THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Tornado victims seeking $90m

Insurance claims hint at full costs

A tornado that moved though Springfield last week left behind a trail of destruction. State officials are still tallying the cost. A tornado that moved though Springfield last week left behind a trail of destruction. State officials are still tallying the cost. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan and Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — Homeowners in the path of last week’s tornados have already filed $90 million in residential insurance claims, state officials said yesterday, giving the first glimpse of the cost of one of the worst Massachusetts disasters in recent memory.

The ultimate price tag will probably be significantly higher because the preliminary figure released yesterday did not include many automobile and business claims. And homeowners continued to crowd state disaster response centers yesterday in Palmer and two other outposts in Central and Western Massachusetts to make new claims.

The $90 million reflects almost 5,000 insurance claims filed by yesterday, Barbara Anthony, the state undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation said at a press conference. As she spoke, chunks of bark, branches, and a downed lamp post littered the grass and sidewalks near Springfield City Hall.

“We’re trying to move back to some kind of normalcy,’’ said Mayor Domenic J. Sarno of Springfield. “And then the rebuilding efforts start.’’

But that effort will take some time for the 19 communities lashed by three tornadoes on June 1 that killed three and tore a swath of destruction. Nine state-led teams continued picking through the wreckage yesterday to quantify the damage, a key step for Governor Deval Patrick to apply for federal disaster relief.

“We’re not talking about a long, drawn-out process,’’ said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “By the end of the week, something is going to be announced [about a disaster relief application] one way or another.’’

Tallying ruin for federal relief is separate from the homeowners’ insurance claims. Damage to public property — including roads, bridges, schools, and other civic buildings — must reach nearly $8.3 million for the state to qualify for one type of federal aid. Counties must also reach dollar thresholds, which are based on population.

Another type of federal disaster relief helps individuals, but it is not as clear cut. It does not specify an exact number of homes that must be destroyed to qualify for aid. Instead, the state must show the scope of the devastation and “paint a picture that this was a very impactful event,’’ Judge said.

That work has begun in Monson. Officials there have used a color-coded system to show the extent of the damage in 218 structures, according to Terrel Harris of the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Green placards on 109 buildings signify that they have been deemed safe. Yellow placards on 61 structures allow limited occupancy despite major damage. Red placards on 48 buildings designate them as uninhabitable.

A team made a similar building count in Brimfield: 75 buildings have been labeled green, 19 yellow, and 30 red.

“I’ve never seen such intense devastation,’’ said state Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, whose district includes Monson and Brimfield. “A bulldozer went through a community. If this isn’t a disaster, nothing is.’’

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has roughly 100 staff members assisting state officials, according to spokesman Dennis Pinkham. But it is difficult to determine how long it might take for a federal disaster declaration.

First, the state must complete its damage assessment and formally apply for relief. Once a request reaches Washington, the timeline for approval varies.

For example, on Monday President Obama approved a disaster declaration for tornadoes that struck Oklahoma from May 22 to May 25 and killed 10 people. In Joplin, Mo., it took just one day for a disaster declaration, but that extraordinary tornado was a unique case, and not just because it killed 141 people, according to the Joplin Globe.

Missouri had previously been approved for major relief because of tornadoes and flooding earlier this spring, so the federal government simply extended the declaration to include Joplin.

In Massachusetts, Patrick filed a supplemental budget bill Monday that included $10 million for tornado relief, but that money is not designated for individual homeowners. It will be used by state agencies to cover the costs of calling up the National Guard, operating shelters, paying police overtime, and other unanticipated costs such as chopping up trees and clearing debris.

The budget bill also includes a provision that would make it easier for cities and towns to run a deficit in anticipation of federal aid.

“At the end of the day, we are very hopeful that there will be a federal declaration of relief of Massachusetts,’’ said Jay Gonzalez, the state secretary of Administration and Finance. “We’ve got assessment teams out this week assessing the damage and tallying costs.’’

Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com; Schworm at schworm@globe.com.