State Sen. Jo Comerford, who represents the city of Northampton and 23 towns in Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties, says the storms put pressure on already strained budgets in her communities.
CHESTER, Mass. — Western Massachusetts communities will be eligible for funding from a $7.5 million American Rescue Fund Act bill to aid regions affected by the July 2021 storms.
State Sens. Adam Hinds and Jo Comerford, together representing the counties Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester, were at Chester Town Hall on Thursday morning to announce the availability of funds for Chester and 75 other areas that sustained significant damages from the storms.
The allocations have not been decided yet, as they will be set by Gov. Charlie Baker's administration and the Executive Office for Administration and Finance. There are six Berkshire County towns that will qualify: Becket, Lenox, Monterey, New Marlborough, Otis, Richmond and Washington.
Hinds said the communities in Central and Western Mass were not properly aided by state funding from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We're here to announce the availability and the release of $7.5 million that we secured in the legislature for our towns in Central and Western Massachusetts who were impacted by July storm that essentially fell through the cracks in terms of state and federal support for recovering the significant damages," he said.
"And then the other thing is that this is truly an appeal and a call for more investment in infrastructure in Central and Western Mass and in our small towns, in particular, and this is the moment to do it, and this only highlights further the need for that."
Thunderstorms and damaging winds tore through the region in late July 2021, causing flooding, downed trees and road and bridge damage, largely to the south and east. Lenox was hit by two microbursts with sustained winds of 80 to 90 mph, according to the National Weather Service, and at least seven homes were damaged by falling trees.
MEMA conducted an initial damage assessment and concluded that the damages were significant enough to apply for federal relief.
FEMA's assessment finished in October only found that two counties reached the county threshold: Berkshire and Franklin. In Berkshire County, FEMA validated a cost of about $630,000 in damages. Lenox had estimated $2 million in damage and Becket, $400,000.
Ultimately, the statewide assessment was about $2.7 million and short of the FEMA requirement for a federal disaster declaration on a state level, and the funds were not received.
"FEMA did not come forward with funds, and that's when we started to hear from deeply concerned town leaders throughout the region," Hinds said. "And I have to say thank you. I mean, this is how the government is supposed to work, you're doing yeoman's work at the local level, and then when the when that's not enough, the state should be kicking in."
Around the same time, the Legislature was working on a nearly $4 billion ARPA Surplus Spending Bill, and Hinds was able to file an amendment for the funding with the help of local legislators.
Hinds made a sports analogy explaining that if he was the "lead blocker" as the person who filed the amendment for the funding, Comerford was the "running back" pushing him along.
Comerford, of Northampton, described a similar experience in her district after the storms.
"I will say that that for me was the experience in Deerfield, Warwick and Gil, and Royalston, Northfield, as local communities grappled, immediately courageously tirelessly with this storm that came out of nowhere and created such havoc on top of already strained budgets," she said.
Deerfield had more than $1 million in damage, Erving more than $2 million, Northfield some $1.5 million, Warwick $1.8 million and Chester $1.5 million.
Chester Town Administrator Kathe Warden said she was proud of the town's efforts during the storm and thanked the seniors for their perseverance in securing the funding. She said the process of documenting the damage was not easy and it was unfortunate to not receive state or federal aid.
"Documenting the level of damage to our roads was very difficult. We spent many hours showing our damaged roads to MEMA and FEMA and explaining what happened. We filled out forms, responded to emails, provided pictures as evidence of the extent of damage," Warden said.
Though because of the work of Hinds, Comerford, and state Rep. Natalie Blais of Sunderland, the communities in desperate need of assistance were not forgotten, she added.
Blais, representing the 1st Franklin District, spoke on the importance of recognizing rural communities.
"I'm trying to raise awareness about the unfair financial burden that many of our communities in Western Massachusetts face when it comes to the financial impact of maintaining unpaved roads," she said. "In many of our communities, when you look at the total roadway mileage, the vast percentage of our roadways are unpaved and our small communities end up having to foot the bill for the maintenance of those roadways. ...
"And our maintenance departments go above and beyond keeping those roadways safe so that our residents can get to doctor's appointments, schools, jobs, etc., but with more and more frequent and more and more intense storms like the ones we saw in July, we see those costs creeping up, we see the time that our maintenance departments are spending on those roadways creeping up and so as a commonwealth, we need to begin to recognize the impact on our rural communities."
Also in attendance were Chester Select Board Chairman John Baldazaro, Select Board member Jason Forgue, and state Rep. Jacob Oliveira of Ludlow, 7th Hampden District.
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