Removing twister debris may cost tens of millions

20 communities face big challenge

Workers cleared rubble from a tornado-demolished building Wednesday on Main Street in Springfield. Workers cleared rubble from a tornado-demolished building Wednesday on Main Street in Springfield. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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WILBRAHAM — The first call for help came at 3 a.m., a few hours after the tornado warnings had been lifted. A woman from Westfield had awakened Tyler Oleksak, owner of T.J. Bark Mulch Inc., hoping he might help her dispose of all the trees that had fallen around her property.

It was the first of many calls, and then Oleksak gave the town’s Public Works Department a call to see whether they might coordinate. Within a few days, the Southwick company had hauled off at least 2,500 tons of debris.

“There’s a lot of work to go around,’’ Oleksak said.

As state and local governments move from the rescue and recovery phase to cleaning up after last week’s deadly tornadoes, they are grappling with how to remove an untold amount of debris, including mounds of rubble from hundreds of fallen buildings, the remains of thousands of splintered trees, and a multitude of other detritus filling yards and blocking roads across 20 communities in Central and Western Massachusetts.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency met in Wilbraham yesterday with state and local emergency management and public works officials to discuss how best to coordinate debris removal that will probably cost tens of millions of dollars.

Cities and towns, nine of which suffered the bulk of the damage from three tornadoes that touched down, will have to follow strict federal guidelines before they can be compensated for the costs of the cleanup. Homeowners are expected to seek relief from their insurance companies.

Earlier this week, Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said that homeowners have already filed 5,000 insurance claims, totaling $90 million.

“This will be a giant project,’’ Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview prior to yesterday’s huddle. “We have already had the National Guard, Department of Transportation, and Department of Conservation and Recreation out using chain saws, moving things to the side of roads, and making sure access is available. The removal will be a coordinated statewide attack that we’re now formulating.’’

At yesterday’s meeting, FEMA officials said the federal government would cover 75 percent of the costs of all debris removal their field teams deem to qualify for federal aid. The rest will be covered by state and local governments, unless state officials or lawmakers decide that the state should cover all the costs.

“I want to assure you that you are not alone,’’ John McGough, a public assistance branch chief for FEMA, said at the meeting.

To qualify for federal aid, each community will have to follow FEMA guidelines in documenting where the debris comes from — it has to have been blocking a public way or be from public land to be eligible — and how it is disposed of. McGough said the state has contracted with two firms from Florida, AshBritt Environmental and O’Brien’s Response Management, both of which have long worked with FEMA, to clear rubble and provide qualified monitors who can provide the documentation to obtain federal reimbursement.

“Monitoring this process is a huge deal with us,’’ McGough said. “We’re not here to provide an open checkbook, but our goal is to provide as much assistance as possible.’’

Some communities are not waiting for a federal disaster declaration, a requirement before FEMA can begin providing aid.

In Springfield, which lost 514 housing units and 230 properties have been condemned, city officials have begun debris removal. They have asked residents to separate tree debris from rubble and leave it for curbside pickup. Over the past few days, city workers and contractors have been hauling the refuse to two staging areas.

“The goal is to get things out of the neighborhoods as soon as possible,’’ said Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for Mayor Domenic J. Sarno.

He could not say how much there was to clear, but said that in recent days the city has conducted more than 30 emergency demolitions of rickety buildings and that more than a thousand trees alone fell in the East Forest Park neighborhood, many of them massive, century-old elms, maples, and oaks.

“Cleaning this all up is going to be a big, expensive job,’’ he said.

In Monson, where 234 buildings sustained damage — more than half of them were hit so hard they are no longer safe to occupy — officials are planning debris removal at their new offices. Town Hall was one of the buildings to suffer a direct hit from a tornado.

Monson has also hired a contractor to help remove thousands of fallen trees across town.

“The loss of so many trees is a disaster within a disaster,’’ said Kathleen Conley Norbut, the town’s director of emergency management. “We have an enormous amount of debris that still must be removed. I look forward to hearing how the state can help.’’

In Brimfield, where 142 homes were damaged, Selectwoman Diane Panaccione looked out of her house and counted at least 50 trees down in her yard.

She said local officials have only recently cleared all the roads, and much of the debris remains piled up around town.

“It’s overwhelming,’’ she said. “We don’t know what to do with it all. You have to see it to believe it.’’

She said she couldn’t begin to imagine how much work it would take to clear all the debris.

“It’s a whole ’nother world,’’ she said. “Sometimes, I look around and think, ‘Where am I?’ It’s devastation here. The whole landscape has changed.’’

In Westfield, where more than 100 homes sustained damage, much of the debris removal has been done, officials said.

Mayor Dan Knapik said the city has employed more than a dozen contractors who moved in starting Sunday with big dump trucks and flatbed trucks. They created a chipping station to turn logs into mulch at an elementary school.

He said he didn’t mind that companies such as T.J. Bark Mulch stood to make tens of thousands of dollars.

“For us, it was a matter of just getting it all out of here as quickly as possible,’’ Knapik said. “The volume of the material was just massive.’’

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation has deployed 87 workers and 33 pieces of equipment, including dump trucks and wood chippers, to remove trees and clear debris. They sent chain saw teams to Springfield, Monson, and Westfield and fire control units to Brimfield and Southbridge.

The department has also sent crews to clean up Brimfield State Forest, Wells State Park, Robinson State Park, and the Skinner State Park portion of the Mount Holyoke Range State Forest. Agency officials said the tornadoes destroyed more than 1,000 trees, three buildings, and a pavilion in Brimfield State Forest, which they have closed indefinitely. At least 250 trees and power lines went down in Robinson State Park.

“There’s a significant effort ahead of us,’’ Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said in an interview Wednesday.

Sullivan said state officials are looking at how best to convert the downed trees into anything from mulch to firewood to fuel to generate electricity. They expect all the rubble to be sifted through for anything that can be recycled. “We would like to see as much beneficial use of the materials as possible,’’ he said.

Sullivan said the cleanup will probably take months. “Every community will be different, but this is certainly not going to be over in a week,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him @davabel.