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Valley still struggles to rebuild one year post-tornado

Date: 5/29/2012

May 30, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs


SPRINGFIELD — I couldn't make it to the press conference on May 22 at which state officials noted that "more than 98 percent of the 11,500 tornado-related insurance claims filed after the June 1, 2011 storm have been paid, with policyholders receiving $200.3 million from carriers," according to the press release.

"Despite the significant damage done by the tornadoes, we are seeing Western and Central Massachusetts recover nobly and ably and it is encouraging to see rebuilding happening throughout the region," Greg Bialecki, the Secretary of Housing and Economic Development said. "Getting claims quickly and effectively handled help homeowners and business owners get the money they need in a timely manner and help the rebuilding process."

I'm sure I would have had some questions from the perspective of someone who is still coping with tornado recovery and who lives in a neighborhood that still resembles an open wound.

With the anniversary of one of the worst — and most unanticipated — natural disasters in recent history, I would be remiss in noting that not everyone has had their homes repaired or re-built and that struggling over a final settlement with an insurance carrier is still a reality for some people.

There has indeed been much progress in the repair of properties around the area, and saying that much more needs to be done might seem to some as a sort of sour grapes. Shouldn't all of us who sustained damage be happy for the steps forward?

Of course, yes — and no.

The former speaker of the House, Thomas "Tip" O'Neil, once wisely said, "All politics is local," and if you're a survivor of an event such as a tornado you realize that your perspective constantly swerves to the local, the very local.

The reality is that my wife and I were lucky when the tornado tore through the Maple High Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield almost a year ago. If our house had been just a few feet closer to Central Street, it would has sustained much heavier damage than it did.

We felt very fortunate then and continue to do so. We understand that it was merely a roll of the cosmic dice that separated us from the homeless.

My little street is part ghost town now. There are two houses that were secured after the tornado and have been sitting essentially untouched for the past year. Across from our house is a home that still carries the red "X." Two doors down the house that had been restored just prior to the tornado is an empty space.

Around the corner on Clark Street — a tiny thoroughfare — only one home survived. Now, there are two homes rebuilt and another on the way — it's a beacon for hope.

Also a positive sign is a group of new homes on Central Street have been sold and there are new residents.

On Beech Street, there are still homes that need to be demolished. One wonders what is preventing that from happening. On Central Street, there is a large brick apartment building that still must come down.

After a year, my neighborhood has a new "normal." You don't get used to the new vistas that the removal of all of the trees provide.

The tornado showed, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, "the best of times and the worst of times." There were so many acts of kindness from people. There were church groups that went through our neighborhood handing out water. The Red Cross went door to door checking out the needs of people.

People showed how much they wanted to help.

I deeply appreciated that Elizabeth Cardona, the head of the governor's office in Western Massachusetts, walked through the neighborhood passing out information on services. I'm thankful that Mayor Domenic Sarno routinely came through Maple High Six Corners.

But the tornado also showed just how venal people could be. A neighbor, who sustained no damage to his home, was out every night the Red Cross was handing out a free meal. He was the first in line. The vultures seeking scrap metal quickly descended on our neighborhood.

My wife and I were walking the dog and watched one elderly couple wait until we were up the street so they could steal a wicker chair from the site of one damaged home.

I'm afraid that is simply the nature of some people.

As much work that has been done, there is so much more that needs to be done. With my neighborhood, the issues of re-building the Elias Brookings School and restoring Ruth Elizabeth Park are paramount. The city has developed a huge redevelopment plan, which must seek funding so that any of it can be implemented.

Those are long-term issues. For me, I just want to repair my home, see the damaged homes demolished and the properties secured — simple requests.

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