(Photo: Brett Boston)
Days after the devastating fire that destroyed several houses along Berkshire Street in Cambridge and displaced almost 150 people, the city’s vice mayor Marc McGovern talked to Spare Change News about what he and his colleagues were doing to help those in need.
Q: How are you guys helping people who lost their homes last weekend?
A: So we really pulled together a pretty significant team in a very short period of time. By Monday morning — the fire was Saturday afternoon — by Monday morning at 8 o’clock we had dozens of city departments, state agencies, nonprofits all at City Hall set up and ready to help people who lost their homes during the fire. So that first day we — I think it was 54 families came through — and we were able to get them registered with the Red Cross, temporary housing, started working on more permanent housing for them, get them some emergency money and gift cards — kind of start getting them going. We had mental health services on site, the Department of Transitional Assistance was there. For families that receive SNAP benefits they got emergency benefits put in place. A lot of people lost identification and paperwork so we had the Clerk’s Office making sure people got birth certificates and all the paperwork they needed to get that replaced. We spoke with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and they’re going to be waiving all of their fees to get people new car registrations and duplicate licenses and all of that information. So it was really a very comprehensive system to help people from everything from being able to get toothbrushes to housing.
Q: So where does everyone stand now?
A: Everybody is — nobody, as far as I know, nobody is in shelters. Everybody is in some type of — everyone is somewhere. Everyone is in some type of housing, right. So some people are in hotels, some people chose that they rather be with family or friends. Anybody who didn’t have a place to go is in a hotel setting and awaiting to be matched with a more permanent housing situation. Hopefully — I think we’re optimistic — that by next week we will be able to get everybody into some sort of more permanent housing … the fire impacted people in different stages, so you have people who lost everything, their house is gone, and then you have other people who are out of their house because of smoke damage or water damage and couldn’t go home because Inspectional Services had to get involved in there or they had to make sure that the homes were safe. So as of yesterday afternoon seven families were able to return to their homes that weren’t as badly damaged. But obviously there are still a number of families that you know need more permanent housing.
Q: Do you find yourself having to track people down and follow up with them or is everybody on board in terms of letting you know what’s going on?
A: So according to the Red Cross at our four o’clock meeting yesterday afternoon 95 percent of the people have been registered and contacted. So hopefully we’ll get to the rest of the people today. It’s a little more difficult with the people — you know, some people have gone and they’ve, they’ve gone to other communities to live with relatives and we may or may not be able to have as easy a time of reaching them. But everybody has to register through the Red Cross to get the services that we’re putting in place so we’re calling through to everybody and making sure. But we’re about 95 percent there so we’ll get everybody by the end of today.
Q: What have you experienced through this all? What have you learned?
A: Well, going by what some of the folks at the Red Cross have said to us and some of the folks from the state agencies who have a lot more experience with this, they’ve really been blown away with how quickly the city has been able to pull things together. And so, I mean one thing is we know this community, not just the city administration but the residents and the community as a whole, we know how to step up when we need to step up. And the response, I mean, this was only a couple of days ago when this happened, right. I mean, they were still fighting the fire into the night of Saturday night and early Sunday morning and we’re already at the point where in less than a week we’re probably going to have everybody in stable housing, you know … I mean it’s very powerful. I was sitting with someone for over two hours yesterday who they have been sort of going on adrenaline and it finally hit them what they’ve lost and what happened and you know they were crying and trying to process it and I just sat with them for two hours, you know, and talked to them and reassured them. So you see that and your heart breaks, but then you see people walking out and saying, you know, “Thank you. We feel like we’re going to be okay and we feel have the whole city behind us,” and that is really uplifting.
Q: How has this been any different from anything you dealt with before as an elected official?
A: I’ve never seen anything like this before. I never dealt with with anything like this before. You know, this is — even when I was on School Committee when [Hurricane] Katrina hit and we did some things to help families that were relocating up to Cambridge from Louisiana. We were able to do things, like waive certain things for them because they lost all of their paperwork and tried to streamline the process so that kids could get into school, but that was only a half dozen families at most. I have never seen anything like this in the city, and I grew up here so this is you know, I don’t really have anything to compare it to.
Q: And what was your take when you surveyed all of the damage and everything like that and took it all in?
A: Yeah. It was amazing. I was down at the site yesterday. It was still smoldering in places … the smell of smoke is, you know, overwhelming. You know, it’s amazing to look at how the fire jumped. And you know, you have some houses that have little damage and then two houses down the whole house is gone, you know. And it’s just — to see how the wind played a role in that and to look in the rubble and see things like, you know — people’s pillows and their chairs and these personal items. I mean, it’s just — it’s really overwhelming.