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One Year Later: An analysis of how Western Mass. survived the tornadoes

Posted by Steve Fox June 1, 2012 08:30 AM

One year ago, students in a UMass investigative journalism class began looking into the aftermath of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Western Massachusetts last June 1. Today, their work appeared in The Boston Globe newspaper, its website and on The project is part of an ongoing partnership between The Globe and the UMass Journalism program. Students owe a special thanks to The Globe's Scott Allen and Matt Carroll, who played large roles in guiding this project

Additionally, students produced several written sidebars and several video narratives. All the content can be found here:

* "Springfield neighborhood still reels a year after deadly tornado," by Rachel Roberts, Julie Varney, and Matt McCarron and Matt Carroll. Interactive graphic | Photos.

* "Family touched by Massachusetts tornado tragedy uses faith to carry on," By Amy Chaunt and Anna Meiler.

* Video: Juan Guerrero talks about wife’s death, by Amy Chaunt and Anna Meiler.

* "Flashbacks and fears a year after the tornado," by Kim Kern and Noelle Richard.

* Video: "Children of the Storm," By Kim Kern and Noelle Richard.

* "Monson 'volunteers' face controversy over getting paid," by Amy Chaunt

* "One year after tornado, Livchin family struggles with loss," by Rachel Roberts and Dean Curran.

* "Reliving the tornado: 'I thought my family was dead,'" By Amy Chaunt and Rachel Roberts.

* "Springfield plan provides hope for future after tornado," By T.J. Houpes

Monson 'volunteers' face controversy over getting paid

Posted by Steve Fox June 1, 2012 06:27 AM


When is a volunteer not a volunteer?

When they’re paid out of a $3.4 million disaster grant intended to help relieve the suffering from last year’s tornado.

At least that’s what some in Monson are saying.

“You can’t be a volunteer if you’re paid,” said Sean Dimitropolis, who is volunteering to organize the 2nd Annual Monson 5K, the Run to Rebuild on August 4.

“You’re donating to a non-profit, but they’re paid employees.”

Members of the group in question – the Monson Tornado Volunteers – are getting paid out of a National Emergency Grant was distributed by the U.S. Department of Labor last July to: “Provide temporary employment for the clean-up, renovation, reconstruction and repair of damaged and destroyed public and non-profit structures, facilities and lands located within designated disaster areas in Hampden County. In addition temporary employment will be available in humanitarian assistance jobs.”

Some in Monson question the group’s designation as a volunteer group. As the first anniversary of the June 1 tornado approached, much of the media coverage surrounding Monson’s efforts to rebuild centered on the “volunteer” nature of the community and the willingness of many to come together and help each other.

Wendy Deshais, a Palmer resident and the head of the Monson Tornado Volunteers, is one of 122 employees who is working and getting paid under the grant. Deshais sees little issue with the pay-for-volunteering arrangement.

“We call it, (Monson Tornado Volunteers) because we coordinate volunteers that come into town, we help the volunteers that come into town,” she said. “We take care of the volunteers.”

“They were hoping to get tornado victims to take these jobs to help them out, that was the goal originally,” said Jo Sauriol, a Monson resident and the administrator of the Monson Tornado Watch 2011 Facebook Group.

“I don’t think they found enough of those (victims), so with any grant, you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Karen King, the face and voice of the Monson tornado recovery movement and founder of “Street Angels” is aggravated with the fact that the Monson Tornado Volunteers are getting paid.

“Well I think one of the problems is the fact that since they have been hired, they can’t do work on private property, like homes,“ King said. “They can only work on public property and it ends up tying their hands in a way and therefore a lot of work hasn’t come in since January.”

“A couple of people who approached me wondered why the volunteers dropped off the face of the earth,” said King. “And when they found out they were paid they were just surprised.”

Melissa Scibelli, project manager of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, the group that distributed the grant, confirmed that the Monson Tornado Volunteers can only work on public and non profit property under the grant.

However, it’s unclear whether the 122 employees are being tracked for their work and how much money each “volunteer” is receiving. Only five of the eight Monson Tornado Volunteers are getting the full $12,000 because the others couldn’t continue the grant for personal reasons.

“It wasn’t criteria for us to track every employee,” said Scibelli.

Deshais defends her work, saying she was unemployed for more than 15 weeks and qualified for the grant. Once the grant money ends, Deshais plans to live off of unemployment and continue doing what she’s doing now.

“Nobody’s stepping up to fill our shoes, that’s what it’s coming down to there’s nobody to
take our place,” she said.

To qualify under the grant guidelines, people had to be “low income” and unemployed for at least 15 weeks. The grant allocated $1.9 million for 122 temporary jobs for participants including wages, fringe and support services. The remainder of the grant breaks down as follows:

* $400,000 allocated for staff intake, counseling and worksite development and
* $330,000 allocated for career counseling and technical training;
* $175,000 allocated for administration;
* The remaining $595,000 is given to the state.

Yet there is little tornado-related work happening with the $330,000 allocated for technical training and career counseling.

“It could be anything from resume building to going to excel training classes,” said Scibelli in explaining what happens with career counseling. “A lot of people we were working with don’t even have resumes up to date.”

Gail Morrissey, a member of the Street Angels, and a victim of the June 1 tornado, is upset with what has been happening around the town. She lived in an apartment Washington Street in Monson and was home when the tornado hit her apartment building. Ever since, she has been relocated.

“I am the only volunteer who was in the tornado and that’s the difference” she said. “So when I see things not being done the right way, I take offense to that.”

According to Allison DiPesa Hill, another member of the Monson Tornado Volunteers, residents of the community told her that she should be getting paid for all that she’s doing for the town. And now that she is getting paid, it’s backfiring on them.

“I’ve been biting my tongue and it’s gotten to a point where were being made to look like bad guys and now all of a sudden everything we’re doing is not enough and horrible, it’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating,” said DiPesa Hill.

“We gave up our lives to do this, and it certainly wasn’t done to get credit for it, I did it cause it was the right thing to do, but it just seems like were competing with the people who want the credit.”

One year after tornado, Livchin family struggles with loss

Posted by Steve Fox June 1, 2012 06:21 AM


It’s a brilliantly sunny day outside as five-year-old Leanna Livchin dances with her 14-year-old sister Victoria, while three-year-old Artem punts rocks, pretending to be a soccer player. Their father, Vladimir and mother, Yelena, are planting flowers in the back yard of their West Springfield home as Melanie, 9, looks on. Max, 17, is up to his elbows inside his shiny silver Taotao 50 Moped, which he has been fixing up to get back on the road.

Only the oldest boy -- Sergey -- is missing.

Irina, 20, can see Sergey would right by his brother’s side, consumed by his knack for mechanics shared by the male side of the Livchin family. One year after Sergey was killed when a tree fell on his car during last spring’s tornado, the Livchin family gives the appearance of going through everyday routines.

But, for the Livchin family, time has not healed all wounds.

For those who knew 23-year-old Sergey Livchin -- one of three people killed in last spring’s series of tornadoes in Western Massachusetts -- time is relative. Family and friends say that one year after Sergey's death, a tragic hole remains in their lives.

Sergey’s mother, Yelena can barely talk about the loss of her son. Sergey’s sister Liya got married -- but without her older brother there.

How do families deal with the loss of a young life?

339672_121495987957936_100002926072714_128276_130624639_o.jpg“Sometimes a death brings a family closer together, but it really pulled us apart,” Irina said. “We all had such a hard time even talking about it, even now it’s so painful.”

In early March, Sergey’s headstone was erected at his grave, in Pine Hill Cemetery in Westfield. Since then, the Livchin family frequently visits his final resting spot, but it still does not bring closure to the life he lost.

“After he died, you’d see him everywhere you know?” said Irina. “We had those little moments where we connected, we didn’t need anything big.”

Irina says she picked up a job at a Felix’s Family Ristorante in Springfield to get out of the house and get away from it all, but quit after a few months to spend more time with her Mom.

“We all deal with it in different ways,” said Irina. “My Mom lets it all out and my Dad holds it inside. I don’t know what is better or worse.”

Sergey was the oldest of nine children and known to his siblings as both the loving older brother and family comedian. Before his death, Sergey worked with his father at National Envelope Corp. in Westfield. His sister says he recently expressed interest in getting his GED and going to college for mechanics or training to repair heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

IMG_9078.jpgYelena continues to leave flowers marking the roadside spot where a tree crashed down on Sergey in his car on Main Street in West Springfield.

“To tell the truth, I don’t have closure…we don’t have closure,” said Irina. “I think that something died in me the day he did and that changed not only me but how I see things now. Maybe something died in all of us who were really affected by Sergey’s death.”

Reliving the tornado: 'I thought my family was dead'

Posted by Amy Chaunt June 1, 2012 06:15 AM


Last June 1, Kelli Gralia had just signed her lease and was moving into her apartment near UMass-Amherst with the help of her mother. Gralia, a Springfield resident, had heard reports of a tornado but didn’t think much of it. Disregarding the warnings, her mother ended up leaving UMass and headed home to Springfield in the middle of the afternoon.

