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Western Mass. faces storm threats days before one-year tornado anniversary

Posted by T.J. Houpes May 29, 2012 07:53 PM

Just three days before the one-year anniversary of last year's devastating tornadoes that hit Western Massachusetts, the National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for Berkshire County.

Along with the tornado threat, the NWS watch also warned residents of the potential for two-inch diameter hail, dangerous lightning, and thunderstorm-related wind gusts up to 70 mph.

An approaching cold front will run into an unstable air mass in place over Massachusetts and trigger conditions for severe storms to develop. A strong line of storms has been moving across New York state throughout the day, and at 5 PM the NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Berkshire County as the first of these storms began to enter western parts of the state. Another severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the area at 5:45.

northeast.gifTornado watches are also posted for parts of Eastern New York state and Southern New Hampshire, as well as the entire state of Vermont. A tornado warning -- indicating weather radar has detected rotation in a storm, not necessarily a confirmed on-the-ground tornado -- was issued for Windham County in Southern Vermont and Cheshire County in Southern New Hampshire at 4:32 PM this afternoon.

The tornado watch comes as recovery efforts from last year's devastating tornadoes -- including an EF-3 that tore a 39-mile path from Westfield to Charlton -- continue. The region has been hit hard by recent weather events, including Tropical Storm Irene and last October's freak snowstorm.

May 29 is also the anniversary of the Great Barrington tornado, which killed three people and caused $24 million in damage in 1995. Prior to last June's tornado, it was the last fatal tornado to strike the state.

Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.

T.J. Houpes can be reached at

NEPR to hold tree-planting fund drive for areas affected by June tornadoes

Posted by T.J. Houpes February 27, 2012 02:58 PM

New England Public Radio (WFCR & WNNZ) will host an on-air fund drive to benefit areas in the Connecticut River Valley affected by the June tornadoes, Tropical Storm Irene, and the October snowstorm.

Root for Your Radio” will be held Feb. 24 – Mar. 3, and will be entirely funded by listener contributions. NEPR has partnered with various non-profit and volunteer organizations throughout the Connecticut River Valley, as well as the city of Springfield, to plant up to 2,600 trees in communities affected by recent weather events reaching from Connecticut to Vermont.

Cathy Ives, executive director of development and major gifts at NEPR, said the trees are to be planted later this spring in areas hardest hit by the three weather events, including western Mass. This is particularly relevant to communities hit by the June tornadoes like Monson and Brimfield, where downed trees still litter roadsides, and Springfield where the United States Department of Agriculture has estimated 13,000 trees were lost or damaged in the June storms alone.

The idea for the drive started within the radio station as a way to support a region devastated by the recent storms, according to Ives. NEPR is working directly with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to coordinate the volunteer-based planting of the trees. NEPR has reached out to tree gardens and nurseries, and non-profits to coordinate environmental efforts like determining what types of tree belong in specific regions.

“In Springfield, larger shade trees will be planted,” Ives said. “Other areas will have seedlings planted based on flooding and erosion. Non-profits will be doing the planting, and volunteers will be needed later on in the process.”

Ives said NEPR’s ultimate goal is to help the local communities affected by the devastating weather events. And with help from all the other organizations involved, NEPR is hoping to give back to its listeners and help restore storm-ravaged western Mass. and the surrounding areas.

She describes NEPR’s work with the following:

“There’s an old proverb that goes ‘When’s the best time to plant a tree?’ and the answer to that is 50 years ago. The second part of the proverb goes ‘When’s the second best time to plant a tree?’ and the answer to that is today.”

T.J. Houpes can be reached at

Springfield officials request delay in MCAS testing due to tornado, weather events

Posted by Julie Varney February 24, 2012 01:00 PM

By Julie Varney

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno signed a home rule bill Tuesday that if approved will delay MCAS testing in the city in order to give students and teachers more time to prepare for the test in the aftermath of the severe weather the city has experienced this year.

The June 1 tornado cancelled school for two days at the end of last school year and forced the closure of two of the city’s public schools. Then in August, the impact of Tropical Storm Irene closed schools on the first day of the new school year. And in October the weather again played a trick with a pre-Halloween snowstorm that shut down city schools for six days.

City officials said because of the nine days of teaching time lost and trauma endured by the schoolchildren of Springfield, they requested the state postpone the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems tests in the city until April and May. The tests are currently scheduled to be administered in March and April.

