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Springfield tornado victims mark six month anniversary with vigil

Posted by Rachel Roberts  December 2, 2011 08:43 AM

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Many of those attending a candlelight vigil in the South End of Springfield on the sixth month anniversary of the June 1 tornadoes agreed that while rebuilding is underway, there is much to be done in the absence of monetary assistance.

A dozen affected residents gathered Thursday night with city officials at the triangle between Central, Florence and Pine Streets in the city's downtown area that suffered extensive damage to homes and commercial buildings. Melvin Edwards, the president of the Maple High Six Corners Neighborhood Council and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno praised first-responders and state representatives for their dedication to what will inevitably be a years-long recovery process.

"We’re out of the [first response] stage, we've moved into rebuilding and the next stage is resurgence," said Sarno. "It's been one hell of a year with two major natural disasters and I just think it's been a testament to the people of Springfield."

Since June, more than three thousand building permits totaling $17.6 million in estimated construction costs have been issued throughout affected Springfield neighborhoods. Of the 577 tornado-damaged structures, 513 have been repaired, cleared or have work in progress, according to Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of DevelopSpringfield. Mayor Sarno says legal action is being pursued for the remaining structures.

A public-private partnership to develop a master plan for the city is well underway, with Rebuild Springfield agencies and independent New Orleans-based design firm Concordia working in tandem to present a plan in early January. According to Mayor Sarno, the plan is about 75 percent complete and looks to take a grassroots, bottom-up approach based on research from two top-down design failures following Hurricane Katrina. The public-private partnership looks to plan the recovery of the entire city, not simply the sections damaged by the June 1 tornadoes.

"I'm hopeful for two things," said Sarno. "One, I want to build on the integrity and positives that are already in these neighborhoods and in some hotspot areas that need to be improved. We're hoping for a transformation as we move forward."

The latest estimate of the cost to the city of Springfield is expected to exceed $106 million, $65 million of which will be budgeted for repairs to Central High School, Dryden, Brooking and Zanetti elementary schools, the South End Community Center and several parks throughout the city.

Click here to view Springfield tornado damage.

A disaster declaration issued by President Obama on June 15 guaranteed 75 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Association. The city of Springfield spent more than $23 million in initial cleanup costs, but Mayor Sarno has yet to receive a check in federal aid.

"I finally feel that we’re making some headway to get the millions and millions of dollars that Springfield desperately needs," said Sarno. "I’m trying to get 90 percent reimbursement from FEMA and if not, I’ll look for 12.5 percent from MEMA."

While the Mayor and city officials were quick to praise efforts to date, others in the community feel there has been much talk and less action. David Gaby, of 21 Clarendon Street, is a member of the Community Labor Rebuilding Coalition, a group consisting of 14 organizations focusing on creating long-term community benefits by securing jobs for local workers through plans and projects in tornado recovery. Gaby feels the city has been quick to demolish and slow to promote repairs.

“We’ve been attempting since the beginning of August to engage in actual work," said Gaby. “I keep hearing really nice things about people pulling together in Monson and in the Island Pond Road area, but when you go to downtown Springfield it’s frozen."

The city is still struggling after the most recent disaster struck in the form of a freak October nor'easter that left some Springfield residents without power for more than 10 days. Sarno expects the cost of debris removal to be in excess of $20 million, as more than 500,000 cubic yards of snowstorm debris was three times greater than the 160,000 cubic yards of debris removed following the June 1 tornadoes.

Rachel Roberts can be reached at

This blog is not written or edited by 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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