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Long-awaited funding for summer storm damage distributed to hard-hit rural Western Mass communities

The press conference on the steps of Chester, MA town hall.
Josh Landes
State Senator Adam Hinds speaks at the January 13th, 2022 press conference.

Western Massachusetts politicians gathered in Chester today to announce the disbursement of $7.5 million in federal relief funds to small communities impacted by July’s severe storms.

Last summer, Chester – a picturesque hill town community of around 1,300 set along branches of the Westfield River – took a beating when Tropical Storm Elsa rolled across Massachusetts.

“It was almost beyond words," said select board member Jason Forgue. “Major road destruction, households cut off from emergency services for extended periods of time, a mad scramble to try to do what we could with the funds we had available to rectify the situation until we received additional help, which we've been waiting for until this day.”

Months later, Chester and 75 other areas will finally see material support from the federal government through an allotment in the state’s spending plan for the billions it received through the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law last March.

“The mere need for this provision is a symptom of a state house that fails to meet even the basic needs of our Western Mass communities," said Forgue. "What this situation and following crisis showed was that our statewide emergency services is currently organized to fail to properly respond to the needs of rural communities.”

On the steps of Chester town hall, Forgue and other local leaders spoke alongside the Western Massachusetts legislators who secured the funding.

“I hope this experience further reinforces that our next governor, lieutenant governor, and new representative from this district continue to fight the good fight," said the Chester select board member. "We need to make sure that the next situation or crisis similar to this isn't dealt with nearly six months after the fact. Our hill town communities should be more than extra population to lump in with Agawam.”

“I'm proud of the Chester community members and employees who came together during the storm weekend, folks stepped in stepped up to help. Our highway department worked tirelessly, fixing our roads so our emergency first responders could reach our citizens if needed," said Town Administrator Kathe Warden. “Documenting the level of damage to our roads was very difficult. We spent many hours showing our damaged roads to [Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] and [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and explaining what happened. We filled out forms, responded to emails, provided pictures as evidence of the extents of damage. Unfortunately, due to the thresholds that communities couldn't meet, no one was awarded monetary assistance.”

“This is one example of what we've seen now, our state leaders and ourselves included, in highlighting that the state has failed to invest sufficiently in infrastructure in Western Mass, in Central Massachusetts. And it's high time that we change that," said Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District. Hinds is running for Lieutenant Governor.

“If we don't use this moment, when we have ARPA money, state surpluses, infrastructure money totaling billions and billions of dollars, if we're not using that moment to invest in Western Mass, then we will have failed," continued Hinds. "And so this is the time to do it. And that's why we're calling on more investment in Western and Central Mass here today.”

“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," said Democratic 1st Franklin District State Representative Natalie Blais. “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.”

“This is because of a long underinvestment in our rural infrastructure in our rural communities that that small towns confronted with crises like these don't have the reserves necessary, that our infrastructure isn't resilient enough, that our state can't respond quickly enough," said State Senator Jo Comerford, another Democrat, of the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District. “And I look forward to the work ahead. And there's a lot of work ahead, called forward now by numbers of pieces of advocacy on the part of the delegation and members of the Baker administration and now hopefully funded by the state and federal money that needs to flow equitably to Western Massachusetts- I mean equitably, meaning we need the kind of rural equity that we haven't had for so long. But I'm glad to lock arms with all these good folks and help bring it home to our region.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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