“Given the testimony of teachers, we feel there is serious concern whether there has been proper coverage of the subject areas in preparation for this test,” said James Ferrera, president of the Springfield City Council. “We felt we were obligated to adhere to the request of Springfield teachers and administrators.”

The Springfield City Council unanimously approved the bill on Feb. 13 before it was sent to the mayor. It now needs approval from the state Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick.

“The bottom line is I am always looking to do what is best for the students in our school system. The ball is now in the state Legislature’s court,” Sarno said.

Ferrera urged the state Legislature to take speedy action in approving the bill.

“It should send a message down to Boston it was approved unanimously by the City Council and signed by the mayor, so we hope to deal with the issue sooner rather than later,” he said.

Springfield State Rep. Sean Curran (D), a member of the Joint Committee on Education, said he will lobby the governor for the passage of the bill and postponement of the test.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a Feb. 8 letter to Sarno that a delay in testing was not allowed and only a very limited extension could be granted for Springfield students.

Chester said passage of the bill would mean that Springfield “would fail to administer the 2012 ELA (English Language Arts) MCAS test to its students,” and students in Grade 10 would “lose a critical opportunity” to pass the test which is required for graduation.

However, Timothy Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, said if the bill is passed the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would have to comply with the delay in testing.

Collins hoped legislators will have empathy for what people in Springfield have experienced.

“I certainly hope the legislature throughout the Commonwealth puts themselves in the shoes of the people in Springfield,” he said. “Our constituents are the families of our kids who have gone through tremendous trauma this past year, a tornado, a hurricane, eight days without power.”

Collins said students in Springfield are not on a level playing field with other students in the state.

“Scores on the MCAS test get compared across the Commonwealth. There are districts that haven’t lost a single day,” he said. “Our kids are competing with other kids who have had more time to prepare and haven’t lived through the traumatic year our kids have lived. They haven’t lived through the trauma of a tornado that ripped a path of destruction through our city that you would not believe.”

Several of the city’s public schools were directly in the tornado’s path of destruction.

Two schools, the Mary A. Dryden Veterans Memorial School and the Elias Brookings School, were closed at the end of last school year because of serious damage cause by the June 1 tornado.

The Brookings School was completely destroyed and students currently attend classes in portable spaces. The building is set to either be renovated or replaced.

At the Dryden Veterans Memorial School the main wing of the building is back in operation, but the wing most damaged in the tornado was knocked down and replaced with portable spaces.

City officials feel it is even more important to ensure proper preparation for the test given the need for continued improvement in MCAS test scores in the city’s schools.

Springfield has 10 schools deemed as Level 4 under-performing, meaning they performed poorly on the MCAS tests in both the Math and English Language Arts sections over a four-year span, scoring in the lowest 20 percent of schools statewide, and haven't shown signs of "substantial improvement."

In 2011, all but two of the 10 of Springfield’s under-performing schools experienced double-digit improvement over the previous year's MCAS test results, according the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

At the Brookings School, one of the city’s Level 4 schools, students’ MCAS scores improved by 18 percent in math and 12 percent in English last year, according the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We’re working very hard in Springfield, we’re not there yet but we’re working very hard at it,” Collins said.

Julie Varney can be reached at

Springfield tornado victims mark six month anniversary with vigil

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


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

Monson business owner struggles after tornadoes, nor'easter

Posted by Anna Meiler November 28, 2011 08:00 AM

trinkets treasures.jpg

The October nor'easter added salt to the wound for many Monson residents, including Sue Ziff. A small business owner, Ziff has suffered multiple blows from the recession and devastating natural disasters that crushed her "little American dream" and forced her to start a new chapter in her life.

Ziff’s 121 year-old home completed her vision of living in Monson: “The ideal perfect little town you dream of living in with the tree-lined roads.” But on June 1, Ziff found herself cowering in her cellar as a tornado barreled through Western Massachusetts, wiping out 20 large trees in her yard and damaging the roof, siding, windows and interior of her home.

Ziff lives on one of the hardest hit streets in Monson. Twenty houses were either completely destroyed or severely damaged.

“I’m not just struggling at home, I’m struggling at work,” she said. “This has been an extremely emotional year between living on Bethany Road and my little business that’s going to go down the tubes.”

The tornado affected many small businesses in the area, especially in the four to six weeks following June 1, said Gretchen Neggers, Monson's town administrator. Local businesses were hindered by building damages, power outages, debris removal and the widespread presence of contractors.

