Rebuild Western Mass.
Eleven months after last June’s tornadoes tore through Western Massachusetts, the Patrick-Murray Administration announced an additional $520,000 in recovery assistance to fund a recovery manager in Monson and homeowner repairs throughout affected communities. Springfield Partners for Community Action will also receive $30,000 to provide additional funding for their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Monson’s disaster recovery manager will receive $65,000 to identify local needs and opportunities while coordinating state, federal and non-profit assistance opportunities. Additionally, $425,000 will be administered by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) to individual homeowners struggling to pay for repairs due to being under-insured, lack of insurance, or lack of FEMA or other monetary assistance.
Rebuilding homes as is, with updated building codes and including other outdoor structures, such as garages, are sometimes not covered by insurance companies, according to James Mazik, deputy director of operations at PVPC. Mazik says the program will implement a limit of $7,500 per unit, with an additional process of obtaining up to $15,000 per unit.
“[The program] is geared to owner-occupied residents, based a little on medium income, but there’s other guidelines to ensure equal distribution across affected communities,” Mazik said.
Mazik emphasizes the importance of fairly distributing funds to the 19 affected communities, inlcluding Westfield, West Springfield, Springfield, Wilbraham, Monson, Sturbridge and Palmer. He believes the PVPC will modify rules to one of their existing programs that adapts to regulations and restrictions set by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
“It’s great to get the money but there isn’t a lot,” Mazik said.
“If you do the math you’re talking 40-50 units over nine communities, that could be 5 property owners per [affected] community. It’s not a lot but it’s better than nothing.”
The PVPC believes the program can begin implementation within 30 days of receiving a contract with the full terms and conditions from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
Mary-Leah Assad, the Communications Specialist at DHCD, says the contract will be emailed to the PVPC on Wednesday. The town of Monson will also begin the process of hiring a disaster recovery manager.
“The Monson position came up organically through our conversations with the town manager and residents,” Assad said.
“There won’t be a similar position in Springfield because they have Develop Springfield leading recovery efforts and they are responsible for the same duties that the disaster recovery manager will have.”
Springfield’s final Master Plan was released on April 26, a month shy of the anniversary of the tornadoes. DevelopSpringfield, a non-profit organization leading the Rebuild Springfield initiative, will begin taking the steps outlined in their plan, according to Nick Fyntrilakis, chairman of the group’s board of directors.
“Implementation is the next critical step in the process,” Fyntrilakis said in a recent press release. “DevelopSpringfield will quarterback the Master Plan in partnership with the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the City and key stakeholders and the community at large.”
The plan could take three to five years and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, according to Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of the Rebuild Springfield effort.
The plan is dependent on federal disaster aid, state assistance and private contributions. So far, Springfield has received only $5.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), less than ten percent of the $57 million they are expected to pay as part of the disaster declaration’s 75 percent reimbursement. Springfield currently has 39 active FEMA applications, with active project worksheets totaling $22.9 million.
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Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and members of Rebuild Springfield released on Thursday a “master plan” totaling more than 900 pages. The plan was put together by Rebuild Springfield, a private non-profit organization that has been focusing on reviving the city since the tornado hit the city almost 11 months ago.
Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of the Rebuild Springfield effort, told The Republican, "that implementation of the plan could take three to five years, and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars." The funding will be coming from federal disaster aid, some sources in the private sector, and state and federal funding.
The plan took into consideration the input and suggestions from the community that they had collected through community meetings, one-on-one interviews and an online forum set up to share and contribute to ideas. “There has been an extraordinary level of public engagement in the Rebuild Springfield dialogue,” said Sarno. “With over 3,000 individuals participating in the planning process by offering input at public meetings and online.”
Working with the consulting group Concordia LLC of New Orleans, which oversaw the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the plan looks to unify relief efforts by using a communal and democratic process to assess the needs of the residents and business owners.
To customize the rebuilding, plan divides the city into three economically and commercially different districts. District 1 includes the South End and Metro Center, which are mostly commercial and business areas. District 2 focuses on the heavily populated and low-income areas of Maple High, Six Corners, Forest Park and Upper Hill. The third district includes Sixteen Acres and East Forest Park, which is mostly residential and home to Cathedral High School that was directly hit by the tornado.
