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Tornado victims still struggling in Monson

20 Feb

Original story on BostonGlobe.com

MONSON – The tornado destroyed everything but the granite steps that once marked the entrance to Pia Rogers’s four-bedroom farmhouse on Bethany Road. The ominous gray funnel cloud came roaring down the hill overlooking this little town of church steeples and clapboard houses, completely wrecking nine homes on Rogers’s street alone.

That was eight months ago.

Today, Rogers, her husband, and their two young children still live in two bedrooms over the family’s coffee shop, the master bedroom a cramped 11-by-14-foot space full of makeshift furniture and a sense of frustration. They haven’t started building a new house yet because of a dispute with their insurance agent that has left the Rogerses $60,000 short of the estimated cost to rebuild.

“I come get my mail, sit on my steps, and cry sometimes,’’ said Rogers, 39. “I’m still paying the mortgage on a house that isn’t here.’’

This has been a winter of discontent for many victims of the tornado that carved a 39-mile path of destruction through Western Massachusetts on June 1, killing four people and damaging or destroying nearly 2,000 homes and businesses in more than a dozen communities. Though they’ve been touched by the outpourings of support – from Governor Deval Patrick’s visit to the region last June to the man who used to hand out barbecued chicken on Bethany Road – most victims are far from getting their lives back.

Long after the Red Cross and other emergency service providers went home, the storm goes on for the victims. From disputes with contractors to government red tape, victims of the tornado are navigating a bureaucratic maze that, for some, is nearly as dispiriting as sifting through the rubble of their homes after the 160-mile-per-hour winds blew through town.

In Monson, which had at least $29 million in damage and one death from the most destructive tornado to hit Massachusetts since 1953, only about a third of the 272 storm-damaged homes have been restored. Town officials say that at least 31 families are still living in temporary shelter because their former homes are uninhabitable. That’s down from at least 75 families displaced immediately after the storm, but small comfort to all the people living in temporary trailers or wherever else they can find shelter.

The brick town hall remains boarded up, too; the storm tore the roof off. Renovating the 87-year-old structure is estimated to cost $9 million, $3.7 million more than the town’s insurance policy is expected to pay, while building something new would cost an estimated $13 million. In the meantime, town officials are bracing for a long stay in temporary quarters.

“We’re going to be here at least a year,’’ said Stephen Kozloski, Monson police chief, referring to the six trailers that the police have called home since the tornado. “We’re four months away from the first anniversary . . . but there are no hard plans on whether or not they are going to build or repair.’’

Tornado victims learned long ago that federal disaster assistance was far from guaranteed even though President Obama declared the region a disaster area with damage claims that eventually topped $175 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides relief to individuals only for damages not covered by insurance, forcing victims to prove they are not getting money from insurance before FEMA can approve their claims.

In fact, FEMA has approved only about 20 percent of the applications for disaster aid filed by people who said they had damage from the tornado – 1,069 out of 5,006 – mainly because the applicants were also covered by private insurance policies.

Some residents complained that FEMA’s deadline to apply for aid – Aug. 22 – was so early that they didn’t yet know whether insurance was going to cover the damage. FEMA officials say they will reconsider aid rejections for up to a year if people can prove that private insurance didn’t pay for repairs, but for many victims that means paying for the repairs now in hopes of getting federal money later.

FEMA provided $2.9 million to the town of Monson in December to help haul off tornado-related debris, but that covered only about 60 percent of the debris disposal bill, which, in turn, is only a fraction of the town’s costs from the disaster. Gretchen Neggers, town manager, said she was grateful for the help, but acknowledged, “We have a long way to go.’’

Others were less measured in their criticism of the federal relief agency.

“FEMA? That’s a joke,’’ said Ken Bailey, a Monson homeowner who lived with friends for five months while his home on Ely Road was undergoing repairs. He and his wife, Jean, applied for FEMA aid, but were turned down because they have private insurance. “We haven’t had a penny funded to us.’’

Insurance wasn’t much help either, since a big part of the Baileys’ tornado-related costs came from damage not covered by their policy. The couple estimates that they have paid $102,500 of their own money to replace uninsured equipment and clear fallen trees from their property. In addition, the policy paid only about half of a $60,500 bill to clear fallen trees from the driveway, leaving them an unpaid bill for $31,000.

“All of our savings are gone. I don’t have the money to pay it,’’ Jean Bailey said, adding that the cost would have been even more staggering if not for all the volunteers who showed up with chainsaws and helped clear the land. Together, the volunteers sawed up and gave away more than 200 cords of wood.

“People have no idea what a tornado can do,’’ said Jean Bailey. “The only thing that has kept us sane is all the work we’ve been doing in rebuilding.’’

Hailstones, then a roar

Tony Slozak, who lives in a temporary trailer across Bethany Road from the lot where his house once stood, marvels at how quickly the tornado turned his community upside-down.

“In 45 seconds, your whole life changes,’’ said Slozak, who remembers driving home from work around 4:30 p.m., calling his wife as he drove to warn her about the approaching tornado.

