WRITTEN BY AMY CHAUNT
VIDEO BY RACHEL ROBERTS
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.
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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.