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Springfield

Reliving the tornado: 'I thought my family was dead'

Posted by Amy Chaunt June 1, 2012 06:15 AM

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.

Springfield plan provides hope for future after tornado

Posted by T.J. Houpes June 1, 2012 06:00 AM

One year after a tornado devasted much of Springfield, recovery in the city has been slow – thanks mainly to a City Hall that seems continually understaffed and to a slow response by the federal government.

Today, homeowners and renters in the city continue to struggle with insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. The city itself continues to struggle with financial afflictions that plagued it for years before the tornado even hit. Its economic situation has complicated rebuilding efforts, leading city officials to lobby for funds -- both state and federal -- to restore the city not only to its pre-tornado state, but to where it found itself 70 years ago when it was recognized as the heart of Western New England.

In hopes of accomplishing this restoration, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority and the non-profit DevelopSpringfield teamed up to create ‘Rebuild Springfield’, a public and private sector initiative to rebuild the city in the wake of the tornado. ’Rebuild Springfield’ began putting together a “master plan” for revitalizing the city in October 2011. The plan was finalized in February 2012 and officially released to the public April 26. It is more than 900 pages long.

Kevin Kennedy, who sits on DevelopSpringfield’s board and is also Springfield’s chief development officer, said efforts to revitalize the city were in motion before the tornado struck, but said that the tornado “compiled on top of issues that were already there.”

Kennedy believed that the June 1 tornado “brought the city together” as a whole and that giving residents a chance to voice their opinions on the plan was “something that really energized the citizens.”

“There is a bit of a silver lining here in the sense that [the tornado] brought the community together,” he said.

The report provides recommendations for serious procedural overhauls and the creation of an array of citywide programs and initiatives to address the culmination of years of troubling housing and fiscal issues that have been exacerbated as a result of last June’s tornado.

Among other things, the plan highlights a myriad of issues regarding the city’s struggles to track vacancies, foreclosed homes, city-owned properties, and address overall blight, all things that have been further complicated by last June’s tornado. It recommends the creation of “an electronic inventory of vacant land and derelict structures” that can be accessed by the public and the development of a system for “permanently redeveloping vacant land and derelict structures” that at present the city does not have in place.

In a city once referred to as the ‘City of Homes’ because of its abundance of elegant, Victorian-style houses, Census data shows that nine percent of Springfield’s housing units are now vacant. Non-census estimates in the plan have this number varying from 11 to 12.5 percent.

The plan calls for the creation of a “comprehensive structure” in the city to document and track landlords and hold them accountable for decrepit buildings or poor living conditions, which at present the city does not have in place. Census data in the plan indicates 45.2 percent of all housing units in Springfield are renter-occupied, and in the city’s South End neighborhood -- one of the areas hardest hit by the tornado -- this number is as high as 90%.

The plan recognizes that “Springfield’s rebuilding needs exceed the availability of current funding opportunities” and that “a dedicated Federal appropriation will be necessary to close various financing gaps presented in or as a result of the Plan.”

“The idea is to raise as much funds as possible from any source possible, private or public,” he said. “The way the process works on the tornado rebuild is that you can’t do much until you have maximized your FEMA reimbursement.”


Kevin Sweeney, executive director of DevelopSpringfield, said the organization and the city will continue seeking funds for the ‘Rebuild Springfield’ plan moving forward.

“Our role is to help the city evaluate where projects fit from a priority perspective and resource perspective, and look where holes need to be filled,” he said. “Even when you have FEMA and private money, there are going to be whole areas that are under-resourced.”

The full 'Rebuild Springfield' plan can be viewed here.

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.

Springfield unveils 'master plan' for future after the tornado

Posted by Joseph Pereira April 28, 2012 10:09 AM

Map of tornado path through springfield Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and members of Rebuild Springfield released on Thursday a “master plan” totaling more than 900 pages. The plan was put together by Rebuild Springfield, a private non-profit organization that has been focusing on reviving the city since the tornado hit the city almost 11 months ago.

Gerald W. Hayes, co-chairman of the Rebuild Springfield effort, told The Republican, "that implementation of the plan could take three to five years, and will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars." The funding will be coming from federal disaster aid, some sources in the private sector, and state and federal funding.

The plan took into consideration the input and suggestions from the community that they had collected through community meetings, one-on-one interviews and an online forum set up to share and contribute to ideas. “There has been an extraordinary level of public engagement in the Rebuild Springfield dialogue,” said Sarno. “With over 3,000 individuals participating in the planning process by offering input at public meetings and online.”

Working with the consulting group Concordia LLC of New Orleans, which oversaw the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the plan looks to unify relief efforts by using a communal and democratic process to assess the needs of the residents and business owners.