Ziff’s business Trinkets & Treasures sells an eclectic mix of antiques, handmade soaps, candles and more. Traffic to the business plunged the month following the tornado. Customers who lost their homes and suffered tens of thousands of dollars in damage now spent their time dealing with insurance companies and beginning an extensive recovery process.

“All my neighbor’s houses are missing. They’re not thinking 'lets go browse around this cute shop,'” said Ziff.

Neggers said other contributing factors include the changed scenery. After the tornado wiped out most of the trees in downtown Monson, residents are less likely to browse through shops downtown.

Ziff finally regained her footing in July and August. October was a strong month for business.

Then, “boom another disaster,” she said.


The early snowstorm left about three million businesses and homes across New England without power, including Trinkets & Treasures. She reopened after four days, but customers were scarce due to ongoing power outages and damages. Her total number of customers for November is smaller than her once average daily count.

“Thirteen a month just doesn’t cut it,” said Ziff. “You don’t even make your rent. It’s hard enough in the recession and then it’s the natural disasters.”

“It was a whole repeat of the tornado,” she said. “My shop was dead.”

These disasters aren’t the first strokes of bad luck Ziff has faced. She started Trinkets & Treasures in the midst of the recession, after being laid off from her job at The Center of Hope in 2009. Unable to find employment and feeling as though she had nothing to lose, Ziff created her own job.

She opened Trinkets & Treasures in March 2009 and made it through the first year unscathed. But the winter of 2010 brought snow and ice dams that created 10 leaks in the store’s ceiling. After a saturated tile fell and exposed wires, Ziff was forced to relocate.

Though she moved only two miles down Boston Road into Wilbraham, the relocation proved financially burdensome. The move took time away from business and she had to spend money on new permits, oil and new business cards.

“I don’t know how many more really bad disasters I can get through financially,” she said.

Two weeks after the nor’easter, fallen trees were still piled beside Ziff’s store, blocking the driveway. They also blocked the store's visibility from the road, crushing Ziff's hope of turning passersby into customers.

The administration office at the Wilbraham Town Hall told her that the Massachusetts Highway Department is responsible for cleaning the debris. It took Ziff, her landlord and her neighbor several days of calling before the trees were removed.

Ziff said she is at the end of her ropes and winter hasn’t even begun.

“I don’t want to know what’s next,” she said.

Photo Credit: Sue Ziff

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Efforts to get rebuilding monies to Western Mass. tornado victims stall

Posted by Rachel Roberts November 17, 2011 09:02 AM


On Aug. 4, the Patrick-Murray administration announced more than $8 million to help building owners affected by the series of June 1 tornadoes rebuild in an energy-efficient manner, but requirements set by participating banks including minimum qualifications for income ratio and credit score will undoubtedly restrict the number of applicants approved.

As of Nov. 14, only one of the 68 active applications have been approved for the ReBuild Western Mass. program, according Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy Resources (DOER). Funding and zero-interest loan availability was announced Sept. 26, while individuals who called to apply were assigned a case manager from ICF international, the program's administrative vendor.

"Funding for [ReBuild Western Mass.] has been available since September," said Williams. "The application process began in September and continued with the publication of the online application on November 1."

While account managers for ICF international determine eligible incentives, approved applicants are not guaranteed the monies reserved for their case, as Monson Savings Bank and Country Bank ultimately decide whether applicants will be approved for their zero-interest loans.

For Brad Richardson, keeping up with the status of the program has become a second job since the tornado caused about $150,000 worth of property damage to his home on Bethany Road in Monson. When he saw a flyer outlining ReBuild Western Mass., he inquired about it through the Center for EcoTechnology, a company contracted to perform the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) audit necessary for determining homeowner eligibility for the program's grant and loan incentives.

"In [August] I looked into the program, saw that I was eligible and it seemed like a really good thing," said Richardson. "I was asking the [Center for EcoTechnology] questions and they really didn’t have any information."

The lack of information available soon became a pattern for Richardson, who paid for his HERS reading in September, but was still waiting to move forward with the program at the end of October because the application for ReBuild Western Mass. was not available on the DOER website. After multiple phone calls to DOER, ICF and state Rep. Brian Ashe, Richardson contacted the office of Governor Deval Patrick in search of some answers.

"The average person would not do what I'm doing," said Richardson. "It seems to me they are trying to make this [process] as difficult as possible so people don't apply."

