With lawn chairs in a circle and bottled water in hand, a group of about 10 Eagle residents tiptoed around floodwater Friday as they settled in for the evening.
Some residents of Riviera Estates Mobile Home Park have decided that even without power, gas, running water and a working sewer system, there is no place like home.
Rather than moving into a shelter, the residents have banded together amid a mandatory evacuation of the trailer park that began May 22. They’ve had no working utilities since May 15, and even with the Boise River dropping this week, that situation won’t improve quickly.
To Alisha Cowger, her family and her neighbors, Riviera Estates is the community they know and love — and a far better alternative to being displaced in a shelter or other temporary housing for weeks. Cowger, her husband, Jerimy, and their children initially stayed in a 10-by-12-foot sheepherder’s tent pitched at a friend’s house before they decided they wanted to go home.
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Of the 28 residents who returned or never left in the first place, 14 are children. The families make up eight of the 46 mobile home lots in Riviera Estates, Cowger said.
While the evacuation was labeled “mandatory,” law enforcement won’t forcibly remove those who returned to the park. But there are strong incentives for the residents to not stay.
Water in some areas of the mobile home park is several feet deep and the residents believe one trailer’s septic tank may have broken — though the problem home is on the opposite side of the park from where the families sleep.
First responders said they expect challenges if a crisis occurs, something the neighbors acknowledge as a concern. In an evacuated area, paramedics responding to an emergency must first work with other public safety agencies to figure out how to access the area safely, said Hadley Mayes, spokeswoman for Ada County Paramedics. They may need equipment other than a standard ambulance.
From a law enforcement perspective, a response to a call for service in an evacuated area would likely be delayed for the same reason, said Patrick Orr, spokesman for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s why it would be so much better for everyone involved if they would follow the evacuation order,” Orr said.
‘We’re all family here’
Cowger said she knows other people may judge or criticize her family’s choice to stay, but she said she’s taking proper precautions.
She does not let her children play in any stagnant water, bathes them daily, and always uses soap and hand sanitizer, she said. She knows there have been warnings about potential bacteria, but said she thinks the water is no different than if a child were to go swimming at Lucky Peak Reservoir and get giardia. And the water near her trailer is flowing, not stagnant, so she is less concerned about problems like E. coli.
“We take precautions with the water,” she said. “And we obviously don’t drink the water.
“... We’re not bad parents because we wanted to come home with our kids. They were crying because they wanted to come home.”
The community that has formed in the mobile home park’s dry patches has bonded both the adults and children. Cowger said her four children are enjoying the “camping.” The families have laid down wooden pallets to walk across, preventing their feet from sinking into the soggy grass while going in and out of their trailers.
Because streets and lawns were so deeply flooded last week, river water swept in carp and minnows. Cowger said her boys sometimes attempt to catch the fish that swim across lawns and roads.
On Friday, three young boys jumped on a trampoline set up on one of the only lots without water on the lawn. Another child ran through the yard wearing only a diaper, trying to keep cool in the sweltering afternoon.
Resident J.R. VanHoover owns a large pot used for cooking kettle corn. With a generator, he and the other residents now use it to boil water. The women take turns boiling donated water for cooking, washing dishes, bathing — small children fit well in the pot — and doing laundry.
Clothing dries on a series of clotheslines strung across Cowger’s yard.
The West YMCA on Discovery Way lets the residents use its shower facilities every day. Flushing a toilet in the park could cause another septic tank to back up onto the lawns, said VanHoover — so the families must use portable toilets at home, temporarily donated by Porta Pros, a local business.
Resident Clarissa Peterson used a propane grill to boil water on Friday for macaroni salad for the families, dropping ice cubes in the pasta to cool it without a working refrigerator.
“We’re all family here,” VanHoover said. “They help each other and there’s people we would have never met before this.”
The families plan to stay until the floodwater subsides and they see what needs to be repaired. Though the Boise River will drop nearly back down to flood stage this week, a whole host of inspections must take place before power and water are restored — and those can’t occur until Riviera Estates fully dries out.
None of the residents still staying in the mobile home park has flood insurance.
The park’s owner is no longer charging the families for lot rental, residents said. But with gas for generators, propane tanks for cooking, ice and other unusual expenses, the price of camping has been more expensive than the residents’ $440 monthly rents before the flood. Cowger said that for her family, like many others in the mobile home park, it’s still cheaper than a hotel, which they could not afford to stay in for long periods of time.
The Red Cross has continued to check in on Riviera Estates, offering its residents resources and places where they might find help. A shelter at Eagle Church of the Nazarene remains on standby in case any families change their minds about staying.
The aid agency has made efforts to provide the families with food and gas vouchers. Various businesses and nonprofits have donated water, food and other resources, said Chris Volmer, American Red Cross disaster program manager for southwest and north-central Idaho.
Residents showed the Statesman stacks of donated bug repellent to keep mosquitoes from biting the children. Sometimes the spray works, other times it doesn’t, they said.
Volmer said it is common for families to not want to stay in a shelter.
“We want them to come (to the shelter) to get out of that environment,” Volmer said. “But folks have really banded together.”
With tears in her eyes, Cowger said part of what keeps her in the trailer park is a sense of pride.
“This is mine and you don’t plan (for) it,” she said about the flooding. “It’s hard to choose what’s replaceable and what’s not, but my purpose is to help other people (in the park).”
What must happen for Riviera Estates to return to normal?
The start of the process of reoccupying homes depends largely on the floodwater. Ada County officials are monitoring the area daily.
“The entire park will need to be dry before inspectors can take a look,” said Doug Hardman, Ada County’s emergency management director.
The river needs to recede, the water table has to drop and the remaining surface water has to be absorbed into the soil. That could take weeks, Hardman said.
As of Tuesday evening, residents at Riviera Estates said the flooding in the neighborhood was about the same as it was last week.
After that comes a series of inspections.
First, the county will check the houses for general safety, and homeowners will make needed repairs. Then the state electrical inspector will examine the electrical equipment, said Brad Bowlin, a spokesman for Idaho Power.
Damaged equipment will be repaired and certified safe, Bowlin said.
“We definitely feel for these folks who have been impacted by the flooding, and we’ll want to do our part to safely restore electricity when we are able,” he said.
After electrical service is restored, Intermountain Gas will inspect gas risers and meters. Its staff will restore gas service once all repairs are made.
Central District Health recommends that septic tank systems be inspected and serviced before they are put back in service. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality will test well water to be sure it’s potable.