Beyond rebuilding from the effects of the tornado, the plan also looks to redefine the city as a whole. It focuses on 6 “Nexus Domains”, which were prioritized by public meeting participants. The educational domain, which is at the top of the list, looks to “better engage the public in the process and importance of education reform,” according to the master plan. Other parts of the plan include physical, cultural, social, economic and organizational domains, which address subjects ranging from “transforming vacant lots into public assets” to growing the arts and culture sector of the city with “lighter, quicker and cheaper” events.
“Nobody wants these type of natural disasters or storm clouds,” said Sarno at the master plan press conference. “But two good things are going to come out of this. One we have seen day in and day out. The resiliency of the Springfield people and neighbor helping neighbor. Two, the economic development and monetary assets are going to come to the city of Springfield.”
The tornado-damaged Elias Brookings Elementary school in the Six Corners neighborhood will be rebuilt rather than repaired, Springfield officials announced Friday along with school administration and representatives of Rebuild Springfield.
The school, which has been housed in temporary classrooms since the beginning of the current school year, is an Expeditionary Learning Magnet School focused on English Literary Arts and Math as well as Museum Studies and is one of seven elementary magnet schools in Springfield.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recommended that the school be rebuilt rather than repaired since the structure is so dated, building codes have changed, and there has been a consistent need for more classroom space.
"So to us, it makes sense if you're going to spend millions and millions of dollars, it's to a new facility," Sarno said.
The new building, which is expected to be financed through a combination of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, will cost nearly $28 million, according to the city’s director of capital asset construction. To pay for the construction, FEMA support will be provided through reimbursements and the city will have to cover approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total cost.
A public hearing on May 15 will allow members of the community to weigh in on the future of the project. Construction on the new building is likely get underway in August 2013.
Over 650 people rose from their seats applauding, using the complimentary tissues provided on their tables to dry their eyes as the Guerrero family of West Springfield recently accepted the Hometown Hero Award on behalf of the deceased mother and wife.
Angelica Guerrero was posthumously honored with the Hometown Hero Award, along with five other recipients at the American Red Cross 2012 Hometown Heroes Award Ceremony at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield March 15. Guerrero died during the tornadoes of June 1st while using her body to shield, and save the life of her teenage daughter.
“It’s just nice to have people care about us” said Angelica Guerrero’s 15-year-old daughter, Ibone Guerrero; the daughter she saved when their house collapsed during the June 1st tornadoes. When asked how she felt about receiving the Hometown Heroes Award in her mother’s memory, Ibone Guerrero summed it up in one word; “honored.”
“I think the stories really resonate with people” said Director of Communications and Special Events for the American Red Cross, Dawn Leaks. “Especially Angelica Guerrero, they really empathized with the family and wanted to come out and really show their support.”
Along with Guerrero, Shane Chase, a 13-year-old boy from Ludlow, was also honored with the award for his participation in voluntary work with the clean-up of the aftermath from the June 1st tornadoes. Chase, his older brother Mckinley and his father Alan, saw the damage that the tornadoes did in Monson and wanted to do something to help the folks affected by it.
“I just wanted to help people, honestly” said Chase during his presentation provided by 22News during the ceremony. Alongside his family, Chase traveled to Monson all summer long with their chainsaws and would cut the trees and limbs that had fallen in people’s yards.
Michael Laferriere, a Monson native who nominated Chase for the award said in his presentation “how do you say thank you to work like this? I mean thank you is not really enough. The kid deserves everything he can get.”
Chase and his family have been to Monson to continue their volunteer work almost every weekend. Chase plans to make it another full time commitment this summer as well.
According to Leaks, the committee for choosing the representatives of the Hometown Heroes Award took their time to honor all those from various communities that were affected by the various storms that happened in 2011. “That in itself made it unique” said Leaks. “I think this made it not only our tenth anniversary, but just a really special event.”
Other recipients of the award include Edward Rosienski Jr. and Edward Rosienski III of West Springfield, the Holyoke Police Department Narcotics/Vice Division, Demetrious Faust (another 13 year old boy) of Springfield, and Marcus Blatch and Jose Reyes of Springfield.
“It’s humbling” said Dennis Egan, Retired Narcotics Detective of the Holyoke Police Department, “especially to be up there with all the other award winners.”