Once the application was made available on the website Nov. 1, the program's original Frequently Asked Questions guide that said funds for loans would be available beginning in September were altered to say November. According to the application, those looking to apply for the program must prequalify for incentives by Feb. 15, while repairs, construction and insulation must be completed by April 30. Incentives are not retroactively available for individuals who have completed rebuilding, so if homeowners have already invested the funds necessary to rebuild in an energy-efficient manner in more than five months since the tornadoes struck, they are ineligible for the program.

photo (1).jpg

In a letter dated Nov. 10 ICF case manager Justin Lawson informed Richardson that $30,000 has been reserved for his construction project, but Richardson says he was also previously informed he would be eligible for a post-construction grant of $8,000. Account manager Ian Buba has told him eligibility is for either the grant or the loan, not both. Now, he faces the prospect of paying $22,000 out-of-pocket for the installation of an energy-efficient heating system and insulation necessary to qualify for a post-construction grant intended to make rebuilding easier.

"I asked [Buba] to give me one logical reason why it would make sense [that] you wouldn’t be able to get the loan and then apply for the grant and he couldn't give me one," Richardson said.

Richardson has already paid $3,000 out of pocket for double-pane, energy star rating Pella windows, a small portion of the roughly $30,000 gap between total property damage and the claims money approved by his Preferred Mutual insurance company. On Nov. 14 Richardson went to Monson Savings Bank, where he has been a customer for twenty years, to inquire about qualifications for their zero-interest construction loan. He just barely missed their minimum requirement of a 700 credit score.

"The fact that it's very difficult to get a loan, especially for [$30,000] must really limit the amount of people who can even qualify for the program," said Richardson. "If people can't get a loan, they're not going to have the money up front to rebuild [energy-efficiently] and get the post-construction grant."

The Mass. Save HEAT Loan Program, which also provides customers the opportunity to apply for a zero-interest loan, only requires a 650 credit score. Country Bank, the other participating bank with ReBuild Western Mass., requires a minimum 680 credit score.

“Not everyone is going to be eligible for [ReBuild Western Mass.] because of their income level or financial history," said Richardson. "The tornado didn’t discriminate who’s house got hit, the state and the bank shouldn’t discriminate who gets the rebuilding loan.”

Now, nearly four months since the program was announced, Richardson wishes he had never heard of it. Even if he is approved for the $30,000 loan, the subsequent lien put on his tornado-ravaged home as well as future communication with the parties involved may only bring more headaches.

Photos courtesy of Brad Richardson

Rachel Roberts can be reached at

Displaced Monson family to lose housing assistance at month's end

Posted by Rachel Roberts November 8, 2011 01:11 PM

4Stewart.JPGNov. 1 marked five months since an EF-3 tornado tore through Monson, but for 79-year-old Norma Germain, her daughter Geri and granddaughter Giselle, the day nearly signaled the end of Preferred Mutual's temporary housing payments, regardless of the uninhabitable state of their Stewart Avenue home.

The tornado caused a significant amount of destruction to the roof, siding, and windows of the home Norma has lived in since 1961. In early October, Preferred Mutual informed her that neglect of rebuilding in a time-efficient manner caused further mold and water damage that would result in a cutoff of temporary housing assistance. They have since been granted a 30-day extension but with more than two months of construction left, the Germains will once again face the prospect of displacement at the end of November.

"My mom [has] paid with [Preferred Mutual] for fifty years and had one tiny claim for a crack in the dining room ceiling. To be treated like this is so unbelievable," said Geri.

The Germains remained in their residence for about three weeks after the tornadoes because Complete Restoration, the company recommended by Preferred Mutual, failed to accurately identify the extent of water damage during their assessment due to the absence of a camera with infrared capabilities. Eventually, light fixtures filled with water fell from the ceiling and a musty, mildew-like smell filled the home.

Preferred Mutual's structural engineering assessor estimated the Germain family would need to relocate for a maximum of 30 days for reconstruction. After living in a room at the Sturbridge Host Hotel for about three weeks, Timothy Marini, the President of Western Mass. independent insurance agency FieldEddy, was able to negotiate temporary housing payments for the Germains, allowing them to rent a 3-bedroom house on Hovey Road. Norma has full insurance coverage, including $43,400 for loss of use; a policy that supposedly protects the insured in the event of home damages that require alternative living arrangements.

