The first glimpse of Monson off of route 32 is a barren hill. Broken trunks snapped by the June 1 tornado lay tangled and stacked in piles where lush, majestic old trees used to stand. In a town that regarded its trees as the heart of its forested community, where homes were concealed and private, the desolate landscape is more than an aesthetic change. It’s one of the greatest emotional struggles Monson residents are facing after the storm.
“Once everybody knew that friends and family were okay, it was the trees they cried about,” said Hope Bodwell, a Disaster Recovery Specialist in Monson. “We’re a very forested community and we love our trees so this was very hard for us.”
Gail Morrissey, a Street Angels volunteer, said that even though the tornado destroyed her house, the loss of the trees has been the hardest part for her.
“Every week you see differences where there are less blue tarps, there are roofs that are done, people’s houses are going up… but the trees are going to take years, years to be replaced,” she said.
The trees are the most important thing that residents are focusing on, aside from rebuilding homes, said Bodwell. But, many residents have voiced the same sentiment; insurance will help with the buildings, but how will they restore the 962 acres of affected land?
The Replanting Monson Tree Committee was founded by residents after the storm in a group effort to restore the trees and open funds for donations. So far they have received $10,000 from People’s Bank and are awaiting a $16,000 donation raised by a local golf tournament. With additional help from the Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as tree donations from local tree nurseries, Monson is slowly starting to rebuild its landscape.
On Oct. 15, the community came together to kick off the first town tree planting, part of DCR’s $100,000 grant-funded restoration project across the 9 affected communities. Monson residents gathered to plant 26 trees and 30 shrubs in an event meant to bring them inspiration and hope.
“We felt it was very important to have at least some replanting start this fall season… to show that we value the importance of those trees,” said the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Rick Sullivan. He said the event was one of the proudest days he has shared with DCR. Two more replanting ceremonies are already scheduled for the spring.
Residents noted the ‘great turnout’ of their community, especially the number of kids helping replant. Youth groups such as TMAC (Teens Making A Change) and the Girl Scouts helped replant and even gave the trees names like, “Elmo” and “Merve.”
Several residents said the kids were having an especially difficult time with the tree loss and recovering emotionally from the tornado.
“It’s very heartwarming to see them investing in their own future. Unfortunately I think most of us adults working on the tree committee will never see these trees come to full growth, but certainly the teenagers and kids here will,” said Leona Brahen, Secretary of the Tree Committee.
“You know, there’s a Confucius saying that one generation plants the trees and the next generation enjoys the shade,” said Leslie Duthie, a member of the Tree Committee.
Duthie said that the Tree Committee is focused on replanting the public areas, but she hopes to extend aid to homeowners starting next year.
In the meantime, tree donations from local nurseries are helping homeowners restore their land.
John Kinchla, owner of Amherst Nurseries, said that when he saw the tornado destruction it was hard to swallow.
“It dawned on me that being a nursery grower, I’ve got something that is in desperate need in Monson,” he said.
Amherst Nurseries is donating one tree per family. Those who want a tree must preregister by Oct. 26 and provide personal information so Amherst Nurseries can confirm that they are tornado victims. Trees will be dispersed on a first come, first serve basis on Oct. 29.
“The trees are 20-25 feet tall, so they’re going to have something that’s an instant impact on their landscape,” said Kinchla.
Amherst Nurseries is donating 100 trees, but has received only 40 requests so far, mostly from Monson and Brimfield, with very few requests from the Springfield area.
Kinchla has tried to get in contact with Springfield officials and residents, but hasn’t had much luck.
“It’s harder to figure out who is getting the word out and who is in charge,” he said of Springfield, which contrasts Monson’s successful organization and communication.
For areas like Springfield that are farther behind in the rebuilding process than towns like Monson, Kinchla said, “it may be another year before trees become a priority.”
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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.