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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 t.houpes.iii@gmail.com.

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 ameiler16@gmail.com 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 t.houpes.iii@gmail.com. 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 rachelroberts90@gmail.com or on Twitter @relroberts

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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