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Rebuilding, displacement hinder long-term recovery in Springfield

Posted by Rachel Roberts  November 15, 2011 10:46 AM

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It’s been more than five months since a serious of tornadoes ripped through Springfield and surrounding municipalities, but for many individuals and families struggling with issues of displacement or rebuilding in the aftermath of June 1, the prospect of long-term recovery still seems unattainable.

“What we’re finding in this fourth to fifth month is people who thought they were going to be OK because their insurance was going to take care of them or FEMA would take care of them, they’re now realizing ‘I’m just not going to make it’,” said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, director of Catholic Charities at the Diocese of Springfield.

Catholic Charities has provided about $380,000 in aid to 306 tornado-stricken families, but the need is growing beyond the extent of their funds. The wait list consists of about 35-40 families who, heading into the winter months, are realizing they simply don’t have the means to pay for the costly damages the tornado inflicted.

“In some cases where the house was a total loss, the bank got first dibs on the [insurance] money. So what was the homeowner left with to rebuild? Maybe $10-20,000 and they needed to start all over again,” said Buckley-Brawner.

Click here to listen to Kathryn Buckley-Brawner tell the story of one Brimfield man who has no means to rebuild after the tornado destroyed his home.

Buckley-Brawner said that in cases of rebuilding, many homeowners are facing the financial strains from out-of-pocket expenses that have added up due to insurance deductibles and depreciation. The common example is initial cleanup efforts that included thousands of dollars in tree and debris removal, with insurance companies paying a maximum of $500, if anything. Catholic Charities has been working with 83 Springfield homeowners, many from the East Forest Park area, to help cover the significant gap between total costs of tornado damage and the money approved as part of the insurance claim.

Post-tornado recovery has been equally trying for those in Springfield who were not homeowners, as two-thirds of the 514 housing units condemned were rental units. Friends of the Homeless Executive Director William J. Miller recently announced plans to reopen a winter overflow shelter because demand for the 130-bed shelter is swelling, causing some of the homeless to sleep on the floor.

“The loss of so many apartments as a result of the June 1 tornado, along with the ongoing challenging economy is causing the situation to get worse, which is the trend we are hearing in other communities as well,” Miller said.

Of the 357 rental units condemned in Springfield due to the tornado, 90 were government-subsidized, reducing the already low number of decent, affordable housing units available in a city where more than 40,000 residents live in poverty. The 18,000 person wait list for Section 8 housing in Western Mass. is years long. Buckley-Brawner said that in order to relocate 85 Springfield and West Springfield families without a rental unit after the tornado, some lifelong residents had to move to Holyoke or even Greenfield for affordable housing in a timely manner.

“We ended up having to put people in a lot of different places because the pool of acceptable, adequate, affordable housing in Springfield is pretty low,” said Buckley-Brawner.

Disaster-related displacement was most evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when over one million Americans were displaced from their homes and scattered across the United States. The common denominator between disasters highlights the gaps between institutional response frameworks and actual needs of victims that threaten the success of long-term recovery.

Rachel Roberts can be reached at rachelroberts90@gmail.com

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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