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Tornadoes a bane and boon to Massachusetts businesses


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The tornadoes that pulverized neighborhoods in western and central Massachusetts have been a boon and bane to businesses, wrecking some but boosting others.

The storm that swept through Massachusetts last Wednesday, killing three people, breathed new life into Paul Benoit’s tree removal and trimming business, he said Friday.

Benoit said he made thousands of dollars over two days, cutting and removing trees felled by a tornado that sheared tree limbs in seconds and brought down power lines. The work he’s getting, mostly from insurance companies, pays more than the $25 an hour he made at a recent job to supplement his Springfield business, American Tree Services.

“We can’t even keep up,” Benoit said. “It’s like a godsend to us.”

The storm had the opposite effect on Mexitalia Express, located in a Springfield neighborhood pockmarked by boarded-up buildings and heaps of rubble piled by clean-up crews. Owner Cecy Perry isn’t seating customers because a part of a ceiling damaged in the storm is hanging above empty tables. The Mexican-Italian restaurant did about $120 in business on Friday, down more than 75 percent from a typical weekday afternoon before the tornado, she said.

Still, she’s pleased she’s open.

“We’re in good shape compared to others,” Perry said.

Just a few blocks away, Gary Bshara, owner of B’Shara’s on Main, said business is up 20 percent from before the storm. He credits his downtown location and increased traffic from repair crews, National Guardsmen dispatched to help in the cleanup and other visitors.

Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Va., said it could take years to fully restore area business. Debris removal is the start of post-storm business activity, but construction takes longer because insurance settlements and building permit approvals take time, he said.

Some owners of businesses that were ruined by a storm may decide against re-opening, he said. Or a monetary loss caused by the storm could prohibit a new startup, Simonson said.

Up to now, the Springfield area’s construction industry has been doing well, he said. The U.S. Department of Labor reported mining, logging and construction jobs rose by about 4.5 percent, to 9,400 from April 2010 to last month, he said.

The Massachusetts unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in April, below the national unemployment rate of 9 percent. But the tornado hit areas where joblessness has been particularly high in the state: 9 percent in Hamden County in April and 11.6 percent in Springfield.

Still, state officials don’t anticipate businesses will shut down permanently because of the tornadoes, and predict disruptions will be short-term.

“We’re not expecting any negative employment effects,” said Gregory Bialecki, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “It’s probably going to be a wash.”

The tourist industry reports that entertainment and visitor business is still strong, Bialecki said.

And the tornadoes may actually give a small boost to the lodging industry, which will host utility workers, construction and clean-up crews and the hundreds of National Guard troops called up by Gov. Deval Patrick.

Mark Henshaw, general manager of Comfort Inn and Suites in West Springfield, said business was “a little crazy” in the middle of the week and that all 75 rooms were filled as of Friday. But he said one or two rooms will be available this weekend, which is typical for early June. Many potential visitors want to know if the damage from the tornado makes it worth it to come to western Massachusetts, he said.

“We’re getting a lot of calls asking if things are still open,” Henshaw said.

The Home Depot in Wilbraham benefited from the tornado as customers sought home repair items, spokeswoman Jennifer King said. It was open 24 hours last Thursday, experiencing a brisk trade in items including generators, trash bags, rakes, shovels, extension cords, water, plywood and propane, she said.

Demand is also up for large items manufactured by suppliers to Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

Sandra Ahearn, spokeswoman for the Northeast Utilities subsidiary, said repair crews have so far installed 180 new utility poles, 225 new transformers and 150 new cross arms.

“No one can remember a storm with this intensity,” Ahearn said.

Associated Press