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People displaced by tornadoes uncertain about next steps

Ashleigh Grampetro and her son Ramon Pena Jr. were forced out of their Webster apartment after it was damaged from Saturday’s tornado.
Ashleigh Grampetro and her son Ramon Pena Jr. were forced out of their Webster apartment after it was damaged from Saturday’s tornado. (Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)

WEBSTER — At a table in Webster’s Senior Center, Mary Cruz sat with her chin in her hands. She listened as representatives from the Salvation Army helped her navigate how to get vouchers for clothing and groceries to replace everything she lost in the tornadoes that touched down in Webster and Dudley Saturday morning.

Cruz, 35, spent the weekend at her mother’s with her teenage daughter and four cats. She said officials told her it could be two weeks before she gets a new place to live.

“I’ll sleep in my damn car, I don’t care. But I’m worried about my daughter,” Cruz said.

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Two days after the storm, Cruz and other displaced residents sought help at the temporary regional recovery center set up by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. More than 10 agencies were on hand to provide services, and local restaurants donated food for lunch and snacks.

Town officials are still tallying the total damage from the storm, whose 110-mile-per-hour winds ripped through the two communities south of Worcester, downing electrical wires, toppling trees, and tearing up part of Webster’s Main Street. Two buildings on the downtown strip were demolished Sunday, and the fate of three more will be determined by inspectors in the days to come.

Forty-three residents were unable to return to their homes after the storm, three-quarters of them, including Cruz, from a single 9-unit apartment building at 41 Main St. in Webster.

“Most of them will be here today to figure out which direction to go in,” said Webster fire Chief Brian Hickey, speaking of the residents gathering at the senior center. “In the general area, there’s enough housing around that we can find them something short term.”

But those who lost their homes still had as many questions as answers, and information trickled in slowly. Some have been sleeping on the floors and couches of family in the area. Others accepted hotel vouchers from the Red Cross. Most did not know where they’d be spending the next few weeks, let alone the next few nights.

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Like many of her neighbors, Cruz spent the weekend filled with uncertainty. Would she get her August rent back from her landlord? Would her building be demolished? Would she able to return to her apartment to get a few more essential personal items?

“My best friend passed away from cancer a few years ago, and I have his ashes in there,” Cruz said. “My whole life is in that apartment.”

Valerie White (right) and her boyfriend Jesus Nieves talked with Paula Mayville, executive director of the Webster Housing Authority, about options available to them.
Valerie White (right) and her boyfriend Jesus Nieves talked with Paula Mayville, executive director of the Webster Housing Authority, about options available to them. (Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)

Webster Town Administrator Doug Willardson said he expects to have a more definitive answer about the building’s fate within the week.

On Monday afternoon, he handed displaced residents official documents asserting that the town had condemned their buildings and deemed them, for the time being, “uninhabitable,” so they could apply for help. He told them that they would likely be able to return to their apartments in the coming days to collect personal items.

“Right now, it’s condemned and no one is allowed to go in it, but it may not be permanent,” Willardson said.

Teresa Wolverson, the building’s landlord, confirmed Monday afternoon that residents will be able to go in and get their property this week, and that she will be giving people from each of the 9 units $750 from insurance.

“All I know is that on Wednesday they will be inspecting the property and we will find out what happens next,” she wrote in a text message.

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Jesus Nieves, 38, had been anxious Monday morning when he didn’t know if he’d be able to go back to get his things, or if he’d get compensation. After he spoke to Wolverson Monday afternoon, he said he was going to “lay low” and calm down.

“I’m hurt,” he said. “We’re in the process of losing our home — everything we own.”

The assurance from Willardson that residents would be able to retrieve things like birth certificates, family photo albums, and extra clothes elicited strong emotions. In the women’s bathroom at the center, one woman cried quietly in the privacy of the handicapped stall.

Crystal Murzycki stepped outside to catch her breath in the parking lot, her fingertips shaking as she tried to light her cigarette three times before it finally caught flame. “This is awful,” she said, through tears.

In the nearby French River that runs along the Webster-Dudley line, trees had fallen from both banks across the water, their branches bobbing listlessly with the current. A television sat screen-up in the shallows.

Gazing out at the river, Robin White, who owns the Webster Tri-Town Travel Agency, said he was glad that at least no one was seriously hurt.

White peered at the eerie scene inside his store. One window was boarded up after a picnic table from across the street smashed through it. The ceiling sagged, exposing insulation. But a fragile orchid stood untouched on the desk in front of cheerful pictures of Disney cruise destinations.

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“This building ain’t going nowhere,” he said. “It’s going to take more than a tornado to take us down.”

Daniel Kokernak of Webster talked with Lauren Appleton of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance about available options.
Daniel Kokernak of Webster talked with Lauren Appleton of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance about available options.(Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)

Amelia Nierenberg can be reached at amelia.nierenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ajnierenberg.