To customize the rebuilding, plan divides the city into three economically and commercially different districts. District 1 includes the South End and Metro Center, which are mostly commercial and business areas. District 2 focuses on the heavily populated and low-income areas of Maple High, Six Corners, Forest Park and Upper Hill. The third district includes Sixteen Acres and East Forest Park, which is mostly residential and home to Cathedral High School that was directly hit by the tornado.

Beyond rebuilding from the effects of the tornado, the plan also looks to redefine the city as a whole. It focuses on 6 “Nexus Domains”, which were prioritized by public meeting participants. The educational domain, which is at the top of the list, looks to “better engage the public in the process and importance of education reform,” according to the master plan. Other parts of the plan include physical, cultural, social, economic and organizational domains, which address subjects ranging from “transforming vacant lots into public assets” to growing the arts and culture sector of the city with “lighter, quicker and cheaper” events.

“Nobody wants these type of natural disasters or storm clouds,” said Sarno at the master plan press conference. “But two good things are going to come out of this. One we have seen day in and day out. The resiliency of the Springfield people and neighbor helping neighbor. Two, the economic development and monetary assets are going to come to the city of Springfield.”

The abridged plan can be downloaded at Springfield’s City Hall website and the complete plan can be viewed here.

Springfield's Elias Brookings Elementary School to be rebuilt

Posted by Nick Russo April 24, 2012 08:53 AM

The tornado-damaged Elias Brookings Elementary school in the Six Corners neighborhood will be rebuilt rather than repaired, Springfield officials announced Friday along with school administration and representatives of Rebuild Springfield.

The school, which has been housed in temporary classrooms since the beginning of the current school year, is an Expeditionary Learning Magnet School focused on English Literary Arts and Math as well as Museum Studies and is one of seven elementary magnet schools in Springfield.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recommended that the school be rebuilt rather than repaired since the structure is so dated, building codes have changed, and there has been a consistent need for more classroom space.

"So to us, it makes sense if you're going to spend millions and millions of dollars, it's to a new facility," Sarno said.

The new building, which is expected to be financed through a combination of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, will cost nearly $28 million, according to the city’s director of capital asset construction. To pay for the construction, FEMA support will be provided through reimbursements and the city will have to cover approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total cost.

A public hearing on May 15 will allow members of the community to weigh in on the future of the project. Construction on the new building is likely get underway in August 2013.

Deadline for FEMA aid appeal draws near

Posted by Rachel Roberts April 5, 2012 07:00 AM

sixcorners6.JPG

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.

sixcorners.JPG

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 rachelroberts90@gmail.com or on Twitter @relroberts

South End businesses beginning to rebound thanks to grant program

Posted by Joseph Pereira March 9, 2012 03:44 PM

Main Street Sprinfield Boarded UpThe Main Street section of the South End in Springfield, which is largely known for its Italian restaurants, delis and grocers, was heavily hit by last June’s tornadoes. The section has already started to rebound with grants, insurance claims and private funds. Rebuild Springfield, a partnership formed by Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, DevelopSpringfield and the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, has been offering grants up to $10,000 to help renovate storefronts in the South End.

Although the area is still visibly damaged with boarded up storefronts, stripped trees, and tarped roofs, Rebuild Springfield recently unveiled a “master plan” mapping out the path to recovery.

Rebuild Springfield hired Concordia, LLC, a New Orleans based consulting group, to help with the rebuild project. Concordia has been involved with past disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina, producing the Unified New Orleans Plan. The plan was developed to unify the fragmented relief efforts in New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

According to Rebuild Springfield, 74 small businesses and nonprofits were affected in some degree in Springfield alone. Since then, 47 of these establishments have reopened in their existing locations, with 18 moving into temporary or new spaces. Nine businesses are still seeking new spaces.

The grants, which were available prior to the tornado as a way to rejuvenate the downtown area, have since become less of a consolation and more of a necessity for the impacted businesses. The grants offered require a 25 percent match by the business.

Milano Imports, a market and deli that’s been on Main Street since 1968, was in the direct path of the tornado and suffered significant damage. The owners were awarded the full $10,000 grant to help defray the costs of reviving their storefront, according to co-owner Nick Recchia.

“They were nice enough to help with the awning, the new front windows, the new signage for the front,” said Recchia, “The grant covered it all, we just had to pay the 25 percent.”

Business in the South End is back to normal or better according to some owners that have been able to reopen.

“I can’t really say how much percentage it’s been up, but we've surpassed the numbers last year at this time of year,” said Recchia, ”but I'm thinking maybe 10 percent.”

He cites his loyal following of customers as being a vital part in helping improve business.

The storm has also not stopped one new business from moving into the damaged area. A new eatery is already in the works at 912 Main St., to be called Carpaccio Restaurant. With the help of a $25,000 small business loan from the Office of Planning and Economic Development, the business looks to open this spring.