Kim Slozak, who was home alone, didn’t hear her husband’s call, but she did hear the hailstones that came ahead of the tornado bouncing off the roof. “I went and grabbed three or four balls of hail and put them in the freezer, thinking I could show people later,’’ she said.

Then she heard “that terrible, loud roar’’ of the tornado bearing down, giving her just enough time to scoop up the cat and the dog and dive into the bathtub – the sturdiest thing she could find – for protection. For the next minute, her home moved so much she said she felt like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.’’ Then the air became very still.

Outside, the streets became so littered with debris that Tony Slozak abandoned his van and started running toward his home. “I was jumping over power lines, downed trees, and debris all over the roads,’’ Slozak said.

The pleasant neighborhood that he had left that morning was gone, replaced by cellar holes filled with rubble, houses missing roofs and shingles, mature trees pulled up by their roots, cars with crushed roofs or casually tossed upside-down.

For a moment, Tony Slozak feared the worst, but then he saw Kim standing in the street, tears running down her cheeks. She was all right, but their three-story gray house had been picked up and moved 6 feet, making the building sag in the middle, the chimney askew like a crooked hat.

The Slozaks’ whole neighborhood was in ruins. More than half of the 41 Monson homes that had to be demolished were near Bethany Road, including the Rogerses’ house four doors down and the Lins’ place across the street.

Another 20 homes on Bethany Road had damage, town records show, and one woman died the next day, after learning that a family home had been destroyed.

Joan Bacon, 75, who lived next door to the Slozaks, had seemed fine immediately after the tornado, Kim Slozak recalled, and they hugged each other that day. But Bacon collapsed with a heart attack on June 2 after learning that her son’s home was a total loss. “She was very dear to us,’’ said Kim Slozak.

Though their house had to be bulldozed and their new home won’t be finished until the spring, the Slozaks consider themselves fortunate.

No one was hurt and they have had no major problems with their insurance company or contractors in the slow rebuilding process. Their insurance company even paid for their temporary trailer.

Their neighbors, Zhao Xing and Anna Lin, weren’t so fortunate. Like the Slozaks, their home was destroyed, but the Lins speak limited English, so they hired someone to handle the complex negotiations with the insurance company over how much of their $400,000 in estimated rebuilding costs would be covered.

In the days after the tornado, these “public adjusters’’ – they are actually private business operators who typically get 5 percent to 10 percent of insurance payouts – distributed fliers for their services all over Monson. But most residents, including the Lins, knew little about the people they were hiring.

By late October, relations between Anna Lin and her public adjuster – whom she asked not be named – had gotten so bad that police had to be called to break up an altercation at Monson Savings Bank.

Lin told the officers that the adjuster and his father were demanding $3,000 and would not release the family’s insurance payment to her until she paid.

Bank employees told the officers that the adjuster was yelling at Lin and “trying to defraud [her] of money,’’ and the bank employees were so afraid for her safety that they wouldn’t let her leave the bank until police arrived.

Sergeant James E. Boucher wrote in his report that he asked the adjuster “if it was normal business to scare a client into paying.’’ The adjuster declined to comment on the altercations or his dealings with the Lins.

Just wants settlement

Now, Lin, who has been living in a rented house for eight months, has no desire to fight with the adjuster. She just wants to reach a settlement and rebuild.

“Other people are moving in,’’ said Anna Lin. “My house is just a foundation.’’

The eight Monson families who have not started rebuilding homes lost in the tornado have something in common, according to local contractor Charles Roy: They’ve been victimized twice, first by the storm and then by the insurers, regulators, or contractors who were supposed to help them.

Pia Rogers had hoped to be much further along by now, but she ran into serious problems with the insurance company for her 122-year-old farmhouse that was destroyed in the storm. Because of its old-fashioned wiring, she could not get conventional insurance, but had to join a state-mandated program called the Massachusetts FAIR plan

But when she tried to get insurance money to rebuild, she said she discovered that the insurance agent had lowered her coverage levels without her authorization, leaving the family $60,000 short to rebuild on Bethany Road.

For the last few months, she has been pressing her insurance agent to provide her coverage history so that they could figure out how the Rogerses ended up underinsured. The records finally came in February.

The family added a second room over the family’s coffee shop in Sturbridge in December, ending five months in which all four family members lived in one room. But, if they can’t work out the disagreement with their agents, Rogers fears they will have to go to court, keeping them in the rooms indefinitely.

“I don’t want to go to court; I just want a house,’’ said Pia Rogers. Officials at Rogers’s insurance agency declined to comment, saying they cannot discuss individual claims.

Roy, who is rebuilding another house on Bethany Road, said that Rogers’s request shouldn’t be too much to ask.

“If you just drive around and see foundations and [damaged] houses that haven’t been touched, it makes you wonder why,’’ he said. “You see all the damage still sitting there; that’s wrong. It shouldn’t be happening, not in this country.’’

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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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