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A year after deadly tornado, Springfield neighborhood still reels

Springfield’s Six Corners neighborhood, plagued by foreclosures before the tornado, has been slow to recover. Springfield’s Six Corners neighborhood, plagued by foreclosures before the tornado, has been slow to recover. (PHOTOS BY SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)
June 1, 2012
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This story was reported and written by Globe correspondents Rachel Roberts, Julie Varney, and Matt McCarron and by Matt Carroll of the Globe staff.

SPRINGFIELD - Twelve-year-old Christopher Lisojo was standing on the front porch with his father when he spotted the gray-black funnel cloud, a swirl of 160-mile-an-hour winds darkening the western sky.

His parents were planning to buy the house they had been renting in the Six Corners neighborhood, and the family already felt right at home, barbecuing with neighbors on Memorial Day just two days before. Within minutes, though, the tornado carved a quarter-mile-wide gash through the heart of this city, tearing a wall off their house, and leaving behind only memories of their old life.

“It was like someone just blew a grenade in our ears,’’ recalled Christopher, who said he still suffers flashbacks of the tornado that exactly one year ago killed three people and damaged or destroyed 1,400 buildings across the region.

Today, the two-story house where Christopher lived leans to the left, one in a row of condemned houses, their windows boarded up and the grass overgrown behind chain-link fences that did not prevent looters from taking stoves, radiators, and anything else they could carry off.

Significant parts of the state’s third-largest city are still reeling from the most destructive tornado to hit New England in 60 years. While more suburban communities along the storm’s 39-mile track gradually recover, lower-income neighborhoods in Springfield, such as Six Corners and the South End, lack the resources to rebuild, housing specialists say. Plagued by foreclosures and empty houses before the tornado hit, sections of these neighborhoods seem almost abandoned.

Waleska Quinones, who lived behind the Lisojo family, is one of the lucky ones, though she hardly feels that way. She lost her home, too, but insurance paid enough for her to get a new one, one of only two new houses in a neighborhood where 39 had to be demolished because of storm damage. But when Quinones looks out her new windows, she sees the empty, broken homes where neighbors once lived.

“I feel like I’m still back in the tornado. I feel like I never got out of it,’’ said Quinones.

Waiting for aid

Government aid has been both limited and painfully slow in coming, many residents say, leaving ruined buildings to attract partying teenagers, drug dealers, and vandals while agencies haggle over who should pay the $30,000 to 35,000 bill to tear each one down.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved more disaster relief for Springfield’s low-income neighborhoods than anywhere else in the disaster area, but almost all of the money went to renters who lost possessions, rather than rebuilding. And FEMA still has paid Springfield less than a quarter of the $57 million the city is owed for tornado-related expenses, saying the city has not filed the necessary paperwork.

“We can’t keep spending at this pace’’ on disaster recovery without federal support, said Mayor Domenic J. Sarno. He recently hired a New Orleans-based consulting firm that worked on recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to help speed federal aid, saying the city would “fight tooth and nail’’ for its share.

The recovery of Six Corners “has been frustratingly slow for the city,’’ admitted Gerry McCafferty, Springfield’s director of housing, saying that city lawyers have been to court with property owners almost weekly in an effort to keep cleanup efforts moving forward. Even so, the city now has nine so-called walk-away houses in Six Corners and the South End, condemned buildings that should be demolished, but the owners either have disappeared or have no money.

Scarcely a mile to the east, the more affluent East Forest Park section of Springfield, where incomes are nearly four times the $17,000 average in Six Corners, provides a striking contrast of how a community can bounce back from natural disaster.

Both neighborhoods sustained severe damage, but a year later, East Forest Park property owners are almost three times more likely to have rebuilt or repaired than owners in Six Corners or the South End. A Globe analysis of city records shows that homeowners in Six Corners and the South End have closed the building permits on 31 of 264 residential housing units, indicating that only 12 percent of the rebuilding work is done. In East Forest Park, homeowners have closed 125 building permits on 379 housing units, a 33 percent work completion rate.

City officials cautioned that actual work completion rates in both areas may be somewhat higher once the permit record is brought up to date.

And few people abandon property in East Forest Park: 17 new homes are either built or under construction on the sites of houses destroyed by the storm, city records show.

When “you take the tornado tour, you get a tour of two different worlds in one city,’’ said Peter Gagliardi, executive director of HAP Housing, a regional nonprofit that helps low-income people obtain housing.

“We’re talking about people who didn’t have a lot before the tornado came,’’ Gagliardi explained about Six Corners. “There is a perception of a disparity here, and it really has to do with the capacity of people to use their insurance and perhaps borrow money to make the repairs and improvements.’’

For many who live in the low-income neighborhoods, all the fenced-off, wrecked buildings trigger a familiar feeling of abandonment. They believe they got less police protection than other neighborhoods in the days after the tornado when looters were breaking in to damaged houses, and they point to abandoned properties that still have not been demolished two years after the city took possession of them.

“I’ve been calling the city for a year about this one,’’ said Jerry Collins, who lives next door to a city-owned brick building at 366 Hancock St. that lost virtually its entire third story to the tornado. “There’s no way that building should be there.’’

“We’re always the forgotten ones,’’ added Quinones, whose property behind the Lisojo family sat next to an enormous pile of storm debris for 10 months despite her complaints. “Many times in the past, we just took it, like how they never plow us out in the winter time. This time . . .. I think the city was a little embarrassed.’’