Gralia didn't realize how serious the tornado really was until she went out to an early dinner and saw the news coverage on television. She then phoned her Mom, who said her family was at her old high school, Cathedral, for safety.

“Two minutes into the conversation, she starts screaming she’s like 'oh my God, run, run! And I just kept yelling 'Mom, mom!' And the phone just went dead and I literally just started crying."

"I thought my family was dead."

One year later, the tornado is still a vivid part of the past for many residents of Western Massachusetts. Four UMass students will never forget the day.

Like Gralia, Scott Strycharz wasn’t at his Westfield home at the time the tornado hit. He was at work when the tornado hit, but had heard no warnings. He then began to drive home from Northampton like a normal day, thinking the traffic was from a car crash.

“I didn’t put two and two together, I never thought a tornado would be possible,” he said.

“”The neighborhood was wrecked, power lines all over the street, trees down everywhere, roofs ripped off, trees on roofs, cars parked everywhere cause they couldn’t get anywhere. Complete madness,” Strycharz said.

Little did Strycharz know that his friend, Nick Petrisis was experiencing the same trauma that day. Petrisis, also a senior at UMass, is a resident of Monson and was moving into his apartment in Amherst. He heard warning sirens on campus of the possible storm. Just moments later, he started receiving multiple texts and calls from friends questioning his safety.

“Are you okay? Is your house okay?” friends asked Petrisis. He then replied, “Well what do you mean?”

“Well a tornado just ran through Monson,” his friends said.

Petrisis made it down to his Monson home, where he described the scene as an absolute disaster.

“Within a mile past my house, everything was destroyed,” he said. “It looked like a war zone.”

Ryan McMurphy, a senior at UMass, fortunately wasn’t home either when the category EF3 tornado hit his home in Wilbraham.

He phoned home when he heard of the tornado and then met up with his twin brother and the two attempted to drive down to Wilbraham. On his way, he was told to turn around, because there was another tornado coming, and was heading directly for his town.

Their home was moved off the foundation, windows were blown out and several pieces of furniture were destroyed. Months later, a blue tarp still covered his window.

“Whenever I go home, I’m sleeping there and my window still has a tarp over it so if the wind is blowing or it is raining, it’s just banging on a tarp right next to my head,” he said. “It’s not a good condition to be sleeping in."

In Springfield, the day after the tornado, Gralia drove down to meet with her family to asses the damage. She described the scene as “insane and depressing.” For Gralia, the physical reminder the tornado left on her town is enough to trigger emotion.

“When something like this happens it gets really deep into people, it was literally all my Dad could think about,” he said. "You can tell that the entire time we talk about anything else, he's running through the checklist of whatever he's got to do that week to do with the house. It just completely takes over your mind."

One year later, the tornado is still affecting the residents of Western Massachusetts just as much as it did on June 1. For the UMass students, it is a part of their lives they will never forget.

"Anything can happen at any given moment, and you cant’ be prepared for it, but you can’t prevent, but you just gotta take it as it comes and be grateful everyday that you're alive," Strycharz said.

Springfield plan provides hope for future after tornado

Posted by T.J. Houpes June 1, 2012 06:00 AM

One year after a tornado devasted much of Springfield, recovery in the city has been slow – thanks mainly to a City Hall that seems continually understaffed and to a slow response by the federal government.

Today, homeowners and renters in the city continue to struggle with insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. The city itself continues to struggle with financial afflictions that plagued it for years before the tornado even hit. Its economic situation has complicated rebuilding efforts, leading city officials to lobby for funds -- both state and federal -- to restore the city not only to its pre-tornado state, but to where it found itself 70 years ago when it was recognized as the heart of Western New England.

In hopes of accomplishing this restoration, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority and the non-profit DevelopSpringfield teamed up to create ‘Rebuild Springfield’, a public and private sector initiative to rebuild the city in the wake of the tornado. ’Rebuild Springfield’ began putting together a “master plan” for revitalizing the city in October 2011. The plan was finalized in February 2012 and officially released to the public April 26. It is more than 900 pages long.

Kevin Kennedy, who sits on DevelopSpringfield’s board and is also Springfield’s chief development officer, said efforts to revitalize the city were in motion before the tornado struck, but said that the tornado “compiled on top of issues that were already there.”

Kennedy believed that the June 1 tornado “brought the city together” as a whole and that giving residents a chance to voice their opinions on the plan was “something that really energized the citizens.”

“There is a bit of a silver lining here in the sense that [the tornado] brought the community together,” he said.

The report provides recommendations for serious procedural overhauls and the creation of an array of citywide programs and initiatives to address the culmination of years of troubling housing and fiscal issues that have been exacerbated as a result of last June’s tornado.

Among other things, the plan highlights a myriad of issues regarding the city’s struggles to track vacancies, foreclosed homes, city-owned properties, and address overall blight, all things that have been further complicated by last June’s tornado. It recommends the creation of “an electronic inventory of vacant land and derelict structures” that can be accessed by the public and the development of a system for “permanently redeveloping vacant land and derelict structures” that at present the city does not have in place.

In a city once referred to as the ‘City of Homes’ because of its abundance of elegant, Victorian-style houses, Census data shows that nine percent of Springfield’s housing units are now vacant. Non-census estimates in the plan have this number varying from 11 to 12.5 percent.

The plan calls for the creation of a “comprehensive structure” in the city to document and track landlords and hold them accountable for decrepit buildings or poor living conditions, which at present the city does not have in place. Census data in the plan indicates 45.2 percent of all housing units in Springfield are renter-occupied, and in the city’s South End neighborhood -- one of the areas hardest hit by the tornado -- this number is as high as 90%.

The plan recognizes that “Springfield’s rebuilding needs exceed the availability of current funding opportunities” and that “a dedicated Federal appropriation will be necessary to close various financing gaps presented in or as a result of the Plan.”

“The idea is to raise as much funds as possible from any source possible, private or public,” he said. “The way the process works on the tornado rebuild is that you can’t do much until you have maximized your FEMA reimbursement.”

Kevin Sweeney, executive director of DevelopSpringfield, said the organization and the city will continue seeking funds for the ‘Rebuild Springfield’ plan moving forward.

“Our role is to help the city evaluate where projects fit from a priority perspective and resource perspective, and look where holes need to be filled,” he said. “Even when you have FEMA and private money, there are going to be whole areas that are under-resourced.”

The full 'Rebuild Springfield' plan can be viewed here.

Western Mass. faces storm threats days before one-year tornado anniversary

Posted by T.J. Houpes May 29, 2012 07:53 PM

Just three days before the one-year anniversary of last year's devastating tornadoes that hit Western Massachusetts, the National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for Berkshire County.

Along with the tornado threat, the NWS watch also warned residents of the potential for two-inch diameter hail, dangerous lightning, and thunderstorm-related wind gusts up to 70 mph.

An approaching cold front will run into an unstable air mass in place over Massachusetts and trigger conditions for severe storms to develop. A strong line of storms has been moving across New York state throughout the day, and at 5 PM the NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Berkshire County as the first of these storms began to enter western parts of the state. Another severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the area at 5:45.

northeast.gifTornado watches are also posted for parts of Eastern New York state and Southern New Hampshire, as well as the entire state of Vermont. A tornado warning -- indicating weather radar has detected rotation in a storm, not necessarily a confirmed on-the-ground tornado -- was issued for Windham County in Southern Vermont and Cheshire County in Southern New Hampshire at 4:32 PM this afternoon.

The tornado watch comes as recovery efforts from last year's devastating tornadoes -- including an EF-3 that tore a 39-mile path from Westfield to Charlton -- continue. The region has been hit hard by recent weather events, including Tropical Storm Irene and last October's freak snowstorm.

May 29 is also the anniversary of the Great Barrington tornado, which killed three people and caused $24 million in damage in 1995. Prior to last June's tornado, it was the last fatal tornado to strike the state.

Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.

T.J. Houpes can be reached at

State officials believe forests should stay 'untouched' in tornado-stricken areas

Posted by Amy Chaunt May 7, 2012 02:10 PM

In Southbridge, 50 acres of forest that was mostly leveled by last Spring's tornado will be left alone to heal itself.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, (DFW) which owns the 50 acres, out of a total of 350 acres of forest in Southbridge, decided to leave mother nature alone.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for trees.jpg
“DFW will help conduct whatever clearing of tornado debris is requested by public fire and safety officials in coordination with adjacent property owners. Other than that, we like the habitat structure as it is,” said John Scanlon, the Forestry Supervisor of DFW.

David Kittredge, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, says there were “two schools of thought” on what to do with the tornado-stricken land.