Egan, along with the rest of the Narcotics/Vice Division of the Holyoke Police Department received the award based on their tradition of holding a community wide toy drive and spending Christmas Day dressed as Santa Claus and elves handing out presents to underprivileged children. “It’s the poorest city in this state, and for a lot of kids, these are the only gifts they’re going to get, so we feel good about that.”
The Hometown Heroes Award recipients have changed and saved lives to the people of Western Massachusetts. Their heroic stories are emotional and inspiring.
“We keep little packets of tissues on the table deliberately because we know people are going to cry” said Leaks. “It’s just a heartwarming event and you just feel good after you leave and you can run on that high for a couple of weeks.”
Photos by Noelle Richard and Kimberly Kern
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Rita Laferriere never imagined she would be chasing Shane Chase down the halls one year for homework and the next nominating him for the Red Cross Hometown Hero Award.
"When he [Shane] told me where he was working and what he was doing, it was very emotional in the classroom because I realized he was up here at my son’s house,” said Laferriere, Chase's former teacher.
The eighth grader from Ludlow who armed himself with a 20-inch blade chainsaw and cut down trees with his brother and his father after the June 1 tornadoes received the Hometown Hero award from the American Red Cross on Thursday.
Shane Chase, 14, of Ludlow was one of six honorees out of 60 nominations and was cited for his extraordinary efforts in the cleanup of the tornadoes.
"The young man who receives this award is fourteen years old but old enough to know that he has a very compassionate heart,” said Honorary Co-Chair Sky Becker of 22News
“I just wanted to help the people,” Shane told 22News.
Shane has logged more than 400 hours of community volunteer hours cutting trees, hauling brush, running brush clippers, and moving fallen trees.
Shane’s father, Alan Chase, said of the award “It was neat, something we didn’t expect.".
Shane, one of the youngest Hometown Heroes, was also nominated by Michael and Geri Laferriere, whose home he has been working on since last June.
“I think this is a small token of appreciation,” said Michael Laferriere. “Writing a letter is the least I can do. Not a lot of kids his age are going out doing stuff like that every weekend, and they don’t get here at 2 or 3 o’clock, they are here early in the morning.”
Shane’s mother was the first person he told he would be getting the award, which will be placed on a shelf, in the family room for everyone to see.
Shane started working with a chainsaw before the June 1 tornadoes. Alan Chase, allowed him to cut up pieces of pallets at home but when the tornadoes hit, that is when Shane got all of his experience.
Both Shane and his brother Mckinley, 17, who received a certificate at the ceremony as well, each have personal 20-inch blade chainsaws.
‘Chase and Sons Chainsaw Team’ has worked in all the affected areas of the tornado. Mckinley Chase has friends in the fire department of Monson which drew them specifically to that area.
“We just went down to the church and said ‘what can we do?’” said Mckinley Chase.
Shane works every weekend, getting up around 9 each morning and working a full day until he is tired. He plans to work every day in the summer.
“Every day, depending on the temperature,” said Chase. “If it’s 150 degrees, then I’ll stay home.”
Shane is also an active boy scout with Troop 164.
In the future, Shane plans to be a contractor while doing tree work on the side. Mckinley is going to school to be an electrician. Shane hopes one day he and his brother can own a business together.
“He can work for me or something,” said Shane Chase.
Alan Chase has arranged a ‘Hometown Hero Meet and Greet’ open to the public on April 7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 170 Main Street, Monson, where the public can meet their new Hometown Hero.
"Chase and Sons Chainsaw Team" has been trying to get donations since last November. The price in gas for the commute and to fuel their equipment is becoming too pricey for the family to handle on their own. The team is accepting donations towards a wood chipper which can be mailed to Alan Chase at 174 Poole St, Ludlow, MA.
Photos by Kim Kern
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The Main Street section of the South End in Springfield, which is largely known for its Italian restaurants, delis and grocers, was heavily hit by last June’s tornadoes. The section has already started to rebound with grants, insurance claims and private funds. Rebuild Springfield, a partnership formed by Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, DevelopSpringfield and the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, has been offering grants up to $10,000 to help renovate storefronts in the South End.
Although the area is still visibly damaged with boarded up storefronts, stripped trees, and tarped roofs, Rebuild Springfield recently unveiled a “master plan” mapping out the path to recovery.