Awash in vacant homes

Springfield, which has the fourth-lowest per capita income in Massachusetts, has wrestled with a serious abandoned property problem for years. On the day before the tornado, Springfield listed more than 150 condemned residential housing units - one dating to 1995 - keeping officials at the city’s Blight Reduction Program busy cajoling property owners to restore or demolish derelict properties.

“We were already fighting a large amount of blight on May 31,’’ said assistant city solicitor Lisa deSousa.

Much of the blight stems from the foreclosure crisis, which has hit Springfield harder than almost any other place in Massachusetts. In 2010 and 2011, 1,066 properties in the city were taken over by lenders because the owners did not make payments, according to the Warren Group. Most of these properties remain empty until they are resold by a bank.

Springfield is “seeing hundreds and hundreds of homes that are vacant because banks choose to evict after foreclosure,’’ said Malcolm Chu, community organizer at Springfield No One Leaves, a group dedicated to helping former owners and tenants stay in their homes after foreclosure.

Some city officials say the tornado may have been useful in the sense that it spurred public and private groups to develop an ambitious revitalization program for the city, “Rebuild Springfield.’’ The 900-page plan, released in April, aims to reverse years of urban decay in a city whose population peaked in 1960.

But the plan, not yet funded, will not provide any near-term relief for tornado victims. First, the city has to develop an electronic inventory of abandoned and derelict properties before Rebuild Springfield can devise a strategy to redevelop them.

When the tornado touched down at 4:17 p.m. last June 1, cutting an arrow-straight path from Westfield to Sturbridge, the natural disaster damaged or destroyed 357 apartments around Springfield. In the months that followed, many storm victims had no choice but to leave their neighborhood.

Christopher Lisojo’s family realized only after the tornado that they, too, were victims of the foreclosure crisis. The family had moved to their modest two-story home at 50 Spruce St. in 2007, agreeing to a rent-to-own contract with their landlords, Harold J. and Susan Lynch. For five years, the family said they paid the Lynches monthly in the belief that they would own their house by the end of June 2011.

But Christopher’s mother, Lillian Santiago, got another nasty surprise after the tornado literally ripped the wall off her daughter’s bedroom, blew out all her windows, and shifted the entire second floor: Bank of America had foreclosed on the Lynches in September 2010 and did not recognize the family’s informal rent-to-own agreement. It turned out that Santiago had been mailing a rent check for nearly a year to a couple that did not own the house.

“We thought we had a home,’’ said Santiago. “You know, everyone’s dream: Owning your own home, paying everything, maintaining the property, but come to find out [the house] wasn’t ours.’’

The Globe could not find the Lynches and Bank of America officials declined to comment. In the end, Lillian Santiago accepted a $4,000 “cash-for-keys’’ settlement with the bank and they moved to another part of the city.

As a result, Six Corners lost a family motivated to build their lives there and gained another empty bank-owned property. Now, the city has obtained a court order calling for the building’s demolition by July 9.

Little incentive to build

It’s unlikely that the soon-to-be vacant lot will have a new house on it any time soon, mainly because the projected sale price of any new home is so low. Carmine Capua, the Westfield contractor who built Quinones’s new house, said builders project that they would get back roughly half their construction costs for new houses in Six Corners.

“Unless you have a homeowner . . . who wants to stay in the neighborhood, it makes no sense,’’ Capua explained as he put the finishing touches on Quinones’s new home. “If you’re an investor, it makes no sense.’’

Even among Six Corners residents who clearly own their houses, many did not get enough insurance coverage to rebuild, according to building code enforcement commissioner Steven Desilets. As a result, they are living like Ismael Luna on Hawthorne Street where, for the last year, the kitchen ceiling has sagged and chips of plaster keep falling onto the stove and other appliances below.

“My insurance only covered the roof and the inside of the attic,’’ Luna explained. So his 29-year-old daughter just kept moving the stove to avoid the falling plaster chips.

Waleska Quinones thought she had enough insurance to rebuild, but she, too, had significant problems getting the money. Her house on 44 Clark St. was declared a complete loss, with estimated repair bills at $253,363.

But her insurer paid $77,000 less than that, saying the 106-year-old house had depreciated under her ownership. In addition, the insurer paid just $10,000 for the contents of the house, a tiny fraction of the costs of replacing them.

Now, Quinones is deeply in debt while trying to provide for herself, her husband, five daughters, a mother with Alzheimer’s, her grandmother, and her uncle.

“If there is a lesson in this, it’s pull out your insurance policy and make sure that what you think you’re getting is what you’re actually getting,’’ said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, director of Catholic Charities in Springfield, which assisted more than 300 tornado victims with emergency expenses like temporary housing and debris cleanup.

But there’s another lesson, say Six Corners residents. In communities with more resources, the tornado could bring people closer together, inspiring volunteer groups and spontaneous barn-raisings where neighbors helped neighbors.

But in Six Corners, the disaster drove people out altogether and left those who remained with a grim landscape and a sense of hopelessness.

“The tornado came in and didn’t just take homes,’’ said Quinones. “It took families, it took friendships, it took history away.’’

This project was produced by an investigative reporting class at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in collaboration with the Globe. Globe correspondent T.J. Houpes contributed to this report. Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

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Xiomara Luna kept moving the stove in her father’s kitchen because chips of plaster from the sagging ceiling fall on the appliances below. Ismael Luna said his insurance ‘only covered the roof and the inside of the attic.’