After the Tornado, Recovery Is Slow

By Jared Bowen

Mar. 13, 2012

MONSON, Mass. — It’s been over nine months since tornados ripped through Massachusetts, destroying lives, homes and communities in seconds. But for towns such as Monson, the passage of time has meant little. Homes still aren’t restored; debt is mounting, and so is the frustration.
Monson is literally scarred with buildings obliterated and acre upon acre of downed trees. Once lush with woods, a miles-long swath of the town is now a skeletal landscape. Town hall is shuttered, its police housed in trailers. The once grand church tower is capped and clad in plywood. Main Street’s most historic home is an anemic, haunting relic. And the community is exasperated.
“We ask that question constantly: When can we ever go back home. We want to be home,” said tornado victim Donna Gilman.
Directly in the tornado’s path, Donna and Tom Gilman’s stone home survived although the inside required complete gutting. Water damage is extensive with signs of mold. There are gaping holes in exterior walls. Work is at a standstill, though. The Gilmans said their insurance company cut them off.
“The roof had to come off," Donna Gilman said. "It’s much more extensive than they thought. We got some monies from the insurance company and now have to wait to see if they’re gong to give us any more money.”
In the interim, the couple and their two cats have crammed into temporary housing: a nearby condo.
“You feel helpless because you don’t know where the money is going to come from," Donna Gilman said. "You want to make sure that you know everything is going to be okay but you don’t feel like everything is okay. You have all these sleepless nights, health issues and everything else that goes along with the stress of a disaster.”
The Gilmans live just off Bethany Road where rebuilding is rampant. More than 20 homes had to be demolished in this neighborhood; another 20 were severely damaged. There is at once growth and gravity with reminders of what’s lost — possibly forever. A sign at the edge of a vacant lot reads Welcome to our home. Several hundred feet away is a large pile of rubble, with a child’s scooter jutting out of the bottom.
With a grim view of it all across town is Ken Bailey. What had been his home nestled in five acres of trees is now a vastly barren hilltop.


"You can get depressed if you let it get to you because it’s, you come home everyday and just look at it and you think all the work that still has to be done,” he said.
When you ask Bailey what happened to his house, the faster question might be what didn't happen.
"Basically, all the windows were blown out. Siding gone. Roof gone. Roof was torn off. The garage on the other end of the house, the doors were blown off, which blew out the back wall so structurally that was ruined. Everything in the garage was out on the front lawn blowing down the hill. The barn on the other end of the house was blown," he said.
Bailey has been able to rebuild his home without hassle from the insurance company. However, insurance hasn't covered his barns, the $75,000 he said it cost him to replace the trailers for his concession business and $60,000 to remove trees piled 8 feet high all around his yard.
"We’ve spent a fortune doing what we’ve done," he said. "We’re out of money. We're in debt up to our eyeballs just to get where we are." Bailey is in his 60s. With all his savings gone and new debt, the disaster has ruined his dreams of retiring.
Bailey said that like many in Monson, he’s received little assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies like the Small Business Administration. It can be a struggle to go on. After the first night he stayed in a motor home in his driveway, he saw his property and started to cry.
"What do you do? You know where do you go? And it was just — if it wasn’t for my friends coming up, excuse me, and starting, I don’t know what I’d do," he said. But "you’ve got to keep moving forward. And that’s the problem, a lot of people you’ll see around town stopped. And you can’t do that.”


A view of the destruction that remains in Western Mass. (Jared Bowen/WGBH)
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