“Some people think that, well we got to get right in there and clean up that forest now, cause it’s either a mess or a fire danger or we cant hike in it or recreate thru it, there’s a human compulsion to make it look better than destruction,” he said. “The other school of thought, says you know, that’s the way it works, and even though it was destroyed, it’s really a relatively unique circumstance out there.”

The tornado’s path covered 7,200 acres in Western Massachusetts – with 4,500 of that being considered forest – and 65 percent of that is now considered “open.”

Kittredge thinks that people are most likely to want to fix the land and pick it up because it is a mess to look at.

“The most important thing is that it (tornado) converts standing forests to a big mess of horizontal sticks and trees all jumbled together, however, nature is pretty clever and wild life is pretty clever, and tornadoes were happening long before we got here,” Kittredge said.

Massachusetts is the third densest populated state in the country but it is ranked eighth in the highest percent of forest cover. Before the storm, people were living in communities surrounded by trees and now, the landscape has changed.

“You know forests deal with this stuff all the time, they have adapted in evolutionary time, where either the trees snap or get uprooted,” said Fletcher Clark, a UMass graduate student in forestry. “I think the decision to keep it as is and do nothing is probably a good one.”

“It’s sad for the people’s homes that were affected, but….. the forest is messy place but it’s also a resilient place, this is what forests do,” said Clark.

Photo Credit: John Scanlon

Hiring of full-time disaster manager in Monson draws mixed reviews

Posted by Anna Meiler May 4, 2012 08:50 PM

The decision to hire a full-time disaster recover manager in Monson a month before the year anniversary of last June's tornado is receiving mixed reviews from residents.

The position is funded as part of the $520,000 released by the state to assist the nine towns that were devastated by a category EF-3 tornado nearly a year ago.

“I think it’s a waste of money,” said Gail Morrissey, a Street Angel volunteer. “I can’t see what benefit this position would bring that the other positions can't do;
$65,000 could go so far towards something else.”

After state officials observed the recovery efforts in Monson, they asked the town administrator, Gretchen Neggers, if additional personnel would help. She didn’t hesitate in saying, “yes.”

"When you look at the fact that Gretchen Neggers has been pretty much managing the recovery process by herself, it became pretty obvious that assistance was necessary," said Alana Murphy, the Director of Policy Development for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"The Patrick administration has tried to be responsive of the need of the individual communities as they tried to recover from the disaster and this is something we felt we could do for Monson," she said.

“We’re very appreciative of the help,” said Neggers. “This position would really serve to be a link to make sure everybody knows what’s going on.”

The disaster recovery manager would help determine whether to repair or rebuild the Monson town offices and devise a plan of action for the 150 acres of land that still looks the way it did the day after the tornado. The manager would also work with non-profit organizations to determine the resources they have to offer the town and individual residents.

Additionally, they would help keep tabs on the multiple volunteer groups that have formed in town and assist them in locating additional resources.

“There are so many volunteer groups. There needs to be a link,” Neggers said.

Out of the $520,000 in state funds, $425,000 is being allocated for housing rehabilitation. Neggers said the disaster recovery manager will be crucial in informing residents if they are eligible for those funds and in helping them access the monies.

“We don’t want our residents who still have needs to miss those opportunities because they don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

Street Angels founder, Karen King, said the state funds are distributed among the affected communities on a first come, first serve basis.

"If we don’t have someone who knows what they're doing to get applications in on time, Monson will miss out and not get their fair share," she said. "This will definitely help move things along and help us get a piece of the pie that we otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to get."

Neggers compared Monson’s recovery to that of Springfield, noting the $1.6 million provided by Mass Mutual for tornado recovery, including the hiring of personnel.

“We don’t have any of those resources,” she said. “The work is falling on to people who already have full-time jobs, so it doesn’t get done properly and then the community suffers.”

However, many residents feel that the money could be used for more necessary recovery efforts. One resident posted on the Facebook group, Monson Tornado Watch 2011, that the money would be better spent on a tornado siren.

“We still have people that haven’t taken down their old houses or cleared their lots because they were uninsured or under-insured,” said Morrissey, who believes the money should go towards helping these individuals.

However, Neggers said the $65,000 was specifically appropriated to hire a disaster recovery manager and cannot be used for anything else. She believes that this position will bring the town more funds in the future.

The position will only be filled for one year and the $65,000 will go towards salary benefits and expenses. The hiring process will begin as soon as the town receives the paperwork allowing them to do so.

Anna Meiler can be reached at and you can follow her on Twitter @anna_meiler.

Tree-planting event helps Brimfield residents feel at home again

Posted by T.J. Houpes May 3, 2012 04:16 PM

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and Operation Tree Party hosted a tree-planting event in Brimfield last weekend to help reforest the tornado-ravaged town.

IMG_2808.JPGVolunteers from all over the state gathered on the Town Common Saturday to pick up supplies and coordinate which parts of town they would be working in. For residents in town still rebuilding from the tornadoes, the event was a welcomed step toward restoring their neighborhoods back to what they once were.

The left side of Eric Emanuel's family home was completely destroyed when the tornado tracked through his neighborhood on Haynes Hill Road. Emanuel signed up to have a tree planted on his property after receiving a notice of the event from the town. His family’s home has since been repaired, a process which he described as “overwhelming.” He believed what the volunteers were doing for the community was the perfect step toward restoring the town to how it was just 11 months ago.

“How can you not feel good about what they’re doing?” he said.

Neighbors Paul Watson and Vivian Wells echoed Emanuel’s sentiments. Watson and Wells said the tree-planting event was much needed for the community, especially their neighborhood, where they said 75 foot tall trees once stood everywhere. Volunteers were planting three trees on their property as part of the event, which Wells described as “fantastic.”

IMG_2831.JPGWells was in the couple’s home with their two young daughters when the tornado passed over, causing damage to roughly 75 percent of their home. The three of them, along with the family pets, took shelter in the basement of the home while the tornado passed over. When Wells emerged a short time later, the damage to the home was so extensive she recalls trying to keep her children from peering past her to avoid upsetting them any further.

Wells said she and her daughters had attended some of the art therapy sessions in town to help them cope with the aftermath, but her daughters still get scared when it rains or gets stormy.

“The amount of damage was outstanding, and it happened so fast,” Wells said. “You don’t understand the power of a tornado until one happens.”

The majority of the volunteer efforts were focused on Haynes Hill Road and Paige Hill Road, both areas of town struck hard by the EF-3 tornado on June 1. The DCR purchased all the trees – 142 in total – for the event. Property owners who signed up to have trees planted on their property were given a variety of shade trees to choose from.

The DCR began planning reforestation efforts for the cities and towns affected shortly after the June 1 tornadoes struck, according to Acting Urban Forestry Coordinator Eric Seaborn. Seaborn, who traveled from his office in Boston for the event, also said the DCR receives about $250,000 annually from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service and that for 2012 the DCR has set aside $100,000 of that money specifically for reforestation efforts in areas damaged by the tornadoes.

IMG_2809.JPGMembers of the DCR at the event held a brief demonstration on how to properly plant trees by planting one on the Town Common at the request of town officials. Land-owners in Brimfield were contacted about the opportunity to receive a free tree for their property in advance of the event through notices and e-mails from the DCR, Operation Tree Party, and town officials.

Members of Operation Tree Party helped with planting efforts and provided volunteers with food and water throughout the day. Operation Tree Party began as a small effort to help those affected by the tornadoes according to co-founder Mike Murray, who was present at the event. Murray said the non-profit has worked with state representatives Todd Smola of the first Hampden District and Peter Durant of the sixth Worcester District to aid in the reforesting of tornado-affected areas.

Since its establishment shortly after the tornadoes, Murray said Operation Tree Party has also held events similar to the one in Brimfield in Charlton, Southbridge, and Sturbridge. Murray recognized Brimfield to be one of the hardest hit towns the organization has worked with and was surprised and encouraged by the up-beat spirit of its residents after what the town has been through.

“Of all the towns we’ve worked with, Brimfield has impressed me the most,” he said. “These people have a positive attitude in the face of everything that’s happened here.”

More on Brimfield’s art therapy sessions can be found here.

A similar but unrelated tree-planting event was also held in Monson on Sat., April 28.

T.J. Houpes can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TJHoupes.

Additional $520,000 to fund Monson recovery manager, tornado repairs

Posted by Rachel Roberts May 2, 2012 10:20 AM

Eleven months after last June’s tornadoes tore through Western Massachusetts, the Patrick-Murray Administration announced an additional $520,000 in recovery assistance to fund a recovery manager in Monson and homeowner repairs throughout affected communities. Springfield Partners for Community Action will also receive $30,000 to provide additional funding for their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Monson’s disaster recovery manager will receive $65,000 to identify local needs and opportunities while coordinating state, federal and non-profit assistance opportunities. Additionally, $425,000 will be administered by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) to individual homeowners struggling to pay for repairs due to being under-insured, lack of insurance, or lack of FEMA or other monetary assistance.

