One year after a tornado devasted much of Springfield, recovery in the city has been slow – thanks mainly to a City Hall that seems continually understaffed and to a slow response by the federal government.
Today, homeowners and renters in the city continue to struggle with insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. The city itself continues to struggle with financial afflictions that plagued it for years before the tornado even hit. Its economic situation has complicated rebuilding efforts, leading city officials to lobby for funds -- both state and federal -- to restore the city not only to its pre-tornado state, but to where it found itself 70 years ago when it was recognized as the heart of Western New England.
In hopes of accomplishing this restoration, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority and the non-profit DevelopSpringfield teamed up to create ‘Rebuild Springfield’, a public and private sector initiative to rebuild the city in the wake of the tornado. ’Rebuild Springfield’ began putting together a “master plan” for revitalizing the city in October 2011. The plan was finalized in February 2012 and officially released to the public April 26. It is more than 900 pages long.
Kevin Kennedy, who sits on DevelopSpringfield’s board and is also Springfield’s chief development officer, said efforts to revitalize the city were in motion before the tornado struck, but said that the tornado “compiled on top of issues that were already there.”
Kennedy believed that the June 1 tornado “brought the city together” as a whole and that giving residents a chance to voice their opinions on the plan was “something that really energized the citizens.”
“There is a bit of a silver lining here in the sense that [the tornado] brought the community together,” he said.
The report provides recommendations for serious procedural overhauls and the creation of an array of citywide programs and initiatives to address the culmination of years of troubling housing and fiscal issues that have been exacerbated as a result of last June’s tornado.
Among other things, the plan highlights a myriad of issues regarding the city’s struggles to track vacancies, foreclosed homes, city-owned properties, and address overall blight, all things that have been further complicated by last June’s tornado. It recommends the creation of “an electronic inventory of vacant land and derelict structures” that can be accessed by the public and the development of a system for “permanently redeveloping vacant land and derelict structures” that at present the city does not have in place.
In a city once referred to as the ‘City of Homes’ because of its abundance of elegant, Victorian-style houses, Census data shows that nine percent of Springfield’s housing units are now vacant. Non-census estimates in the plan have this number varying from 11 to 12.5 percent.
The plan calls for the creation of a “comprehensive structure” in the city to document and track landlords and hold them accountable for decrepit buildings or poor living conditions, which at present the city does not have in place. Census data in the plan indicates 45.2 percent of all housing units in Springfield are renter-occupied, and in the city’s South End neighborhood -- one of the areas hardest hit by the tornado -- this number is as high as 90%.
The plan recognizes that “Springfield’s rebuilding needs exceed the availability of current funding opportunities” and that “a dedicated Federal appropriation will be necessary to close various financing gaps presented in or as a result of the Plan.”
“The idea is to raise as much funds as possible from any source possible, private or public,” he said. “The way the process works on the tornado rebuild is that you can’t do much until you have maximized your FEMA reimbursement.”
Kevin Sweeney, executive director of DevelopSpringfield, said the organization and the city will continue seeking funds for the ‘Rebuild Springfield’ plan moving forward.
“Our role is to help the city evaluate where projects fit from a priority perspective and resource perspective, and look where holes need to be filled,” he said. “Even when you have FEMA and private money, there are going to be whole areas that are under-resourced.”
The full 'Rebuild Springfield' plan can be viewed here.
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.”
Springfield's South End Community Center -- once a vital hub of social life in the neighborhood -- still remains partially reduced to rubble at its location on Howard Street -- nine months after a tornado devastated several communities in Western Massachusetts.
But “Rebuild Springfield,” a public-private master plan unveiled in January, recommends that the Center move to the Gemini site, a three-acre city-owned property with frontage on Main, Central, and Winthrop streets.
Joseph Gallo, head of the board of directors of the South End Community Center, says that the neighborhood needs a new community center with a track, pool, and basketball courts.
"High school principals on my board support the need for these things," Gallo said to The Republican. "We need to give kids a basketball, not a syringe."
Gallo suggests that the city rebuild the Center on Morris Street, which runs along the Gemini site.
Despite being displaced, the Community Center has been continuing some satellite programs around the city, according to Executive Director Chae Swan. These have included a boxing program at the YMCA of Greater Springfield and an after-school program at Milton Bradley School. They also plan to run their summer program at Central High School.
The Center once hosted a multitude of activities including boxing, basketball, indoor soccer, volleyball, open gym, health classes, a school-to-work program, and an anti-gang program. They also rented the gym to entities that provided activities such as karate and dance classes.
More than 25,000 people participated in the Center's various activities, Swan said. But being displaced has made it difficult to serve the community in the way they did before the storm.
“We're still in the thousands [of participants], but we have nowhere near the number we served before,” he said.
Debris is currently being removed from the back of the original South End Community Center, according to officials. They said that the city will seek proposals for renovating the front of the historic building.
The Center's administrative offices have recently moved into a modular trailer across the street from the new site, which was home to a turn-of-the-century textile mill that burned down in 2003. Its remediation was completed in 2008 with clean up grant funds from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, according to the City's website. In October 2009, the city spent an additional $200,000 on further improvements that included leveling the lot, planting trees, and constructing sidewalks on Morris and Central Street.
But it may be a while before the new Center is built.
“There's a lot of preliminary testing and things to get ready,” Swan said. “We certainly have no shovel-in-ground date yet.”
There will be a press event on March 8 at 4 pm at the Gemini site about the new Community Center.
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 email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Four months after a tornado tore through Springfield’s South End, much of the neighborhood is still in disrepair with businesses closed or relocated, housed boarded up, and reconstruction moving slowly.
Unlike the town of Monson, which also suffered through the storm, there appears to be a greater amount of destruction in Springfield and little visible community organization to support reconstruction efforts.
Below are pictures of the destruction taken during a tour of the area on Sept. 23.
A 2008 photo of the front of Dave's Furniture store on Main and Union. Compare this photo to the one below, taken 9/23/11. (Thanks to Tony Mateus of thepioneervalley.blogspot.com for the use of his photo.)
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.