After limited communication from Preferred Mutual regarding itemizations and assessments following June 1, the Germains decided to hire public insurance adjuster Alfred Elk, hoping the move would help speed up their negotiations and the rebuilding process as a whole.

"The company has been difficult to deal with, the whole thing is like pulling teeth," said Elk. "The policy doesn't say anything about the length of time, it just says 'a reasonable amount of time.' The woman is elderly and every house in the neighborhood was destroyed."


Steve Larkin, the operations manager of Able Restoration, was hired to evaluate the extent of water damage. His assessment revealed significant water damage that requires the home's interior walls be taken down and a thorough dry-out of structural materials be performed.

"I walked through the house with [Steve Larkin], who had an infrared camera. He showed me there was water on all the walls except the bathroom upstairs and the wall with cupboards in the kitchen," said Kimball Morgan, of Kimball Morgan Contractors, the Germain's contractors.

The initial insurance check of $46,098 was sent to the Germains on June 24, but was void because their mortgage company, Financial Freedom, was in the process of changing their name. The check was not reissued until Aug. 19, but the mortgage company wanted a list and time frame of work because of their policy to disperse portions of payments depending on the percentage of project completion. This was not possible without Preferred Mutual's approval for Able Restoration to begin restoring the water-damaged interior and the Germains didn't receive the first portion of the check--about $22,000--until September.

“The insurance company sent them a partial check with no instructions that they could use that money to start fixing the roof and it definitely would not have covered putting the house back to normal the way the exterior and interior should be," said Kimball. "The damage in there is from the tornado. There could be some damage afterwards but not to the extent of damage seen with the infrared camera."

Preferred Mutual is claiming they have not received the water meter report from Able Restoration or the public adjuster, even though both parties said the report was sent electronically and in hard-copy. Without the paperwork, insurance will not pay for the restoration necessary to restore the home to a habitable state, even though Monson health inspector Lauri McCool assessed the residence on Oct. 28 to formally write a report of it’s current uninhabitable state, which includes health code violations.

“The floors are full of water and mold, the house is definitely not livable," said Kimball. “If we do it the way it should be all the interior walls should come out and dry for a week."

Kimball estimates that he could have the Germains back in their home in 8-10 weeks with proper communication between the parties involved. However, this time frame includes 4-6 weeks where the Germains will be without housing.

"To think that we have no place to live after [November], you're kidding me. My mom is pushing 80-years-old and I'm a single mother with a 10-year-old daughter," Geri said.
"We're praying that [Preferred Mutual] will see we have no where else to go and they will let us stay until our house gets fixed.”


The Germains are one of many struggling through a rebuilding process that has essentially become a full-time job since June 1. October’s historic nor’easter served as a reminder of winter's threat to the blue-tarped homes that remain as markers of the unforgettable tornado, the headaches it has caused and a future that remains unknown. Preferred Mutual, Able Restoration and Crawford & Company declined to comment, stating it is not their policy to discuss claims.

Photos courtesy of Geri Germain

For some Western. Mass residents, power restoration is still days away

Posted by Rachel Roberts November 2, 2011 11:14 PM

West Brookfield resident recalls the historic October nor'easter with Rachel Roberts on Vimeo.

Sonia Burke’s home may be without power until Sunday or Monday, but that didn’t stop the West Brookfield resident from heading to Springfield to volunteer her time to those in need at Central High School’s temporary shelter.

“Out in the hill towns we learn to depend on each other, but in the city it’s not as close. Everybody is working or out on their own and there was probably a lot they couldn’t do [without chainsaws] either,” Burke said.

The Cedar Drive resident rose early Sunday morning to clear as much of her porch and yard area as she could before teaming up with her neighbors to clear the roadway of trees, branches and other storm debris. On Monday, Burke’s driveway was finally plowed out and she took Tuesday off as a "regrouping day" before deciding to help others in need at the shelters.

“It seems like they are doing quite well [at Central High School] and hopefully people will begin to have their power turned on and be able to go home,” Burke said on Wednesday. “The numbers are definitely going down. People are finding that their electricity is back on again and that’s really good.”

When shelter numbers reached the 400-person capacity by noon on Monday, the city began transporting overflow by van to Chicopee High School, the designated regional American Red Cross shelter. On Wednesday, the Chicopee shelter was closed, but an emergency Red Cross shelter ha since been opened at Longmeadow High School.

(See related coverage.)