Rebuilding homes as is, with updated building codes and including other outdoor structures, such as garages, are sometimes not covered by insurance companies, according to James Mazik, deputy director of operations at PVPC. Mazik says the program will implement a limit of $7,500 per unit, with an additional process of obtaining up to $15,000 per unit.

“[The program] is geared to owner-occupied residents, based a little on medium income, but there’s other guidelines to ensure equal distribution across affected communities,” Mazik said.

Mazik emphasizes the importance of fairly distributing funds to the 19 affected communities, inlcluding Westfield, West Springfield, Springfield, Wilbraham, Monson, Sturbridge and Palmer. He believes the PVPC will modify rules to one of their existing programs that adapts to regulations and restrictions set by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

“It’s great to get the money but there isn’t a lot,” Mazik said.

“If you do the math you’re talking 40-50 units over nine communities, that could be 5 property owners per [affected] community. It’s not a lot but it’s better than nothing.”

The PVPC believes the program can begin implementation within 30 days of receiving a contract with the full terms and conditions from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Mary-Leah Assad, the Communications Specialist at DHCD, says the contract will be emailed to the PVPC on Wednesday. The town of Monson will also begin the process of hiring a disaster recovery manager.

“The Monson position came up organically through our conversations with the town manager and residents,” Assad said.

“There won’t be a similar position in Springfield because they have Develop Springfield leading recovery efforts and they are responsible for the same duties that the disaster recovery manager will have.”

Springfield’s final Master Plan was released on April 26, a month shy of the anniversary of the tornadoes. DevelopSpringfield, a non-profit organization leading the Rebuild Springfield initiative, will begin taking the steps outlined in their plan, according to Nick Fyntrilakis, chairman of the group’s board of directors.

“Implementation is the next critical step in the process,” Fyntrilakis said in a recent press release. “DevelopSpringfield will quarterback the Master Plan in partnership with the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the City and key stakeholders and the community at large.”

The plan could take three to five years and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, according to Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of the Rebuild Springfield effort.

The plan is dependent on federal disaster aid, state assistance and private contributions. So far, Springfield has received only $5.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), less than ten percent of the $57 million they are expected to pay as part of the disaster declaration’s 75 percent reimbursement. Springfield currently has 39 active FEMA applications, with active project worksheets totaling $22.9 million.

Rachel Roberts can be reached at or on Twitter @relroberts

Springfield unveils 'master plan' for future after the tornado

Posted by Joseph Pereira April 28, 2012 10:09 AM

Map of tornado path through springfield Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and members of Rebuild Springfield released on Thursday a “master plan” totaling more than 900 pages. The plan was put together by Rebuild Springfield, a private non-profit organization that has been focusing on reviving the city since the tornado hit the city almost 11 months ago.

Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of the Rebuild Springfield effort, told The Republican, "that implementation of the plan could take three to five years, and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars." The funding will be coming from federal disaster aid, some sources in the private sector, and state and federal funding.

The plan took into consideration the input and suggestions from the community that they had collected through community meetings, one-on-one interviews and an online forum set up to share and contribute to ideas. “There has been an extraordinary level of public engagement in the Rebuild Springfield dialogue,” said Sarno. “With over 3,000 individuals participating in the planning process by offering input at public meetings and online.”

Working with the consulting group Concordia LLC of New Orleans, which oversaw the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the plan looks to unify relief efforts by using a communal and democratic process to assess the needs of the residents and business owners.

To customize the rebuilding, plan divides the city into three economically and commercially different districts. District 1 includes the South End and Metro Center, which are mostly commercial and business areas. District 2 focuses on the heavily populated and low-income areas of Maple High, Six Corners, Forest Park and Upper Hill. The third district includes Sixteen Acres and East Forest Park, which is mostly residential and home to Cathedral High School that was directly hit by the tornado.

Beyond rebuilding from the effects of the tornado, the plan also looks to redefine the city as a whole. It focuses on 6 “Nexus Domains”, which were prioritized by public meeting participants. The educational domain, which is at the top of the list, looks to “better engage the public in the process and importance of education reform,” according to the master plan. Other parts of the plan include physical, cultural, social, economic and organizational domains, which address subjects ranging from “transforming vacant lots into public assets” to growing the arts and culture sector of the city with “lighter, quicker and cheaper” events.

“Nobody wants these type of natural disasters or storm clouds,” said Sarno at the master plan press conference. “But two good things are going to come out of this. One we have seen day in and day out. The resiliency of the Springfield people and neighbor helping neighbor. Two, the economic development and monetary assets are going to come to the city of Springfield.”

The abridged plan can be downloaded at Springfield’s City Hall website and the complete plan can be viewed here.

Monson mother of three refuses to let tornado alter her life plans

Posted by Anna Meiler April 24, 2012 12:10 PM

house1.jpgMonson's Kelly Couture was determined not to let Mother Nature mess with her plans for nursing school.

“I didn’t want to give up because of the tornado. I didn’t want to quit,” said Couture, a Monson resident and mother of three.

Couture began taking nursing courses at Holyoke Community College last fall, about three months after the tornado ripped the roof off her home, allowing rain to flood inside and cause about $180,000 worth of damage. Now, with an anonymous donation of $30,000 to Holyoke Community College for tornado victims, Couture is one of many students hoping to get support.

“There’s not a lot out there for tornado victims,” said Couture. “I think it’s wonderful they are doing this."

Out of the 7,000 students enrolled in Holyoke Community College, about one-third were affected by the tornado in a significant way, according to Erica Broman, vice president of Institutional Development.

The donation will be distributed in amounts ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student, depending on the financial need expressed in applicants' 250 word essays describing how the tornado impacted them.

“We’re not looking at grades or anything. We want to know how significant an impact the tornado had on their life,” said Broman. “If their house was destroyed we would be looking to provide a great deal of help for them.”

Couture’s situation reflects those of many tornado victims. She received $30,000 less than her total damage costs from her insurance company and many of the repairs, such as getting the house up to code, replacing the staircase, the lawn and trees, will be paid out of her own pocket. A scholarship award would eliminate her need to take out a loan and would offset the hardship of her recovery expenses.

The donation came from the Tides Foundation in California, inspired by the story of Angelica Guerrero, who gave her life to protect her daughter from the June 1 tornado. Holyoke Community College set up a scholarship fund to support both of Angelica’s daughters. Now, the college has the opportunity to extend financial assistance to even more students affected by the tornado.

Scholarship applications must be submitted by April 27 and the recipients will be awarded on June 1, the anniversary of the tornado.

“It feels wonderful to be able to do it and we’re so grateful to the donor for making it possible,” said Broman.

For more information on the scholarship and to download an application, click here.

Photo provided by Kelly Couture.

Anna Meiler can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter: @anna_meiler

Springfield's Elias Brookings Elementary School to be rebuilt

Posted by Nick Russo April 24, 2012 08:53 AM

The tornado-damaged Elias Brookings Elementary school in the Six Corners neighborhood will be rebuilt rather than repaired, Springfield officials announced Friday along with school administration and representatives of Rebuild Springfield.

The school, which has been housed in temporary classrooms since the beginning of the current school year, is an Expeditionary Learning Magnet School focused on English Literary Arts and Math as well as Museum Studies and is one of seven elementary magnet schools in Springfield.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recommended that the school be rebuilt rather than repaired since the structure is so dated, building codes have changed, and there has been a consistent need for more classroom space.

"So to us, it makes sense if you're going to spend millions and millions of dollars, it's to a new facility," Sarno said.

The new building, which is expected to be financed through a combination of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, will cost nearly $28 million, according to the city’s director of capital asset construction. To pay for the construction, FEMA support will be provided through reimbursements and the city will have to cover approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total cost.

A public hearing on May 15 will allow members of the community to weigh in on the future of the project. Construction on the new building is likely get underway in August 2013.

Brush fires becoming huge concern for Brimfield, Monson

Posted by Amy Chaunt April 6, 2012 02:57 PM

By Amy Chaunt and T.J. Houpes

IMG_2491.JPGA brush fire broke out Wednesday in Brimfield, damaging 52 acres of land in the Paige Hill Road area as a result of the recent dry weather and leftover debris from last June's tornado.

Brimfield Fire Chief Fred Piechota said fire started small Wednesday afternoon -- behind a residence on Paige Hill Road. He said it then rapidly spread toward the Holland Road area behind the 1 Stop Towing company located in town as winds increased during the course of the day.

"Initially it was our department and two other departments, but when it spread the incident commander called for a task force," he said. "We had roughly 60 personnel working and 25-30 departments that responded."

In addition to Brimfield fire
and police units, units fromIMG_2480.JPG
the Massachusetts Forest Fire
Control, Massachusetts Department of Fire Services Special Operations, Palmer Fire Department, and Ware Fire Department also helped in controlling the flames. As of noon on Thursday, the fire was out and crews were leaving the operations center which had been set up at the intersection of Paige Hill and Haynes Hill roads.

