W. Mass. Picking Up The Pieces After Tornadoes

Volunteers worked to salvage all they could at The First Church of Monson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Volunteers worked to salvage all they could at The First Church of Monson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For residents of tornado-ravaged sections of western Massachusetts, the hardest part of picking up the pieces Friday and returning to normal seemed to be the wait.

Waiting for tree removal crews to clean up streets and yards. Waiting for utility crews to clear knocked over poles and restore power. Waiting to talk with insurance agents to file claims to get money to rebuild. And for some, waiting in shelters, hoping to find a place to live as quickly as possible.

Springfield officials said it could take another week or so for all the streets to be cleared, while utilities were hoping to restore power to all customers by Saturday. City building officials, meanwhile, continued to inspect homes and businesses, and crews had demolished 15 buildings for safety reasons as of Friday afternoon.

"I'm a little aggravated and a little tired," said Kimberly Canning, who lives in Springfield's heavily damaged East Forest Park section. "I'm a lot aggravated, actually. I can't get ahold of my insurance company. I still have trees through my house."

The tornadoes were a physical and psychological blow to Springfield, the state's third-largest city, which had just recently climbed out of a huge financial hole after the state seized control of its finances from 2004 to 2009.

On Friday, city crews worked to clear trees from closed streets, while many residents hired companies to clear their yards and get trees off their homes. Officials say more than 200 homes in the Springfield area were destroyed by Wednesday's tornadoes, one of which had a path of 39 miles and wind speed that reached 160 mph. Damage was reported in at least 18 communities and three people died.

Many people were left homeless with nowhere to go, while others stayed with family, friends and acquaintances. The Red Cross was helping about 465 people in two shelters in Springfield, one in West Springfield and one in Monson.

Silvania Santiago, 21, was worried about where she and her boyfriend were going live as she tried to keep her three daughters, ages 1, 2 and 4, occupied at Springfield Central High School, which was being used as a shelter. She wasn't allowed to return to her apartment building on Central Street because of damage.

Santiago's only relative in the area is her father, who isn't able to take her and her family in, she said. Her 4-year-old daughter, Danicha, was born with a heart defect and has been undergoing corrective surgeries every six months. She's hoping to find a new home soon with the help of the Red Cross and housing advocates.

"I'm still in shock," Santiago said in Spanish through an interpreter. "I don't know where I'm going to go. I'm just trying to keep the family together. The kids are saying, 'Let's go home. Let's go home.' I'm trying to find them games to play and to keep them busy. It's been very hard."

Red Cross officials say they'll continue providing food, shelter and medical care until everyone has found a place to live. The relief agency was coordinating efforts to find homes for the newly homeless.

Lanny Scott, a 59-year-old former carpenter who's confined to a wheelchair because of a stroke 10 years ago, was also at the high school. He was still shaken by the tornado, which damaged the assisted-living home he lived in.

"I don't have money. I don't known what I'm going to do," he said.

A Red Cross volunteer said a tree fell on the assisted-living home and Scott's case manager was working on other living arrangements.

In the East Forest Park section, roofs were torn off, trees crashed into homes and streets were littered with fallen trees and utility poles and wires.

A tree smashed the second floor of Canning's home on Roosevelt Avenue near Island Pond. She said she was looking for an apartment to live in while her insurance claim is processed and her home repaired. She stayed at her ex-husband's place Thursday night.

Canning, 42, was home when the tornado hit but wasn't injured. She said the twister smashed her front window, and mud was blown all over her living room. The upstairs was heavily damaged, with tree limbs inside.

City officials said Friday afternoon that more than 180 homes and businesses in Springfield were heavily damaged by the tornadoes. Ten residential properties and five commercial buildings were torn down, and 43 multifamily homes were condemned.

Patrick Sullivan, the city's director of parks, facilities and recreational management, said city residents can put debris on the curbside for pickup beginning Tuesday but must separate tree debris from demolition debris. He expected the debris pickup to continue for three to four weeks.

Once a thriving manufacturing city, Springfield was hit hard by recessions in the 1990s and in 2000, losing jobs, businesses and taxpayers. Economists say growth in the city's tax base was stagnant for years, while median income declined.

Two centuries ago, Springfield sprung up as a hub for gun-making and other weapons-related manufacturing jobs. A much-needed supply of workers came in the 1840s with a flood of Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine.

The city's downtown thrived at the time of the Civil War, in the 1860s, as residents enjoyed theaters, shops and banks. After the war ended, French-Canadian and European immigrants who worked in the city sent for their families.

Houses began springing up almost overnight, and Springfield was dubbed the City of Homes.

Economists say the decline began in the late 1950s. The city followed the trend in other American cities as upper- and middle-class residents left for the suburbs. Property values dropped and poorer people moved in, making the city's bustling economy unsustainable, economists say.

In 2004, the state issued a $52 million, interest-free loan to the city to bail it out. The city was able to get out of the state oversight and repay its obligations.

Mayor Domenic Sarno said Friday that Springfield was on the upswing before the tornadoes hit, and he pledged the city will recover and thrive again.

"We are resilient," Sarno said. "I think a lot of times in adverse conditions, that's when you really see strong character build. We are a compassionate city. Help will continue to be on the way."

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This program aired on June 3, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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