With only two months until the first anniversary of the June 1 tornadoes in Western Massachusetts, the final deadline for appealing federal disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is fast approaching.
Though President Obama declared the region a federal disaster area on June 19 of last year, the Aug. 22 deadline for applying for aid came long before individuals knew how much private insurance would cover, if they had coverage at all. Only about 20 percent of the 5,006 individual applications have been approved to date, but FEMA officials say they will reconsider aid rejections for up to a year if people can prove that private insurance didn’t pay for repairs.
"FEMA will want to see a settlement or denial letter from the insurance company to ensure there is no duplication of benefits," said Jeb Killion, Congressional Affairs Liaison for FEMA Region 1, in a recent e-mail.
"If the applicant has unmet needs or damages that the insurance company does not cover, then FEMA may be able to provide you with assistance."
For many tornado victims, the deadline for applying came long before any insurance checks, while the time-consuming and confusing FEMA application process meant fronting rebuilding money in hopes of federal reimbursement down the road. While some homeowners didn't apply for FEMA aid because they believed private insurance would take care of them, others who did apply received letters of rejection stating that FEMA could not duplicate benefits or settlement monies provided by insurance.
“For me personally, FEMA was a joke. It got really disgusting and frustrating,” said Waleska Quinones, whose 44 Clark Street home is still in rebuilding stages.
“I applied one time and appealed three times and was denied each time. According to [FEMA], they denied us because we had homeowners insurance but what they don’t see is that [insurance] evaluated the house as when it was made in 190. Everything’s changed, the cost of building a house has more than doubled or tripled, so now I’ll be almost $60-$65,000 in debt after my house is rebuilt,” said Quinones.
Quinones lived with her husband, 22-year-old and 18-year old daughters, stepdaughter, uncle, mother and grandmother in their seven-bedroom home. A cancer survivor and foster parent of 22 years, Quinones adopted a 5- and 6-year-old on Nov. 19, National Adoption Day. The family moved into Quinones brother’s home on Page Boulevard while their Clark Street home is being repaired.
Though their house is projected to be finished at the end of April, Quinones says moving back to their devastated neighborhood will be bittersweet. Quinones' youngest foster daughter told her she was mad at the contractor for putting a window in her future bedroom. When Quinones asked, "Don't you want the sun to come in in the morning?" the 5-year-old pointed out the window to piles of rubble and said, "No because I don't want to see that."
Quinones former neighbor and self-described ‘sister’, Lillian Santiago, was approved for FEMA aid after the tornado destroyed her family's rental home at 50 Spruce Street. Now, Santiago, her husband and three children live in an apartment on Dwight Street, a 2.5 mile trek from their former neighborhood.
“If I could move anywhere, I’d go back to where I was—Six Corners area," said Santiago. "I know the people, I know the schools there and my kids loved it.”
More than two-thirds of the 1,069 applicants approved for individual FEMA assistance are Springfield residents, while more than 60 percent of those approved in Springfield live near Quinones home in the South End, Six Corners neighborhood, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) response from the Department of Homeland Security.
The breakdown of individual FEMA acceptance was highly skewed in favor of low-income rental areas, where insurance was either not comprehensive or non-existant. In the more affluent areas like Forest Park and East Forest park, where residents were more likely to have insurance, individual FEMA approval rates were 13.4% and 4.3%, respectively, the lowest approval to applicant rate in the city. Overall, the city of Springfield had an approval rate of 19.9 percent.
Other tornado-ravaged areas with more than 50 individual FEMA applications included the following approval rates, according to DHS FOIA response: West Springfield 28 percent; Brimfield 26 percent; Sturbridge 10 percent; Southbridge 9 percent; Monson 8 percent; and Westfield 2 percent.
Photos by Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @relroberts
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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.