By Jennifer Grybowski
Turley Publications Reporter
Sturbridge Town Common newspaper
Tornado victims and the Board of Selectmen got together once again June 22 to discuss the impact the twister had on the town and, more importantly, what those victims need.
When the group, which included residents mostly from Willard, Fiske Hill and Streeter roads, met for the first time two weeks earlier, they were rushed out of the town hall because of a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. This past Wednesday, the weather was poor once again.
“For whatever reason, when this group comes together, we seem to be burdened with poor weather,” Board of Selectmen Chair Thomas Creamer said.
But, he said, he chose to look at the rain not as a curse, but as a blessing: As a way to nourish the re-growth of the community.
Before the meeting was opened up to questions, Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski gave the group an update of what assistance is available. He said town and state officials are looking at the current disaster declaration, which provides Worcester country with individual assistance for FEMA, and noted that a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center has been set up at the public safety complex for people to use on a walk-in basis.
“They can take you through your concerns individually,” Suhoski said.
However, Creamer said, the help FEMA is offering is very limited. He urged residents to look through the programs very carefully before applying as it basically only covers structural, window, HVAC, sewage and well repairs
“Their goal is to repair the home to a safe and sanitary condition, not the condition the home was in prior to the disaster,” Creamer said. “We recognize there is still a significant need out there.”
The town, however, is doing what they can to help residents. Building permit fees for those in affected areas have been eliminated, as well as fees for dumping demolition materials at the transfer station, and electrical and plumbing inspections have been reduced.
Town staffers are working to document damage with photographs, spreadsheets and mapping and are working with state legislators in order to give state and federal officials the ammunition they need to get the area declared for public FEMA assistance as well. Either way, Suhoski said, the town faces major costs associated with the storm. The Board of Selectmen have approved deficit spending for the cleanup, which is currently estimated at $150,000.
“There is still a lot more debris to go,” Suhoski said.
The town has vowed to help residents with their debris problems, but Suhoski said the state-contracted debris hauler gave the town an estimate of $600,000 to remove material homeowners have stacked along the sides of roads. Creamer said volunteer hours, to the tune of $500,000 worth, have been tracked in hopes some sort of reimbursement can be gleaned from the sweat equity.
The discussion was then opened up to the residents.
“We ask you to be as frank and honest as possible with us,” Creamer said.
John Trahan, of Willard Rd., said he was concerned about the height of the brush piles on the sides of the road, and also about the speed of people traveling down the street. He said he wants the speed limit reduced, and enforced, on the road and for some “Children At Play” signs to be posted.
“It is heartbreaking to see the conditions you are living in,” Creamer said.
“It is like a war zone.”
Creamer said the board would work to expedite the removal of the brush and alert Police Chief Thomas Ford about the speeding issue.
Streeter Rd. residents said they were also worried about brush piles. Many of the homes just don’t have the frontage to pile up their brush, since the road is so narrow to begin with.
Creamer said the town was working on putting together some more brush pick-up days.
“My feeling is, we clean it up and figure it out after,” Selectman Priscilla Gimas said. “It’s not just your problem, it’s everybody’s problem. We have to do what we have to do.”
Trahan said he and his neighbors are also worried about the wetlands behind their homes.
“The stream is encroaching on my yard, making things wetter and wetter,” Trahan said.
The town is working to get situations like these resolved with MEMA’s help. In addition, the town’s conservation agent, Erin Jacque, has been out to affected areas and has tagged trees that should be removed to ease some of the pressure off the streams.
But some people were worried about the opposite problem: Fire. Some wanted to know if they could have permission to burn some of the brush, and others were worried about the brush and tree damage becoming brush hazards later in the summer.
“That would be a whole other tragedy,” said Diane Halper, of Willard Rd.
Suhoski said there has been no indication from state officials that they will allow any burning off season, although Creamer said he’d try to advocate burning season be opened up to those affected in the fall.
As for the possibility of brush fires, Suhoski said FEMA offers no support for prevention. Creamer said brush fires will be even more concerning next summer, when the wood begins to dry out.
Gimas said she wondered if the town could enter into a mutual aid agreement with other towns to get some DPW crews and equipment in to help clear out the brush. Creamer and Suhoski said they would look into pursuing that matter.