Longmeadow Fire Captain Andrew Fraser said Wednesday that firefighters have responded to more than 200 storm-related calls, including emergency medical services, carbon monoxide reports and four house fires caused by fireplaces and wood stoves that people were using to stay warm without electricity.

The historic Oct. 29th nor’easter left millions of people in the dark from Maine to Maryland, including a total of about 670,000 residents in Massachusetts. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 200,000 customers statewide remained in the dark. On Wednesday, West Springfield Mayor Edward J. Gibson announced that 51 percent of the city was still without electrical service, while 31,400 customers were still without power in Springfield.

Gov. Deval Patrick has openly criticized utility companies, stating they need to step up their work pace to restore power to understandably frustrated customers.

"I realize it was an historic storm ... and that there was a tremendous amount of damage, especially in central and western Massachusetts," Patrick told reporters. "But it’s been days now. And with the number of crews that are out – you know more than ever before and the amount of preparation that went into this storm and the aftermath, and dealing with the aftermath, we ought to see, we need this done, and we need it done now."

(See related coverage.)

Brian E. Kenney, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Springfield, said 85 of his 2,067 local crew members are line workers for Western Massachusetts Electric Co., which is too small for its own staff. Line crews are required to take eight hours off every 16 hours of work to avoid overtime pay.

“We could easily use another 25 or 30,” Kenney said. “It’s not just WMECO, all these power companies have downsized. Then these utilities go out to hire contractors or bring in mutual aid and there just aren’t enough of those crews to go around.”

WMECO spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn said the company is adequately staffed for normal operations, but not for disasters. Last year WMECO petitioned for a rate increase to hire and train eight more line workers; a request the state turned down in February.

Freak snowstorm brings more devastation to disaster-stricken Western Mass.

Posted by Rachel Roberts November 1, 2011 08:02 AM

For the third time in four months, Governor Deval Patrick was forced by weather-related devastation this past weekend to declare a state of emergency in Massachusetts and request government assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Association.

The late-October snowstorm dealt yet another blow to Western Mass. communities who are still recovering from damages due to Hurricane Irene and a series of tornadoes on June 1. As of Monday morning, utility companies scrambled to restore electricity to a total of about 671,000 powerless customers throughout Massachusetts, while about 1,300 residents are residing in 38 shelters across the state.

“I think a lot of people were trying to stick it out, but now it’s getting too cold,” said Dawn Leaks, assistant director of the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross.

(See related coverage.)

In Springfield, public schools have been cancelled for the week and by Monday afternoon city residents seeking emergency shelter exceeded the 400-person capacity of the gymnasium and cafeteria at Central High School, causing the city to provide overflow van transportation to the American Red Cross’ regional shelter at Chicopee High School. The number of people in need of food, warmth and shelter from the nor’easter has already exceeded the roughly 350 people who stayed at MassMutual Center in the aftermath of the June 1 tornado.

“It just goes to show the devastation of this storm,” said Helen R. Caulton-Harris, Springfield’s city director of health and human services. “It really does show how widespread and impactful this has been for residents of the city of Springfield.”

State officials report that an unprecedented 1,500 crews were working to restore power, but even so, some residents may be without power until Friday. As of 4 p.m. Monday, 459,809 customers remained without electricity, including 303,683 for National Grid, 112,559 for Western Massachusetts Electric, 34,506 for NStar, and 9,061 for Unitil. Restoration time estimates are available on company websites.

The governor has confirmed three fatalities, including Jeffrey Mattarazzo, 20, of Springfield, who was electrocuted by a downed power line; a Hatfield resident who died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to an improperly ventilated generator; and an elderly woman in Lunenberg who was killed in a house fire in an area that was without power. Falmouth police have also reported the storm played a role in a car crash that killed two people.

In addition to Central and Chicopee High Schools, emergency shelters throughout Western Mass. are located in East Longmeadow at Birchland Park Middle School, Hampden’s Green Meadows School, Westfield State University’s Juniper Park School and Scanlon Hall, Worcester’s Forest Grove Middle School, Sturbridge’s Tantasqua High School and the Fitchburg Senior Center. An American Red Cross regional shelters are located in the cafeteria at Northampton’s Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, Belchertown High, Monson’s Quarry Hill School, Granby High, The Armory in Orange, Palmer’s Converse Middle School and War Memorial in Holyoke. Noble Hospital of Westfield is also providing shelter services to the elderly and those with medical problems.

For more information and locations of emergency shelters that provide heat, food and cots for sleeping call the state’s 211 help number.

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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