Joseph Pereira can be reached at jlawrencepereira@gmail.com

Springfield officials eye rebuilding South End Community Center

Posted by Dean Curran March 7, 2012 04:13 PM

1- South End Community Center.jpg

Springfield's South End Community Center -- once a vital hub of social life in the neighborhood -- still remains partially reduced to rubble at its location on Howard Street -- nine months after a tornado devastated several communities in Western Massachusetts.

But “Rebuild Springfield,” a public-private master plan unveiled in January, recommends that the Center move to the Gemini site, a three-acre city-owned property with frontage on Main, Central, and Winthrop streets.

Joseph Gallo, head of the board of directors of the South End Community Center, says that the neighborhood needs a new community center with a track, pool, and basketball courts.

"High school principals on my board support the need for these things," Gallo said to The Republican. "We need to give kids a basketball, not a syringe."

Gallo suggests that the city rebuild the Center on Morris Street, which runs along the Gemini site.

Despite being displaced, the Community Center has been continuing some satellite programs around the city, according to Executive Director Chae Swan. These have included a boxing program at the YMCA of Greater Springfield and an after-school program at Milton Bradley School. They also plan to run their summer program at Central High School.

The Center once hosted a multitude of activities including boxing, basketball, indoor soccer, volleyball, open gym, health classes, a school-to-work program, and an anti-gang program. They also rented the gym to entities that provided activities such as karate and dance classes.

More than 25,000 people participated in the Center's various activities, Swan said. But being displaced has made it difficult to serve the community in the way they did before the storm.

“We're still in the thousands [of participants], but we have nowhere near the number we served before,” he said.

Debris is currently being removed from the back of the original South End Community Center, according to officials. They said that the city will seek proposals for renovating the front of the historic building.

The Center's administrative offices have recently moved into a modular trailer across the street from the new site, which was home to a turn-of-the-century textile mill that burned down in 2003. Its remediation was completed in 2008 with clean up grant funds from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, according to the City's website. In October 2009, the city spent an additional $200,000 on further improvements that included leveling the lot, planting trees, and constructing sidewalks on Morris and Central Street.

But it may be a while before the new Center is built.

“There's a lot of preliminary testing and things to get ready,” Swan said. “We certainly have no shovel-in-ground date yet.”

There will be a press event on March 8 at 4 pm at the Gemini site about the new Community Center.

After-action tornado report criticizes preparedness of Western Mass. communities

Posted by Anna Meiler March 2, 2012 12:23 PM

By Anna Meiler & Nick Russo

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for damagedhome.jpg
Many of the communities affected by the June 1 tornadoes struggled with chaos and miscommunication, according to an After Action Report/Improvement Plan (AAR) compiled by the Western Massachusetts Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council.

The report, released on Jan. 18, outlines the failures and strengths in emergency response for all of Western Massachusetts, including communication issues between government officials, emergency responders, and citizens, lack of training for appointed emergency personnel, and general unpreparedness for a disaster.

“I think that emergency management had been on the back burner because it had been so long since a response of that nature was needed,” said Evan Brassard, Monson's Emergency Management Director.

In addition to organizational problems and miscommunication within the Incident Command System, the report says that many shelters were unprepared for the influx of tornado refugees and had difficulties coordinating with other shelters and rehousing programs. The report also stated that hospitals discharged some patients -- in a practice referred to as "hospital dumping" -- without first evaluating whether or not the shelters were equipped to manage continuing medical issues.

The report also said that, due to standards in emergency response food practices, some shelter occupants who had dietary restrictions were unable to consume food that was distributed and instead relied on donated home-cooked food consumed off the shelter premises.

Another issue raised in the report was that of low-quality cots that many reported were “buckling, tearing, and ripping after just one use."

Springfield Fire Department spokesperson Dennis Leger said Springfield’s police and fire departments were well-equipped and trained to respond to the emergency due to the many and frequent trainings they have every year.

Leger stated that Springfield’s emergency management organizations have been able to attend trainings and drills due to the city’s ability to obtain grants and funding, something that the Monson town government and other small towns have had difficulty with.

Lack of training, however, was cited in the AAR as a common problem throughout the region among appointed and elected officials responsible for emergency management roles. The report found that many officials had not completed required ICS (Incident Command System) training which aims to standardize methods of emergency response among federal, state, and local organizations.

In Monson, town officials were unable to communicate shelter options to residents during both the tornado and the October nor’easter due to fallen power lines. Brassard said the town recently purchased roadside message boards to display emergency messages and resources to residents in future emergency situations.

“We’re such a small town that it’s always going to be hard to respond to something that large. It’s not like we’re a large city that has all these resources,” said Brassard. “Organization will make us stronger.”