Rebuild Springfield hired Concordia, LLC, a New Orleans based consulting group, to help with the rebuild project. Concordia has been involved with past disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina, producing the Unified New Orleans Plan. The plan was developed to unify the fragmented relief efforts in New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
According to Rebuild Springfield, 74 small businesses and nonprofits were affected in some degree in Springfield alone. Since then, 47 of these establishments have reopened in their existing locations, with 18 moving into temporary or new spaces. Nine businesses are still seeking new spaces.
The grants, which were available prior to the tornado as a way to rejuvenate the downtown area, have since become less of a consolation and more of a necessity for the impacted businesses. The grants offered require a 25 percent match by the business.
Milano Imports, a market and deli that’s been on Main Street since 1968, was in the direct path of the tornado and suffered significant damage. The owners were awarded the full $10,000 grant to help defray the costs of reviving their storefront, according to co-owner Nick Recchia.
“They were nice enough to help with the awning, the new front windows, the new signage for the front,” said Recchia, “The grant covered it all, we just had to pay the 25 percent.”
Business in the South End is back to normal or better according to some owners that have been able to reopen.
“I can’t really say how much percentage it’s been up, but we've surpassed the numbers last year at this time of year,” said Recchia, ”but I'm thinking maybe 10 percent.”
He cites his loyal following of customers as being a vital part in helping improve business.
The storm has also not stopped one new business from moving into the damaged area. A new eatery is already in the works at 912 Main St., to be called Carpaccio Restaurant. With the help of a $25,000 small business loan from the Office of Planning and Economic Development, the business looks to open this spring.
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By Amy Chaunt & Anna Meiler
Monson residents struggling to rebuild and recover after the June 1 tornado had a chance to meet with the Massachusetts Division of Insurance Wednesday night -- the first of many "drop in" meetings to check up on the affected communities in Western Massachusetts.
“I think we’re getting to the point now where we have people with more challenging situations that need more direct assistance,” said Monson Town Administrator, Gretchen Neggers.
Three counselors from the Division of Insurance were present to offer advice and tips to the tornado victims. Eleven affected families attended the meetings, but due to the complexity of each situation, the counselors were busy nonstop for the entire four-hour session.
“I think people want to know that someone is paying attention to their situation. We can’t always fix it and we can’t always fix it the way they want it but we can certainly listen and do our best to get them some information,” said Karen Blomquist, deputy commissioner for Communications and Operations at the Massachusetts Division of Insurance.
Each circumstance is unique, but common themes can be identified at the root of many insurance issues.
These problems include residents being under-insured, being unaware of the true costs of replacement and missing records that were destroyed by the tornado. In some cases, there’s a disagreement about what the value of something is, a common issue in insurance negotiations, according to Blomquist.
“If you stopped any ten consumers on the street in a town that hadn’t been hit by a tornado and asked them did they have full replacement value in their homeowners policy, nine of them would say ‘I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s not the sort of thing you think about until you need to make a claim,” she said. “So some of this is getting the multiple sides of the story together.”
Each case is reviewed by the counselors, who act as intermediaries by reaching out to the insurance companies to address the obstacles faced by homeowners.
“Frequently it is a matter of getting everybody to a place where they can agree on what the true circumstances are and sometimes that’s just a process of having a third party come into the conversation and try to bring everyone together,” said Bomquist.
However, in the case that a homeowner files a complaint, the Division of Insurance initiates an investigation of the company.
Such is the case of Monson resident, Geri Germain, who has been in a constant battle with her insurance company since the tornado.
“They know about our ongoing battle with our public adjuster not doing what we hired him to do and not returning any phone calls and hence, not getting any answers in return from our insurance company,” she said. “So that’s left us with not getting our walls gutted out of our house. The walls are still in the same condition that they were in the day the tornado hit June 1.”
Germain and her 79-year-old mother and 11-year-old daughter are currently living in a rental on Hovey Rd. Each month, they face the fear of eviction. Germain was laid off two weeks before the tornado and can’t afford the rental costs of $3,000 per month.
"Going day to day not knowing when you're going to get back in your house, not knowing where your going to live in a few weeks and you know the possibility of being homeless," she said. "Words can't describe it, you know, it's sickening," Germain said.
The Division of Insurance is investigating the case and Germain has recently hired a lawyer.
