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

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

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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 t.houpes.iii@gmail.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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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.

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