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Storm damaged comeback hope

In Springfield, twisters struck city on the mend

By David Abel and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — Trees were falling well before the tornadoes hit.

When the state took over this city’s finances in 2004, the result of multimillion-dollar deficits and years of mismanagement, the onetime manufacturing center faced lawsuits from residents angry about dead tree limbs falling on their cars and houses.

The city, which at the time could not afford to prune its trees, emerged from state control in 2009, with an increasing budget, population, and tax base. More recently, city officials have been making long-needed improvements and have even amassed a rainy day fund of $30 million.

Now, as the city struggles to recover from last week’s three devastating tornadoes, officials are seeking approval from the City Council to run a deficit for the first time since the city emerged from its five years under state control, a stark symbol of how Springfield has been set back just as it was recovering.

“I’ve gone after everything — federal, state, and local level — every dime I can put my hands on,’’ Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said last week at a press conference at the city’s emergency operations center. “It is tough because we’re an urban center, and like many other urban centers . . . we also face urban challenges . . . And now this happens.’’

Neither he nor other city officials could say how much the tornadoes would cost Springfield, but they estimated it would probably be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I don’t even want to put a figure on it,’’ Sarno said, “but I can tell you it will be astronomical.

“And then, how do you put a price tag on the moral trauma that these people have gone through?’’

Yesterday, 232 people in the city remained homeless. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, including two elementary schools and a large city building in the South End neighborhood.

City officials vowed Friday to meet the challenge to rebuild.

The city, the state’s third largest, once produced everything from cars to guns and became famous as the birthplace of Dr. Seuss and basketball. After plugging a $41 million deficit and sweeping out corrupt officials — 33 have been convicted in a federal investigation over the past decade — the city had been reclaiming its heritage. But with much of its manufacturing base long gone, problems persisted.

This spring, the city’s unemployment rate remained at nearly 12 percent, well above the state and national averages. In 2009, nearly one-quarter of the city’s households survived on less than $15,000 a year, according to a survey by the US Census Bureau. The same year, the city’s teen pregnancy rate remained the second highest in the state, according to a report by MassINC and the Urban Initiative of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; and last year, Springfield ranked as the nation’s 35th most violent city, according to the FBI.

But the city’s population increased nearly 1 percent in the past decade, to more than 153,000 residents, according to the US Census Bureau, and its budget was projected to increase to nearly $545 million next fiscal year, 12 percent more than five years ago. Its bond rating was upgraded to a step below perfect.

“This won’t be easy, and the loss of revenue is certainly a concern,’’ said Lee Erdmann, the city’s chief administrative and financial officer, citing the impact of businesses affected by the tornado. “The city will recover, and we’re going to look at this as an opportunity to rebuild the sections of the city that need to be rebuilt. We’ll manage the expenses as tightly as we can and seek 100 percent reimbursement.’’

He added: “We will maintain our financial stability.’’

Local business leaders said as many as 80 companies in the city have closed as a result of the tornadoes. Many others have struggled to stay open without power.

“This is a major inconvenience, but it’s just a pause for us,’’ said Jeffrey Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, pointing out that the city has asked local landlords to provide empty space to companies that have lost their buildings. “I don’t think it’s a major setback. We’ll be back.’’

Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said the city will have to shift plans, as redevelopment projects had been underway in several neighborhoods.

“But this is not going to turn back the effort to revitalize the city,’’ he said. “It will slow it. It will command resources that might have gone to other purposes. But I do not see this as stopping the city’s turnaround.’’

State Senator James T. Welch, a Democrat who represents Springfield, said he thinks about 500 homes and other buildings must be rebuilt.

“When you walk around and see the damage, it’s not something you can really get your mind around,’’ he said. “It’s one thing to see one building, but when you see blocks of neighborhoods completely wiped out, it’s unbelievable, and you feel terrible for the families that are displaced.’’

Among those homeless is Carmen Rodriguez, 39, who uses a wheelchair. Last week, she was one of nearly 300 people at a shelter at Central High School.

She said she had been nearly swept away by a tornado. “The guy upstairs grabbed me and took me inside, just as it was coming by,’’ she said. “If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be here.’’

Inside the school’s cafeteria, displaced residents ate sandwiches and sought housing aid from local officials. Next door, in the gym, rows of cots covered the parquet floor. Some tried to sleep while others took inventory of their remaining possessions, which were in plastic bags.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, tomorrow or next week,’’ said Rodriguez. “All I know is that I lost everything, and it really seems hopeless right now. I don’t know if things will change in Springfield now.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com; Brian R. Ballou at bballou@globe.com.