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Officials assess tornado damage

Look to see if state qualifies for relief

A damage assessment team made up of federal, state, and local officials toured the East Forest Park neighborhood yesterday in Springfield, one of the areas hardest hit by the tornadoes. A damage assessment team made up of federal, state, and local officials toured the East Forest Park neighborhood yesterday in Springfield, one of the areas hardest hit by the tornadoes. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Shelley Murphy and Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — As Sher Papapietro scanned the damage to her lakeview home yesterday, it did not seem like much. But disaster is all around her. Trees that once attracted wildlife have been reduced to rubble. Home windows are broken. Some of her neighbors houses in East Forest Park are condemned.

“It’s not the structure that is hurting,’’ she said, choking back tears. “It’s our hearts. We’ve lost our community.’’

In Springfield yesterday, a team of local, state, and federal officials talked with Papapietro and other homeowners affected by last week’s tornadoes as they tried to assess the damage.

Nine teams fanned out across the hardest-hit areas in Springfield, West Springfield, Westfield, Monson, and Southbridge to survey hundreds of homes, businesses, schools, bridges, roadways, and other public property. Their goal was to attach a cost to debris removal, emergency response, and physical damage to see if the state qualifies for federal disaster relief.

Damage to public property must reach nearly $8.3 million statewide for the state to qualify for federal disaster relief, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. In addition, he said, each county must sustain a minimum amount of damage, based on population. That is nearly $2.5 million in Worcester County, about $1.5 million in Hampden County, and $500,000 in Hampshire County.

Governor Deval Patrick, who has toured the damaged communities, said yesterday, “We have to qualify, but I expect we will qualify.’’

He said the damage estimates are expected to be completed within the week. The assessment teams are expected to be in other damaged communities today.

The three tornadoes, which struck Central and Western Massachusetts Wednesday, killed three people and injured about 200, according to authorities. Damage was reported in 19 cities and towns.

The first and most powerful tornado struck Westfield at 4:17 p.m., and wind speed reached 160 miles per hour as it plowed a path of destruction 39 miles long and a half-mile at its widest, according to the National Weather Service.

By yesterday, many residents remained displaced by the tornadoes, and 232 people had spent the night on cots at MassMutual Center, which has been serving as a shelter, said Thomas T. Walsh, a spokesman for Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield.

The city’s Fire Department continued to hand out tarps to people, along with warnings not to cover chimneys or ventilation ducts while covering rooftops.

Gregory Bialecki, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, toured Springfield’s heavily damaged business district and worst-hit neighborhood yesterday.

“We don’t want this to be a reason that anybody moves their family or their business out of Springfield,’’ Bialecki said. “I think the most important message to folks is they are not alone. There are a lot of public resources and a lot of private people willing to help.’’

Many business owners who were unscathed by the tornadoes have offered office space, Internet service, and telephones to help other businesses that were not so lucky go back to work, Bialecki said.

The state has set up three recovery centers near affected areas in Springfield, Southbridge, and the Monson/Palmer line where people can get help with housing, food, and employment issues. The state is also offering advice on its website, mass.gov/stormrecovery.

Patrick filed a supplemental budget bill yesterday that includes $10 million for costs associated with the emergency response to the tornadoes.

Members of a disaster assessment team, including representatives from the American Red Cross, Small Business Administration, FEMA, and City Hall began to track down the winding Arcadia Street yesterday, pausing by boarded-up houses and scribbling on notepads.

At 115 Arcadia St., where an X written in orange marked one side of the house, a building inspector gave his declaration.

“This one is probably a demo,’’ he said, referring to a demolition.

Papapietro called out: “Are you from FEMA? I need to talk to someone from FEMA.’’

Papapietro, 50, said she and her neighbors felt left in the dark since the disaster struck, and she wanted team officials to assess the damage to her home of 18 years.

Kevin Prior, who works for the state’s emergency management agency, assured her that her home was not ignored and that another team had assessed damages on Arcadia Street last week.

That was little comfort to Jimmy Mitchell, a 25-year resident who has grown frustrated with what he sees as the slow pace of federal assistance. He was so angry he posted an American flag on the tree on his front lawn, with the words scribbled on white paper, “Waiting for Obama.’’

“They need to come out and tell us something,’’ said Mitchell. “We have people in the neighborhood who don’t have insurance.’’

Outside his home, behind a mound of downed trees, Jim Fish, 70, marveled at how hot it was, now that the trees have been uprooted. He said he recently remodeled his home of 22 years and was ready to put it on the market before the tornado destroyed it.

“The home is condemned,’’ he said wiping away tears. “I’m sick of crying. If everything goes well, the insurance company is going to write me a check, and then I’m heading down to Knoxville, Tennessee.’’

Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com; Irons at mirons@globe.com.