Early last week, a minor brush fire broke out in Monson on T Peck Road, luckily resulting in little damage to the surrounding area.

“The fire was a result of a homeowner who had been burning during the weekend and didn’t put it out properly,” said George L. Robichaud, the Fire Chief/Forest Fire Warden for the town of Monson. “Dry conditions and wind in the days preceding the fire, and inappropriate extinguishment, ultimately had caused the fire.”

According to Robichaud, warnings are posted by the Monson Fire Department and are based off of 1-5 scale of fire danger days, with one being the lowest and five being the highest. A red flag day signals conditions that are extremely dangerous for burning and more likely to cause fire damage.

“We are kind of in a position where we are dependent on rainfall and it needs to be measurable,” said Robichaud. “The ground is usually wet at this time and in the past, there was a heavy dew and now there is no breeze during the day and anytime you have air movement, it dries things out.”

Fire Chief Piechota echoed these same sentiments in regard to residents in Brimfield.

"The only thing we can do, and did, was prohibit any outside burning," he said. "Brush permits are suspended until further notice until it rains at least a little."

Normally, burning season takes place from Jan. 15 to May 1, but with the red flag conditions still in place for the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely any burning will take place in either town. The Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for giving out burning permits to residents, and this determination is based on a day-to-day basis, given the weather.

Scott Harris, a former Monson firefighter and current resident, is equally concerned about the hazardous fire conditions created by the weather and the leftover debris. His biggest concern for Monson and the surrounding communities is that some people will be irresponsible and not use common sense when burning debris.

“If you can’t afford a chipper, this is what you do,” said Harris. “But if you have acres and acres of land, that’s tough and burning is an inexpensive way to do it."

Residents with debris still in their yards from the tornado are the ones in highest jeopardy of causing a brush fire.

“The highest fire danger we have is right in the tornado path,” Robichaud said. "These areas have lost foliage coverage with the trees being gone, so with the trees being gone no longer have shade so everything is out and exposed."

With equally dry conditions anticipated this summer, Robichaud highly advised against the decision to burn.

“As for burning this summer, they’re (residents) not."

Photos by T.J. Houpes

Texas tornadoes latest in string of early season storms

Posted by Nick Russo April 6, 2012 07:18 AM

Residents of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area will remember April 3, 2012 as a day that left many scared, but also feeling somewhat lucky.

A total of 13 tornadoes touched down in the region with three causing significant damage to hundreds of structures and property, but, miraculously, resulted in no loss of life and few injuries.

The tornado outbreak, which caused planes to be grounded for hours, was not uncharacteristic of the usual Texas tornado season, which is typically at its strongest in April. However, many early season tornadoes like those in Henryville, Ind., present a threat of a particularly violent tornado season ahead.

While many of the tornadoes affected open land, a few caused significant damage in suburban neighborhoods. According to WFAA-TV, a CNN affiliate based in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, in the town of Forney, nearly 100 homes were damaged and one-third were completely destroyed in the path of an EF-3 tornado.

In the Diamond Creek Estates, a subdivision in Forney, a grandmother saved her own life as well as those of three children she was babysitting by taking shelter in a bathtub -- a situation reminiscent of Springfield's heroic mother Angelica Guerrero, who died while saving the lives of her children in last June's tornadoes in Springfield.

In Forney and other towns across the region, the Red Cross teamed up with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Salvation Army to hand out blankets, meals, and other relief supplies to hundreds of survivors. The Red Cross reported over 150 people seeking assistance in temporary shelters across the region Tuesday.

Observers and officials have noted that compared to many of the other tornadoes that have struck communities across the country this spring, the Dallas-Ft. Worth storms were relatively tame, resulting in slightly fewer injuries and no deaths. Citing advanced notice and cautious preparation as well as the time of day, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez told USA Today that "it might have been different if it hit at 7 or 8 o'clock at night. It hit when a lot of people were at work, and the warnings were there."

WFAA-TV also reported that both a declaration of disaster and a visit by Gov. Rick Perry helped to accelerate the response and recovery process. The total dollar amount of damage has not been released, though is estimated to number in the millions.

FEMA has activated a regional Incident Management Assistance Team and will assist state and local authorities if needed and requested. It is not clear whether the state has made such a request.

A number of agencies in addition to the Red Cross are offering relief assistance and accepting donations. More information can be found by clicking here.

Deadline for FEMA aid appeal draws near

Posted by Rachel Roberts April 5, 2012 07:00 AM


With only two months until the first anniversary of the June 1 tornadoes in Western Massachusetts, the final deadline for appealing federal disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is fast approaching.

Though President Obama declared the region a federal disaster area on June 19 of last year, the Aug. 22 deadline for applying for aid came long before individuals knew how much private insurance would cover, if they had coverage at all. Only about 20 percent of the 5,006 individual applications have been approved to date, but FEMA officials say they will reconsider aid rejections for up to a year if people can prove that private insurance didn’t pay for repairs.

"FEMA will want to see a settlement or denial letter from the insurance company to ensure there is no duplication of benefits," said Jeb Killion, Congressional Affairs Liaison for FEMA Region 1, in a recent e-mail.

"If the applicant has unmet needs or damages that the insurance company does not cover, then FEMA may be able to provide you with assistance."

For many tornado victims, the deadline for applying came long before any insurance checks, while the time-consuming and confusing FEMA application process meant fronting rebuilding money in hopes of federal reimbursement down the road. While some homeowners didn't apply for FEMA aid because they believed private insurance would take care of them, others who did apply received letters of rejection stating that FEMA could not duplicate benefits or settlement monies provided by insurance.

“For me personally, FEMA was a joke. It got really disgusting and frustrating,” said Waleska Quinones, whose 44 Clark Street home is still in rebuilding stages.

“I applied one time and appealed three times and was denied each time. According to [FEMA], they denied us because we had homeowners insurance but what they don’t see is that [insurance] evaluated the house as when it was made in 190[5]. Everything’s changed, the cost of building a house has more than doubled or tripled, so now I’ll be almost $60-$65,000 in debt after my house is rebuilt,” said Quinones.

Quinones lived with her husband, 22-year-old and 18-year old daughters, stepdaughter, uncle, mother and grandmother in their seven-bedroom home. A cancer survivor and foster parent of 22 years, Quinones adopted a 5- and 6-year-old on Nov. 19, National Adoption Day. The family moved into Quinones brother’s home on Page Boulevard while their Clark Street home is being repaired.


Though their house is projected to be finished at the end of April, Quinones says moving back to their devastated neighborhood will be bittersweet. Quinones' youngest foster daughter told her she was mad at the contractor for putting a window in her future bedroom. When Quinones asked, "Don't you want the sun to come in in the morning?" the 5-year-old pointed out the window to piles of rubble and said, "No because I don't want to see that."

Quinones former neighbor and self-described ‘sister’, Lillian Santiago, was approved for FEMA aid after the tornado destroyed her family's rental home at 50 Spruce Street. Now, Santiago, her husband and three children live in an apartment on Dwight Street, a 2.5 mile trek from their former neighborhood.

“If I could move anywhere, I’d go back to where I was—Six Corners area," said Santiago. "I know the people, I know the schools there and my kids loved it.”

More than two-thirds of the 1,069 applicants approved for individual FEMA assistance are Springfield residents, while more than 60 percent of those approved in Springfield live near Quinones home in the South End, Six Corners neighborhood, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) response from the Department of Homeland Security.

The breakdown of individual FEMA acceptance was highly skewed in favor of low-income rental areas, where insurance was either not comprehensive or non-existant. In the more affluent areas like Forest Park and East Forest park, where residents were more likely to have insurance, individual FEMA approval rates were 13.4% and 4.3%, respectively, the lowest approval to applicant rate in the city. Overall, the city of Springfield had an approval rate of 19.9 percent.

Other tornado-ravaged areas with more than 50 individual FEMA applications included the following approval rates, according to DHS FOIA response: West Springfield 28 percent; Brimfield 26 percent; Sturbridge 10 percent; Southbridge 9 percent; Monson 8 percent; and Westfield 2 percent.

Photos by Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts can be reached at or on Twitter @relroberts

Does warm winter increase chance of tornadoes in Western Massachusetts?

Posted by Dean Curran April 2, 2012 07:22 AM

An unusually warm winter and the memory of the June 1st tornadoes raises the question: Is Massachusetts at a greater risk of tornadoes this year?

A number of days this March broke record highs. This past winter was Boston's fourth least-snowy and second warmest meteorological winter on record. November was the warmest recorded for Worcester and the second warmest for Boston. And this past December saw only traces of snow, which has only happened five times before in weather service records.

But weather service meteorologist Bill Simpson does not think that the unseasonably warm winter Massachusetts experienced will have a significant impact on tornadoes in the state.

“At this point we are running four or five degrees higher than normal [this past winter],” Simpson said. “But as we move into the storm season... the temperatures will catch up and stabilize.”