Thirty families are currently enrolled in the Monson Long-Term Recovery Program. Neggers estimates that this number represents the total number of families struggling from insurance problems, as turning to the long-term recovery program is usually a last resort.
For families who didn’t attend the meeting tonight, Neggers said the families can fill out complaint forms available at Monson's selectman's offices or online at www.mass.gov/doi.
The Massachusetts Division of Insurance has also activated their consumer hotline number, (617) 521-7777 for residents seeking assistance.
By Kim Kern and Noelle Richard
Evan Brassard, the new Emergency Management Director (EMD) of the town of Monson, has been working nonstop at rebuilding the community since the June 1 tornado destroyed the town.
Brassard spends roughly 10 hours a week working to ensure a better response plan for future disasters and coordinating responders to finding the proper resources they need. However, with meetings, trainings and events, the time he spends could lengthen. He receives an annual stipend of $1,500.
“It may not seem like a lot,” said Brassard. “But with a wedding this year, my masters, a new home, and a full time job, it can be tough to find the time.”
Although it is more time than he anticipated, he is glad he took the job.
Brassard was appointed on Aug 23, more than two months after the June 1 tornado and he has spent a good deal of time evaluating how town officials responded.
“Our response personnel could have spent more time doing what they do best, responding to the incident at hand,” said Brassard. “The EMD could have coordinated critical resources while the Incident Commander and supporting personnel focused on response.”
“It’s Monson, nobody thinks of a tornado. It’s not like our typical natural disaster that we see up here."
Recently, Brassard put together the After Action Report/Improvement Plan for Monson. The report analyzes the strengths of the town, areas for improvement, and strategies to go about implementing the plan.
“There are three big sections that pop out,” said Brassard. “One is communication, one is a lack of training, and one is a framework of employees to handle a situation of that magnitude.”
“Evan is great. I am really excited about the plan,” said Karen King, founder of Street Angels. “We have learned from this experience and we are going to be moving on. It’s like, we put it on the table, everybody had their opinion on what it was and now we are making an action plan and Evan is super about that.”
Monson’s response to both Hurrican Irene and the freak Nor’easter last October was more organized. It was evident that the lessons learned during the tornado were put into action and that everyone better understood their roles, said Brassard.
“He is focused and we just want to make sure that we are ready, we are going to hit the ground running next time,” said King.
The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meets every two months to strategize on how to implement the After Action Improvement Plan. The committee is made up of town officials and government working to make progress in the preparedness and response.
The LEPC has made strides in revising the emergency plan and response manuals and have also added positions that, had they been filled during the tornado, would have made the response more flawless, said Brassard.
The LEPC has also been collaborating with the town departments who were not involved during the response pre-tornado; who can now be seen as vital to future endeavors said Brassard.
The town of Monson is planning a practice disaster drill, hopefully by the end of summer.
“I like it that we are all moving forward,” said Karen King. “Evan has got all the players in town, transportation people, everybody in there that he needs to and we are diligently working on this plan.”
Photo: Courtesy of Evan Brassard
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Neal announced on Monday at the First Church of Monson that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give the town $2,887,541 for debris removal and disposal, about 60 percent of the actual cost.
“We are very grateful to receive the reimbursement,” said town administrator Gretchen Neggers. “But, we have a long way to go.” The debris removal alone has cost the town of Monson $4.7 million according to Neggers.
In an interview with MassLive, Neal said, “What I think you want to do is see the good side of this. It’s $2.9 million they didn’t have.”
The town hired Ashbritt Enivromental, a debris removal company based out of Florida with experience in thirty federally declared major disasters in eleven states according to the company’s website, at the recommendation of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The bill for its services has yet to be paid.
The roughly $2.9 million FEMA reimbursement is the most substantial aid for tornado recovery to the town thus far.
The agency has pledged to reimburse the town for 75% of the damages, although has recently faced criticism for the speed that checks for recovery efforts are received as the six month mark passes.
The total cost of damages by the tornado has been estimated at $6.4 million.
During the last week of November, the town was reimbursed $465,000 for costs of emergency response crews within the first 70 hours immediately following the storm.
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The Monson community has experienced many twists and turns this year. Here is a look back on the tornado recovery efforts in town since September.
Replanting Monson Tree Committee chairwoman Audra Staples brings along husband Dana and daughter River to participate in a tree planting ceremony hosted by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Photo by Lindsey Davis
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.