award that they issue,” Farrell said in an interview Tuesday. “Even if state officials, fire safety officials, health officials say this unit is condemned, cannot be inhabited — FEMA is not taking that into account.”
FEMA spokesperson Briana Summer Fenton said in an email that the agency won’t automatically determine an applicant is eligible for the maximum award when a condemnation notice is given “because local authority determinations could be based on non-disaster-caused circumstances.” She said FEMA works with applicants who submit these notices during the appeal process “to verify their loss and process additional assistance if eligible.”
Only manufactured home owners who rent a lot in a park are eligible for the state funds, and their homes need to be officially condemned in order to access the money. Those who own the land underneath their home won’t qualify.
The compensation from the state will take into account any money manufactured home owners have already received from FEMA or flood-related insurance payments. For those who have sold their flooded homes, the sale proceeds will also be subtracted from the amount they receive from the state.
This financial assistance from the state will supplement a state effort to deconstruct and dispose of flooded manufactured homes, at no cost to the homeowner.
As manufactured home owners have gone back and forth with FEMA on appeals, state officials and community advocates have advised them to keep their homes in place so as to not jeopardize any potential financial assistance. But that has meant many residents continue to be on the hook for rent as long as their homes remain in place – even when they can’t live in them.
This new stream of state money, along with deconstruction help, could finally give residents a clear path out of their leases. Farrell said the governor’s office is working on scheduling meetings for the residents of other hard-hit parks — Black River Mobile Home Court in Ludlow and Highland Heights in Johnson — over the next few weeks. “We know people have October lot rent coming due soon,” he said.
Residents who are satisfied with their current FEMA award and are ready for their condemned home to be taken can reach out to the governor’s office directly to figure out next steps and get their compensation payment processed. Those who are still navigating the appeals process – but know they will want their home taken when they’re done – should notify the state once the appeals process has been completed.
The contact for the governor’s office is Tracy Delude: Tracy.Delude@vermont.gov or 802-828-3333.
State officials acknowledged that $41,000 likely won’t come close to covering all that residents lost in the floods – or be enough to purchase a new home. According to a 2022 state report, the average price for a new manufactured home was $107,800 last year; used homes sold for an average of $44,687.
“To do more, larger programs, we’re most likely going to have to work with the Legislature,” said Chief Recovery Officer Doug Farnham on Monday night. “I don’t think this is the end of what we need to do to help you.”
The new funds came as welcome news to many residents. But many shared that they’re still figuring out where to stay long-term — and are bracing for more upheaval.
Sara Morris had lived at River Run for 16 years. In the months before the flood, her family had poured around $10,000 into fixing up the home: new floors, new heating ducts, a washer and dryer. It’s the only home her kids have known. Her family is now staying with her mom: nine people in a three-bedroom home in Barre.
She’s interested in pursuing temporary housing from FEMA, she said, but she’s worried about what happens when the 18 months of FEMA housing expires. Her middle child has taken the disruption hard — he’s been angry, she said.
“I don’t want to uproot them, to uproot them, to uproot them, to uproot them,” she said.