Last FEMA park survivor wants out
BY PAT FARNELLI
Wyoming County Press Examiner
Two years ago, Barbara Sala owned her own home on River Street in Falls Township, where she was enjoying retirement with her pocket beagle, Sadee-blu, and her pals at the Falls Senior Center, just walking distance away.
Divorced, she had a boyfriend that she had been seeing for 32 years.
Sala had spent 20 years working for Catholic Social Services in Scranton as an interpreter for Latino migrant workers and their families, and still sometimes volunteered her time helping Hispanic individuals learn the English language and find medical services or get through a court hearing.
She had been an interpreter at the Lackawanna County Jail, and speaks fluent Spanish.
But after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee blew through in the summer of 2011, Sala’s independence and lifestyle were swept away in the murky flood waters, along with her home, which had withstood at least five floods before.
“There was no warning, the water came up from both sides of the house,” she said.
“This time, the water came up to the top of the second floor, and it was completely destroyed. They brought a wrecker and tore it down.”
Her cousin Richard Fitzsimmons, a former county commissioner, lost his neighboring home, which has since been replaced.
She lost most of her important documents, as well as a gold set of china that was a family heirloom, and several oil portraits her father had painted, and her parents’ formal wedding photograph.
Most of her possessions were destroyed.
Now, she has the unique vantage point of being the sole remaining tenant in the Federal Emergency Management Association’s trailer park, located south of Tunkhannock behind Highfields subdivision.
More than 50 trailers surrounded her after the superstorms of 2011.
Now, all but two trailers have been hauled away, all but Sala’s and one used once a month or so for administrative work.
Sala’s small, two bedroom mobile home has white vinyl siding, and up until Mar. 14, was provided by the government at no cost to the occupant.
Now, FEMA has notified that she must pay $800 per month to remain in the trailer, which is almost exactly the amount of her social security check.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said. “The house is not ready to move in.”
She says she has paid $240,000 to a contractor, George Yuhas of Trademark Contracting & Home Improvement of Falls, for a new home, built 16 feet above ground so that there is no danger of flooding, on the same property as her former home.
The log house was designed to sit atop massive piers, and a chair lift, donated by United Way, was part of the plan, to enable her to access her home. She had selected a handicapped bathtub and toilet for her new home, as she is disabled.
Unfortunately, the contractor’s promise to have the home ready by last Fourth of July slipped by unfulfilled.
Then, she was promised a place to move into by September, then Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s, then Valentine’s Day.
The last promise was for Easter, but there is no move in date in sight, now.
“I have been trying to get a third mortgage and fearing foreclosure,” she said.
Meanwhile, the house is not being completed according to her plans. The windows, paint and flooring are not what she picked out, the roof is not finished, the log outer walls are not completed.
The furniture she ordered for her new home at Raymour and Flannigan ran out of layaway time, and she had to let it go. Now, she has furniture on layaway at another store, and there is an answering machine message about how long she wants them to hold it for her.
She has had four hospital stays since the flood, including one for a nervous breakdown and another for a stroke. The doctors found three small aneurisms in her brain after she was pulled over by police after a mindless driving on Route 92 through Tunkhannock.
She is diabetic and needed foot surgery and a knee replacement. She has spinal stenosis, and can’t get up stairs.
Last week, Sala visited her property and checked on the progress of the home. She could not get up the steps to see the progress on her home’s interior, so she waited outside.
The new foundation is set back about 20 feet from where the original house was built.
“That house was built by my great-great-grandfather, and it was a century home,” she said. “It was added onto by other family members, and was a grand old house”.
Her contractor Yuhas was inside, installing a ceiling light from a huge scaffold. One of his employees was moving some materials around in the home, which is sizable, with high, lofty ceilings.
Tongue and groove pine is being added to the walls, and the kitchen and bathroom are painted a Day-Glo green. No kitchen appliances or cupboards are installed yet; the master bedroom is full of tools and materials, with an unfinished ceiling and floor, insulation still uncovered on the walls.
The bathroom has fixtures, but they are not the ones she chose, she says. The toilet is a standard one, with a plastic lid, and no rails, and the shower stall is not a handicapped accessible one. “I picked out a high toilet and a handicapped bath, and these are not what I chose,” she says. “He told me he would put a chair in the bathroom.”
“Everything we have completed in this house is wrong, according to her,” Yuhas said.
He says that she chose the paint herself, last week.
She says she picked the colors almost two years ago: she has the paint chips.
Yuhas said that he had several more days to finish the pine walls, then he would need to spend at least a week installing floors. He declined to estimate how long it would take to get the interior completed, or how soon she could move in.
“My first priority is to get her into the house,” he said. He noted that his is a small business, and that his employees are down, with only four people available for work. “I try to keep two people working here, but I have other jobs underway,” he said.
He says people warned him that Sala owes people money, and for that reason, he set up a payment plan for his own protection, with 18 bank draws. He said that Sala is up to date with payments, but that he has stopped work before if she threatened to withhold a payment.
He says that once he refused to put the roof on until he was paid in full for foundation work, and that he told a well driller who had pulled out her well to hold onto it while he had her on the phone, and warned her that if she didn’t make a payment he would tell the guy to drop the well pump back into the hole.
He also said that his son likes being able to go fishing from Sala’s riverside property, and he would like to maintain a friendly relationship with her.
“My intentions are to make this house one that she will be pleased with in the long run, and that she will enjoy for years to come,” he said
Meanwhile, her best friend helps her get to appointments and tries to keep her from panicking.
“She can’t control her crying, she is so tired,” her friend Diane says,
Sala worries that since a snippet about her predicament was on local TV a month ago, that someone will break into the trailer. The lot is isolated, and she is fearful. She would like police to patrol the park.
She has four sons, but has not seen them since September 2011. Her boyfriend drifted away.
“People were so good at the time of the flood, every day they were helping out, dropping things off,” Sala recalls. “I was so grateful for the trailer to stay in, and still am, but I need to get out of here and have my own home.”
Looking over a sea of trailer pads that once had a thriving temporary village, she quipped, “Now this is beginning to seem like a little fish tank.”