The disaster encompassed such a large geographic area and such a large amount of the population, that response beyond the fire and police departments was required but not executed because many emergency personnel were unaware of their position’s responsibilities, said Karen King, founder of the Street Angels volunteer program.

The problem of ‘staff redundancy’ was also an issue during the disaster -- the case in which an emergency personnel is not available and needs to be replaced. Kathleen Norbut, Monson’s Emergency Management Director at the time of the tornado was out of state on vacation in Florida on June 1. Norbut didn’t return to Monson for several days.

Norbut’s contract ended in July 2011 and the town appointed Evan Brassard.

“Not having an emergency manager there at the time to coordinate the activities was detrimental to the response,” said Evan Brassard, who was appointed as the Emergency Management Director in August 2011.

Brassard said that the town has worked hard to make great strides in emergency response preparedness. The emergency Planning Committee meets once every other month, the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan has been redone, and an effort to determine the emergency personnel that need to complete ICS training is underway. Training includes online exercises and attending meetings.

Chief of Police, Stephen Kozlowski, also cited redundancy as a detrimental issue.

“Who would’ve thought a tornado would move through down town Monson and compromise the police department? But it did,” he said. “So in hindsight now, it’s easy to say, we should have planned for the destruction of our police department and a complete failure of our communications facility.”

Miscommunication was another issue that fueled the disaster on June 1, both interdepartmental as well as between government official and coordinators.
Karen King was recently appointed as the Volunteer Coordinator, a position that Brassard believes will greatly help the town with swift emergency response in the case of a future disaster.

“If you look at the responses to hurricane Irene, or the snowstorm, the systems are much more refined now. Response is more organized,” he said. Hurricane Irene and the October nor’easter were both federally declared disasters.

The AAR also makes note of the many success stories in cities and towns including the swiftness of volunteer response, effectiveness of some state agencies, and the quick response by local fire and police departments. Despite these successes, the report weighs heavy on the side of improvements needed to emergency preparedness and response.

Officials and residents both feel as if they have learned lessons in preparedness and recovery since the tornado. Town officials are working to improve communication, training, and structural issues, while individuals are taking steps such as maintaining a home emergency kit and gaining a basic understanding of emergency procedures.

“It’s awful we have to go through it but we’ll be much more prepared in the future,” said Brassard.

The report was assembled from interviews of 40 individuals across 18 organizations and can be viewed and downloaded here.

Anna Meiler can be reached at ameiler16@gmail.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @anna_meiler

Nick Russo can be reached at nicholas.j.russo@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter: @nickjrusso

Photo Credit: Gail Morrissey

NEPR to hold tree-planting fund drive for areas affected by June tornadoes

Posted by T.J. Houpes February 27, 2012 02:58 PM

New England Public Radio (WFCR & WNNZ) will host an on-air fund drive to benefit areas in the Connecticut River Valley affected by the June tornadoes, Tropical Storm Irene, and the October snowstorm.

Root for Your Radio” will be held Feb. 24 – Mar. 3, and will be entirely funded by listener contributions. NEPR has partnered with various non-profit and volunteer organizations throughout the Connecticut River Valley, as well as the city of Springfield, to plant up to 2,600 trees in communities affected by recent weather events reaching from Connecticut to Vermont.

Cathy Ives, executive director of development and major gifts at NEPR, said the trees are to be planted later this spring in areas hardest hit by the three weather events, including western Mass. This is particularly relevant to communities hit by the June tornadoes like Monson and Brimfield, where downed trees still litter roadsides, and Springfield where the United States Department of Agriculture has estimated 13,000 trees were lost or damaged in the June storms alone.

The idea for the drive started within the radio station as a way to support a region devastated by the recent storms, according to Ives. NEPR is working directly with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to coordinate the volunteer-based planting of the trees. NEPR has reached out to tree gardens and nurseries, and non-profits to coordinate environmental efforts like determining what types of tree belong in specific regions.

“In Springfield, larger shade trees will be planted,” Ives said. “Other areas will have seedlings planted based on flooding and erosion. Non-profits will be doing the planting, and volunteers will be needed later on in the process.”

Ives said NEPR’s ultimate goal is to help the local communities affected by the devastating weather events. And with help from all the other organizations involved, NEPR is hoping to give back to its listeners and help restore storm-ravaged western Mass. and the surrounding areas.

She describes NEPR’s work with the following:

“There’s an old proverb that goes ‘When’s the best time to plant a tree?’ and the answer to that is 50 years ago. The second part of the proverb goes ‘When’s the second best time to plant a tree?’ and the answer to that is today.”

T.J. Houpes can be reached at t.houpes.iii@gmail.com.

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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