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Springfield Congressman Richard Neal joins call for more federal tornado relief

June 24, 2011
In The News
SPRINGFIELD – Congressman Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, has joined two U.S. senators in asking the White House to shoulder a larger share of costs for clearing debris from the 40-mile trail left by the June 1 tornado.

In a letter sent Friday, Neal and U.S. Sens. John F. Kerry and Scott Brown requested that the region’s debris removal costs be reimbursed at 90 percent, rather than the 75 percent called for the disaster relief designation approved by President Barack Obama.

The legislators also asked that funding for cleanup operation be expedited, allowing communities to begin rebuilding as soon as possible.

“The task of cleaning up and rebuilding after the worst natural disaster in a generation will be difficult and expensive,” Neal said after submitting the request.

“For the recovery to continue, swift federal support ... is essential,” he added.

The request comes as communities from Westfield to Sturbridge are struggling to recover from the tornado that touched down on July 1, killing three, injuring 200 and causing at least $25 million in damages and cleanup costs.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said Springfield could get millions in additional federal funding if the White House approves the debris-clearing proposal submitted by Neal, Kerry and Brown.

“We need it as soon as possible,” said Sarno, who joined local, state and federal officials at an informational meeting on tornado recovery efforts at Spring of Hope Church on Alden Street.

Sarno said the federal government had agreed to reimburse debris-clearing costs at 90 percent following recent tornado outbreaks in Joplin, Mo., and across Alabama.

Speaking to about 100 residents at the church, Sarno said while one-third of Springfield had suffered property damage from the tornado, the toll cannot be measured in damaged buildings or repair bills.

“We’re not only rebuilding the city; we’re rebuilding human lives,” Sarno said, adding that counseling is available to anyone suffering emotional problems from the storms.

To get counseling or help with any other storm-related matters, residents should contact the city’s call center at 311; cell phone users should dial (413) 736-3111.

Public Works Director Allan Chwalek told residents that city will make a second sweep to collect storm-related debris next week.

Tree limbs, stumps, demolition material and other storm-related debris should be left on the tree belt, Chwalek said.

Sarno and other speakers urged residents to register for federal disaster aid, even if they believe they suffered minimal damage.

In other developments, The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts announced Friday it is accepting requests for funding from nonprofit organizations that suffered losses from the tornado or that are assisting Hampden County tornado victims.

Thanks to contributions from individual donors and local financial institutions, the foundation’s relief fund will be giving out grants of up to $20,000 to speed the tornado recovery effort.

“This disaster has resulted in countless new challenges for our nonprofit community and has increased demand across a range of sectors,” said Ron Ancrum, president of the Community Foundation.

The disaster fund will provide funding for nonprofit organizations that provide food, clothing and shelter for tornado victims, as well as nonprofits that suffered damage from the storm, or are facing greater demand for services.

To apply, organizations can download the application on website www.communityfoundation.org and submit to either grants@communityfoundation.org or mail to: Tornado Relief Fund for Western Mass.

In Springfield, Richard A. Lee, executive director of the American Red Cross-Pioneer Valley Chapter, said the shelter the organization is running at the civic center for people left homeless from the tornado has 119 residents, down from 123 on Thursday.

Lee said the Red Cross is working closely with city officials to find housing for people. “We have been working with all the families every single day,” Lee said.

A number of families have procured housing starting July 1, but do not have places to stay in the interim, according to Lee.

In West Springfield, Conservation Officer-Assistant Planner Mark A. Noonan reported Friday that there are about 85 people still at the shelter the city has set up in the 4-H dormitory on the fairgrounds of the Eastern States Exposition. He said that number could decline by Monday as more people find housing.

In Holyoke, yoga and other soothing activities will be available as a day of healing for victims of the June 1 tornado Sunday at the South Congregational Church, an affiliate of United Church of Christ, at 45 Maple St.

The event will be noon to 6 p.m., church secretary Shalawnda Carr. The day of healing will include music, aroma therapy, singing and meditation, she said.

A Leverett-based non-profit is asking lawmakers for funding to clean up about 10,000 acres of woodlands that were destroyed in the tornado and take steps to ensure the owners can sell the damaged wood.

The Massachusetts Forest Landowners Association estimates the cost of cleanup at $3.6 million. The group is asking for legislation that will allow funding through the Emergency Forest Restoration Program.

“They provide an amount per acre and they would pay (a contractor) to cut the stuff and dispose of it,” said association Executive Director Gregory Cox. The federal program would provide 75 percent of the cost.

A major concern is that the wood may be entering a saturated market, which will drive prices down. To offset this, the association suggested the 1,200-acre Brimfield State Forest be cleared of downed trees only enough to allow emergency access and prevent wildfires. Any more would put too much product into a market that is already not friendly to local landowners, the group said in a press release.

Most of the wood is only usable for biomass, meaning it will have to enter markets out of state, or for firewood. Shipping costs and the damaged wood’s poor quality would blow the seller’s profit margin, Cox said, making them unable to pay for the cleanup themselves as they normally would.

The association plans to hold meetings for landowners to discuss aid opportunities. Details will be on their website at www.massforests.org next week, Cox said.

To register with FEMA, call the toll-free number at (800) 621- FEMA, or (800) 621-3362. Those who are hearing or speech impaired can call the TTY number of (800) 462-7585. Both numbers go to a call center that is staffed daily from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.

People with access to the Internet may also register through the FEMA website, www.DisasterAssistance.gov. Anyone looking for information can go to the FEMA center at Building 104 of the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park at 1 Federal St. or the nearest disaster center.