The winter before tornadoes struck Western Massachusetts on June 1, 2011 was not exceptionally warm. From December 2010 to February 2011 temperatures in Massachusetts ranging between 2.6 and 2.9 degrees cooler than normal, according to data provided by the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

The U.S. has already seen brutal tornadoes this year, but many of those could have been exacerbated by forces that may not apply to Massachusetts.

A tornado outbreak on Friday March 2 killed more than three dozen people in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Earlier that week tornadoes struck Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, killing at least a dozen people.

"Friday's tornado outbreak was fueled, in part, by unusually warm, moist air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico due to the high water temperatures there," said meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground to USA Today.

"This year's unusually mild winter has led to ocean temperatures across the Gulf of Mexico that are approximately 1 degrees C (1.8 degrees F) above average," Masters said.

Going back to the 1800s, this ranks in the top ten highest Gulf temperatures recorded this time of year.

But despite higher temperatures, he says not to jump to conclusions and blame climate change.

"The tornado database going back to 1950 doesn't show any noticeable increasing trend of strong tornadoes in recent decades," he said.

Tornadoes are uncommon but not unheard of in New England. Massachusetts has had on average two tornadoes every year since 1950, when the United States government began documenting them.

But will the warmer Gulf winds that may have contributed to the tornadoes in the South and Midwest affect Massachusetts?

“Probably not because the areas most affected would be central mass and the inflows for those are on land,” said Simpson.

Red Cross teams up with Dell to monitor social networks in the wake of disasters

Posted by Joseph Pereira March 26, 2012 02:00 PM

redcrossdigital.jpgThe American Red Cross, in collaboration with Dell, recently unveiled a new Digital Operations Center that will use social media sites to help in disaster recovery.

"This is the first ever social media command center dedicated specifically to humanitarian response,” said Laura Howe, vice president of public affairs for the Red Cross.

The system, donated by Dell, scours social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, allows the Red Cross is able to pinpoint relief efforts in a suitable and relevant way. The system is based on Dell's own Social Media Listening Command Center, which they use to monitor discourse about their brand on the Internet.

The Red Cross' Digital Operations Center was quickly put to use earlier this month immediately after the tornadoes that hit the Midwest. By tracking social media the center was quickly able to pinpoint Henryville, Indiana as a town hit hard by a tornado on March 2.

“We’re not at the point where we’re telling the public you can tweet at the Red Cross and we’ll send a sandwich truck out to feed you,” Wendy Harman, the Red Cross director of social strategy, told Mashable. “But if we see twenty tweets like that, we may.”

The Red Cross claims that the Internet is currently the third most popular source of news during emergencies behind television and radio, with 18 percent of people using Facebook to get their information.

In the aftermath of almost any disaster, social media is used for more than just calling for aid, there are also people looking to assist and volunteer. For this, the Red Cross has also unveiled a new Digital Volunteer program, which would let people reply to inquiries about services available, suggest resources or simply be there for moral support. The Red Cross will train volunteers across the country to properly handle these situations and moderate the data on the software. This will be a big increase from the three paid employees who previously handled all social media throughout the country.

When an EF-4 tornado hit Harrisburg, Illinois on Feb. 29, members of the community took matters into their own hands and quickly started organizing and collaborating on Facebook, much like Monson did last June.

With most lines of communication cut, people took to their smartphones and laptops and created several Facebook pages. One page gave up-to-the minute updates of weather reports, deaths and pictures from members of the community. Another focused on collaborating volunteer efforts and needs. The Red Cross will now closely monitor forums like these in the immediate aftermath of disasters.

According to the Red Cross 80 percent of people expect emergency responders to monitor social media.

Creative Commons Image courtesy of Dell

Joseph Pereira can be reached at

Mother who saved child in tornado is honored with Hometown Heroes Award

Posted by Noelle Richard March 26, 2012 12:24 PM

Over 650 people rose from their seats applauding, using the complimentary tissues provided on their tables to dry their eyes as the Guerrero family of West Springfield recently accepted the Hometown Hero Award on behalf of the deceased mother and wife.

Angelica Guerrero was posthumously honored with the Hometown Hero Award, along with five other recipients at the American Red Cross 2012 Hometown Heroes Award Ceremony at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield March 15. Guerrero died during the tornadoes of June 1st while using her body to shield, and save the life of her teenage daughter. Guerrero Family

“It’s just nice to have people care about us” said Angelica Guerrero’s 15-year-old daughter, Ibone Guerrero; the daughter she saved when their house collapsed during the June 1st tornadoes. When asked how she felt about receiving the Hometown Heroes Award in her mother’s memory, Ibone Guerrero summed it up in one word; “honored.”

“I think the stories really resonate with people” said Director of Communications and Special Events for the American Red Cross, Dawn Leaks. “Especially Angelica Guerrero, they really empathized with the family and wanted to come out and really show their support.”

Along with Guerrero, Shane Chase, a 13-year-old boy from Ludlow, was also honored with the award for his participation in voluntary work with the clean-up of the aftermath from the June 1st tornadoes. Chase, his older brother Mckinley and his father Alan, saw the damage that the tornadoes did in Monson and wanted to do something to help the folks affected by it.

“I just wanted to help people, honestly” said Chase during his presentation provided by 22News during the ceremony. Alongside his family, Chase traveled to Monson all summer long with their chainsaws and would cut the trees and limbs that had fallen in people’s yards.

Michael Laferriere, a Monson native who nominated Chase for the award said in his presentation “how do you say thank you to work like this? I mean thank you is not really enough. The kid deserves everything he can get.”

Chase and his family have been to Monson to continue their volunteer work almost every weekend. Chase plans to make it another full time commitment this summer as well.

According to Leaks, the committee for choosing the representatives of the Hometown Heroes Award took their time to honor all those from various communities that were affected by the various storms that happened in 2011. “That in itself made it unique” said Leaks. “I think this made it not only our tenth anniversary, but just a really special event.”

Hometown Hero

Other recipients of the award include Edward Rosienski Jr. and Edward Rosienski III of West Springfield, the Holyoke Police Department Narcotics/Vice Division, Demetrious Faust (another 13 year old boy) of Springfield, and Marcus Blatch and Jose Reyes of Springfield.

“It’s humbling” said Dennis Egan, Retired Narcotics Detective of the Holyoke Police Department, “especially to be up there with all the other award winners.”

Egan, along with the rest of the Narcotics/Vice Division of the Holyoke Police Department received the award based on their tradition of holding a community wide toy drive and spending Christmas Day dressed as Santa Claus and elves handing out presents to underprivileged children. “It’s the poorest city in this state, and for a lot of kids, these are the only gifts they’re going to get, so we feel good about that.”

The Hometown Heroes Award recipients have changed and saved lives to the people of Western Massachusetts. Their heroic stories are emotional and inspiring.

“We keep little packets of tissues on the table deliberately because we know people are going to cry” said Leaks. “It’s just a heartwarming event and you just feel good after you leave and you can run on that high for a couple of weeks.”

Photos by Noelle Richard and Kimberly Kern

Noelle Richard can be reached at or on Twitter at @noellejrich

Ludlow teen receives Red Cross Hometown Hero award

Posted by Kimberly Kern March 16, 2012 09:00 AM

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Shane Chase

Rita Laferriere never imagined she would be chasing Shane Chase down the halls one year for homework and the next nominating him for the Red Cross Hometown Hero Award.

"When he [Shane] told me where he was working and what he was doing, it was very emotional in the classroom because I realized he was up here at my son’s house,” said Laferriere, Chase's former teacher.

The eighth grader from Ludlow who armed himself with a 20-inch blade chainsaw and cut down trees with his brother and his father after the June 1 tornadoes received the Hometown Hero award from the American Red Cross on Thursday.

Shane Chase, 14, of Ludlow was one of six honorees out of 60 nominations and was cited for his extraordinary efforts in the cleanup of the tornadoes.

"The young man who receives this award is fourteen years old but old enough to know that he has a very compassionate heart,” said Honorary Co-Chair Sky Becker of 22News

“I just wanted to help the people,” Shane told 22News.

Shane has logged more than 400 hours of community volunteer hours cutting trees, hauling brush, running brush clippers, and moving fallen trees.

Shane’s father, Alan Chase, said of the award “It was neat, something we didn’t expect.".

Thumbnail image for Mckinley, Shane and Alan

Shane, one of the youngest Hometown Heroes, was also nominated by Michael and Geri Laferriere, whose home he has been working on since last June.

“I think this is a small token of appreciation,” said Michael Laferriere. “Writing a letter is the least I can do. Not a lot of kids his age are going out doing stuff like that every weekend, and they don’t get here at 2 or 3 o’clock, they are here early in the morning.”

Shane and Mckinley

Shane’s mother was the first person he told he would be getting the award, which will be placed on a shelf, in the family room for everyone to see.

Shane started working with a chainsaw before the June 1 tornadoes. Alan Chase, allowed him to cut up pieces of pallets at home but when the tornadoes hit, that is when Shane got all of his experience.

