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Boston Globe project

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.”

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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