Sandy Gaffney knew that August 28, 2011, would be a bad day for her and other residents of Weston's Mobile Home Park in Berlin. Tropical Storm Irene was pummeling Vermont, and water was approaching her home across the flood plain.
"I called up my sister and said, 'We're coming over,'" Gaffney recalls in Strength of the Storm, a documentary from Burlington filmmaker Rob Koier.
Later, Gaffney would see photos of her flooded trailer on Facebook. Some of her neighbors were rescued by bucket loader. When the storm ended, the newly homeless Weston residents faced the challenge of finding housing and paying the $5000 sticker price for disposal of their mobile homes. Seventy in the park were damaged beyond repair.
Koier learned about the Weston Park when he went out to film the devastation with volunteers from the Vermont Workers' Center, who had "noticed that there was a lack of help going to the mobile home communities," the filmmaker says in a phone interview. He eventually decided to focus on the park and "look at Irene through the lens of poverty."
The VWC hired Koier on a freelance basis to make a 55-minute version of Strength of the Storm to promote its efforts. With the organization's blessing, Koier gathered more footage and later created his own 42-minute cut. That version premiered at the Vermont International Film Festival last fall and will screen this Friday at Burlington's Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center through a partnership with the Peace & Justice Center. (A portion of ticket proceeds will go to the PJC and the flood survivors featured in the film.)
Koier documents how a group of Weston residents refused to become casualties of the storm, attending selectboard meetings and holding press conferences to make sure their story didn't get lost in the maelstrom of disaster-related news. Their efforts paid off late in 2011, when fundraising by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group yielded a sufficient sum to haul off the damaged trailers.
Koier says he's learned that natural disasters tend to bring issues of income inequality to the fore: "You can't build houses in a flood zone, but you can put mobile homes there." For that reason, he argues, the film's issues remain relevant even as Irene recedes in the rearview mirror. "Inequality in our country gets worse and worse ... There's still mobile homes in flood zones, and all these people are still vulnerable." The doc is also, he notes, about "showing the effects of [climate change] on people's lives."
That's an issue Koier envisions addressing in one of two narrative screenplays he has in the works: One is a "preapocalyptic film set in the near future" that is "inspired by documenting the hurricane," he says. He's also working on another doc and on getting Strength into festivals and onto public television.
And Gaffney, who had to abandon her home on that August day? The former caregiver now works at the VWC; for her, the storm's aftermath was a journey into activism. "Through working on these issues, she basically found her voice and her strength as an organizer," Koier says.