Both Shane and his brother Mckinley, 17, who received a certificate at the ceremony as well, each have personal 20-inch blade chainsaws.

Thumbnail image for Chase and Son's Chainsaw TeamChase and Sons Chainsaw Team’ has worked in all the affected areas of the tornado. Mckinley Chase has friends in the fire department of Monson which drew them specifically to that area.

“We just went down to the church and said ‘what can we do?’” said Mckinley Chase.

Shane works every weekend, getting up around 9 each morning and working a full day until he is tired. He plans to work every day in the summer.

“Every day, depending on the temperature,” said Chase. “If it’s 150 degrees, then I’ll stay home.”

“It’s more than just the physical help too,” said Michael Laferriere. “They are good people, they are a good family, they have a good sense of humor and they will get you smiling.” The Laferriere House

Shane is also an active boy scout with Troop 164.

In the future, Shane plans to be a contractor while doing tree work on the side. Mckinley is going to school to be an electrician. Shane hopes one day he and his brother can own a business together.

“He can work for me or something,” said Shane Chase.

Alan Chase has arranged a ‘Hometown Hero Meet and Greet’ open to the public on April 7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 170 Main Street, Monson, where the public can meet their new Hometown Hero.

"Chase and Sons Chainsaw Team" has been trying to get donations since last November. The price in gas for the commute and to fuel their equipment is becoming too pricey for the family to handle on their own. The team is accepting donations towards a wood chipper which can be mailed to Alan Chase at 174 Poole St, Ludlow, MA.

Photos by Kim Kern

Kim Kern can be reached at

Local resident, realtors association played big roles following June 1 tornadoes

Posted by T.J. Houpes March 15, 2012 03:50 PM


Karen Wallace has called Brimfield home for the last 15 years. She was in her Dunhamtown Road home last June when the EF-3 tornado rolled through. Like many others that day, she saw the headlines warning of the possibility of severe weather. It wasn’t until her husband called on his way home from work telling her to get to their basement that she realized the severity of the approaching storm.

“I was home, and it was windy, and then there was hail. And I was thinking the glass was going to break in the skylights,” Wallace said.

“But I had things up on my deck, and nothing went over so I said ‘What’s the big deal.’ So I called my friend and I said to her ‘Oh jeez it’s windy huh?’ and she said ‘Are you kidding me? Our street’s totally gone.’”

In the days following the storms, Karen Wallace, a local realtor associated with the Realtor Association of Pioneer Valley (RAPV), and a Brimfield resident, was asked to administer and moderate the association's "Brimfield RAPV Tornado Relief" Facebook page.

The page allowed Wallace and other residents to coordinate efforts and relay information about supplies, food, and shelter to a large audience that simple word of mouth could not have reached. Ben Scranton, executive vice president of the RAPV, believes the creation of the pages was an invaluable way to “bring people together to a common place” to help victims and provide them with services and supplies they needed during a time of confusion and chaos.

“We created the ten Facebook pages after the event as a way for members of the public to go somewhere and connect people in need with resources,” he said.

Scranton also said the RAPV, in collaboration with the National Aassociation of Realtors and the Mass. Association of Realtors, has gathered donations totaling more than $50,000 to disperse to communities hit hardest by the storms to help with redevelopment efforts. The RAPV has pledged half of that over $50,000 to "Re-tree the Community," a reforesting initiative started by Springfield landscaper Steve Roberts of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture and Construction.

Wallace’s home, not located in the tornado’s direct path, along with numerous others in the northern section of Brimfield, sustained only minor damage from hail and winds produced by the storm. Other homes and businesses in town weren’t as fortunate.

The EF-3 tornado first crossed into the southern part of town about a mile and a half west of Brimfield State Forest, traveling west to east. It then entered the forest, passing through it before continuing on just south of downtown. It then crossed over Route 19 and snaked along Route 20, briefly overlapping the roadway before eventually exiting into neighboring Sturbridge. A map of the tornado's path can be seen here.

A second tornado -- this one a category EF-1 -- briefly touched down in the northern part of town later that evening, though the extent of its damage was far less than its EF-3 counterpart.

In total, 98 buildings in Brimfield were significantly damaged as a result of the tornadoes according to the After Action Report/Improvement Plan published by the Western Mass. Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council (WRHSAC) in January. Extensive damage also occurred in Brimfield State Forest, where the WRHSAC report estimates nearly one-third of the forest’s trees were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

The beginning of March marked nine months since the tornadoes struck, and though postings on the Facebook page have diminished, the wide-scale impact of the tornadoes on Brimfield has not. The rebuilding process continues, and residents you speak with believe it will likely go on for years.

More on the WRHSAC’s findings can be found in the recent After the Storm piece “After-action report criticizes preparedness of Western Mass. communities.”

Photo by T.J. Houpes.

T.J. Houpes can be reached at

Wilbraham firefighter travels to Midwest to help tornado victims

Posted by Anna Meiler March 15, 2012 10:39 AM


With only a backpack, a hammock and a desire to “pay forward” the support Western Massachusetts received in the months following the June 1 tornado, Wilbraham’s Jason Dimitropolis recently traveled to the tornado ravaged community of Henryville, IN. The firefighter and paramedic returned on March 10 after a week of helping victims begin a long recovery process. Photos of his trip can be viewed here.

We caught up with Dimitropolis and a personal account of his trip follows:

“Upon arriving in Louisville, I was greeted by a friend, of a friend, of a friend....whom I've never met. He gave me a ride from the airport to Henryville, which is about twenty miles north. I find it amazing that this gentleman took time out of his day and from his family to pick me up and haul me around at ten p.m. When we got into Henryville it was dark, but the damage was unimaginable. Almost everything was completely leveled. I hate to downplay the storms that affected our area back in June, but they really pale in comparison to things here.

“Luckily, the town’s fire department was unharmed by the storm. I spent Monday night at the fire department, sorting supplies and equipment, and helping care for the people who would occasionally wander in. Tuesday, I started to pound the pavement and go from house to house. Realize that when I say ‘house,’ I really mean pile of rubble. Sometimes, there weren't even piles because things were so scattered around by the winds.

“After several hours of hard work out in the town, I took up a role back at the fire dept. as fuel master for the operations under way. I was charged with receiving and distributing deliveries of gasoline and diesel fuel for the affected areas. Towns people were also able to fill containers with fuel for their generators and equipment. I met alot of very nice and appreciative folks while at that post. Later in the afternoon, I set out on foot for a neighboring town, Marysville. While there, I did more work alongside people trying to collect belongings and clean up damage. I also distributed some of the nearly five hundred dollars worth of gift cards and cash that I collected prior to leaving home.

“When it became dark, I made the hike back to Henryville. I think it took about niney minutes to go between towns. Monday night, I was able to set up camp and sleep in a garage back at the fire department. Today, my day started at about 5:30am. That's when things start to come alive and the machines and people start clambering. I did some more work with the residents and right now, I'm having a quick bite to eat while tapping out this message.

“One funny thing is that through talking with, and helping people, I've become sort of known throughout the town here. I can't tell you how many times I've heard ‘Hey, you must be Massachusetts’ from people I've never met before. It's just a really good feeling to put a smile on someone's face, at a time when they need it most.

“The remainder of my trip was basically a duplication of the first few days. Work started at sun up, so as to make the most of my short stay out there. I would split my time between working with the fire department, and working on my own, out in the town. As the days went on, things seemed to operate a bit more smoothly overall. Meals were being brought in and distributed by not only the Red Cross, but also from small mom and pop type restaurants as well as several large chains. Residents of nearby towns would also drop off non-perishable items and toiletries. The number of people being let in to the town was still being regulated by the Indiana State Police, who had around-the-clock check points at each road that led into town. This was to be sure that anyone who didn't need to be there, wasn't, as there were a hand full of incidents involving the looting of peoples property. Those, however, were swiftly resolved by the police.

“A small army of volunteers from many different organizations also descended upon the town, and I'm certain that Henryville's population increased at least three times its normal size while I was there. I met people from every state that surrounds Indiana and even a retired firefighter from the FDNY who, like myself, had simply up and left his home in New York so that he could lend a hand.

“The final day of my trip was a dreary one. The weather, which was in the mid sixties and sunny every other day, turned a bit cooler, and the rain was unrelenting. No one was willing to let mother nature put a damper on our efforts, though. The work carried on, we were just a bit muddier. That day also held the funeral of one of Henryville residents who had perished in the storm. I believe that almost every person from that town turned out to mourn this man. In a town of about two thousand people, everyone knows one another. If there was anyone not in the long procession, they were lining the streets that it traveled. The firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians also lined the streets, with bowed heads and folded hands. The compassion and fellowship was awe-inspiring.

“As my final hours in Henryville wound down, I began to have people seeking me out to say goodbye and express their appreciation for my efforts. I was told countless times to return for a visit, which I will one day do. I then said my goodbyes to the members of the fire department. I won't deny that my eyes swelled up a bit as they all gathered for my departure. The fire service really is a brotherhood, regardless of where you are from, and they were more welcoming and supportive of me than I can convey. When it was time for me to go, my ride to the airport was provided by the fire captain, who tasked one of his men with driving me down to Kentucky. They joked that if I missed my flight, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as I could just stay a bit longer. I didn't miss it, however, and my journey came to an end as I headed home. I will always hold tight my memories from Henryville.

“It was an unforgettable experience, in an amazing place, with some of the nicest people I have ever met.”

Tornado victims use art therapy as recovery relief

Posted by Noelle Richard March 13, 2012 09:00 AM

By Noelle Richard and Kim Kern

Patricia Hempel watches as a little girl draws a sun shining and then proceeds to color the whole page black, covering it up.

“These kids have a lot to work through,” she says.

Hempel has begun a series of art therapy classes at Brimfield’s Hitchcock Academy for those still coping with the trauma of last June’s tornadoes that swept across Western Massachusetts.

“It’s not about the product, it’s about the process," says Hempel when describing the art produced in the sessions.

"It’s about putting what they are feeling down on paper and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. What matters is they are getting it out from within them and they are getting it down on something. That’s the therapeutic piece.”

Earlier this year, Hempel conducted a series of art therapy sessions for children ages six and under. They worked with pastels, water colors, and colored tissue paper to talk about the tornado said Hempel.

Susan Gregory, the Academy’s executive director, says parents register their children for the sessions, hoping that creating art will help their process their feelings and reduce anxiety.

“It gave them an opportunity to process how they viewed their life before the tornado, during the tornado and after the tornado,” said Hempel.

During one recent session, children painted a shoe box and covered it with colored tissue paper, making a storm box. The storm box was packed with different craft items and stuff to do during the storm to keep the kids busy.

“It’s kind of a way of helping the parent to distract the child because kids are really anxious when it gets dark outside now, during a storm,” said Hempel. “

Parents “shared some of the concerns about [re]occurring fears and they seem to be triggered by experiences like windy days, rainy days, or thunder storms especially,” said Gregory.

“It’s been the fear. It’s been the outright crying and hiding. It’s just very classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it’s flashback time. So that’s what these kids are going through, and the adults as well,” said Hempel.

With the adults, Hempel is working on putting a “positive spin on a negative spin.” Hempel is having the adults make collages of 5x7 cards that they can either paint or attach magazine clippings about what their lives were like before the tornado, during the tornado and what the future will be like.

“If they can get the feelings out of them and down on something it makes them feel better,” said Hempel.

Hempel has not seen an increase in patients at her clinic in Southbridge since the tornadoes. She believes that it’s going to be a ripple effect; that perhaps in a year’s time when it really settles in with people, she may see an increase in patients with PTSD.

“I am such a lover of art therapy. I wish it was utilized more because it is so helpful in so many areas, not just in trauma. It works in all sorts of different situations.”

Pat is running another six week session starting at the end of April that will lead up to June 1 for the families affected in the Southbridge area.

Hitchcock Academy offers a series of tornado relief events and classes that are funded by Community Foundation of Western MA and Hanover Insurance. These classes will continue until all the funding is utilized. Tuition to attend one of these classes is free for those directly impacted by the tornado.

Kim Kern can be reached at or on Twitter at @kernkimberly

Noelle Richard can be reached at or on Twitter at @noellejrich

South End businesses beginning to rebound thanks to grant program

Posted by Joseph Pereira March 9, 2012 03:44 PM

Main Street Sprinfield Boarded UpThe Main Street section of the South End in Springfield, which is largely known for its Italian restaurants, delis and grocers, was heavily hit by last June’s tornadoes. The section has already started to rebound with grants, insurance claims and private funds. Rebuild Springfield, a partnership formed by Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, DevelopSpringfield and the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, has been offering grants up to $10,000 to help renovate storefronts in the South End.

Although the area is still visibly damaged with boarded up storefronts, stripped trees, and tarped roofs, Rebuild Springfield recently unveiled a “master plan” mapping out the path to recovery.

Rebuild Springfield hired Concordia, LLC, a New Orleans based consulting group, to help with the rebuild project. Concordia has been involved with past disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina, producing the Unified New Orleans Plan. The plan was developed to unify the fragmented relief efforts in New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

According to Rebuild Springfield, 74 small businesses and nonprofits were affected in some degree in Springfield alone. Since then, 47 of these establishments have reopened in their existing locations, with 18 moving into temporary or new spaces. Nine businesses are still seeking new spaces.

The grants, which were available prior to the tornado as a way to rejuvenate the downtown area, have since become less of a consolation and more of a necessity for the impacted businesses. The grants offered require a 25 percent match by the business.

Milano Imports, a market and deli that’s been on Main Street since 1968, was in the direct path of the tornado and suffered significant damage. The owners were awarded the full $10,000 grant to help defray the costs of reviving their storefront, according to co-owner Nick Recchia.

“They were nice enough to help with the awning, the new front windows, the new signage for the front,” said Recchia, “The grant covered it all, we just had to pay the 25 percent.”

Business in the South End is back to normal or better according to some owners that have been able to reopen.

“I can’t really say how much percentage it’s been up, but we've surpassed the numbers last year at this time of year,” said Recchia, ”but I'm thinking maybe 10 percent.”

He cites his loyal following of customers as being a vital part in helping improve business.

The storm has also not stopped one new business from moving into the damaged area. A new eatery is already in the works at 912 Main St., to be called Carpaccio Restaurant. With the help of a $25,000 small business loan from the Office of Planning and Economic Development, the business looks to open this spring.

Joseph Pereira can be reached at

State insurance officials 'drop in' to check on Monson residents

Posted by Amy Chaunt March 9, 2012 02:52 PM

By Amy Chaunt & Anna Meiler

Monson residents struggling to rebuild and recover after the June 1 tornado had a chance to meet with the Massachusetts Division of Insurance Wednesday night -- the first of many "drop in" meetings to check up on the affected communities in Western Massachusetts.

“I think we’re getting to the point now where we have people with more challenging situations that need more direct assistance,” said Monson Town Administrator, Gretchen Neggers.

Three counselors from the Division of Insurance were present to offer advice and tips to the tornado victims. Eleven affected families attended the meetings, but due to the complexity of each situation, the counselors were busy nonstop for the entire four-hour session.

“I think people want to know that someone is paying attention to their situation. We can’t always fix it and we can’t always fix it the way they want it but we can certainly listen and do our best to get them some information,” said Karen Blomquist, deputy commissioner for Communications and Operations at the Massachusetts Division of Insurance.

Each circumstance is unique, but common themes can be identified at the root of many insurance issues.

These problems include residents being under-insured, being unaware of the true costs of replacement and missing records that were destroyed by the tornado. In some cases, there’s a disagreement about what the value of something is, a common issue in insurance negotiations, according to Blomquist.

“If you stopped any ten consumers on the street in a town that hadn’t been hit by a tornado and asked them did they have full replacement value in their homeowners policy, nine of them would say ‘I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s not the sort of thing you think about until you need to make a claim,” she said. “So some of this is getting the multiple sides of the story together.”

Each case is reviewed by the counselors, who act as intermediaries by reaching out to the insurance companies to address the obstacles faced by homeowners.

“Frequently it is a matter of getting everybody to a place where they can agree on what the true circumstances are and sometimes that’s just a process of having a third party come into the conversation and try to bring everyone together,” said Bomquist.

However, in the case that a homeowner files a complaint, the Division of Insurance initiates an investigation of the company.

Such is the case of Monson resident, Geri Germain, who has been in a constant battle with her insurance company since the tornado.

“They know about our ongoing battle with our public adjuster not doing what we hired him to do and not returning any phone calls and hence, not getting any answers in return from our insurance company,” she said. “So that’s left us with not getting our walls gutted out of our house. The walls are still in the same condition that they were in the day the tornado hit June 1.”

Germain and her 79-year-old mother and 11-year-old daughter are currently living in a rental on Hovey Rd. Each month, they face the fear of eviction. Germain was laid off two weeks before the tornado and can’t afford the rental costs of $3,000 per month.

"Going day to day not knowing when you're going to get back in your house, not knowing where your going to live in a few weeks and you know the possibility of being homeless," she said. "Words can't describe it, you know, it's sickening," Germain said.

The Division of Insurance is investigating the case and Germain has recently hired a lawyer.

Thirty families are currently enrolled in the Monson Long-Term Recovery Program. Neggers estimates that this number represents the total number of families struggling from insurance problems, as turning to the long-term recovery program is usually a last resort.

For families who didn’t attend the meeting tonight, Neggers said the families can fill out complaint forms available at Monson's selectman's offices or online at

The Massachusetts Division of Insurance has also activated their consumer hotline number, (617) 521-7777 for residents seeking assistance.

About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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