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.
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Jason Dimitropolis, a Wilbraham firefighter and paramedic, worked around-the-clock as a first responder after the June 1 tornadoes hit Western Massachusetts. After experiencing the tragedy himself, he feels a connection to the tornado victims in the Midwest.
“We’re all in this together no matter where we’re from,” he said.
His line of work is one where you act. So on Monday he boarded a plane to Indiana to help with the relief effort in Henryville where a category EF-4 tornado hit on Friday. He brought only a backpack with a few changes of clothes, food and donations such as gift cards, compact lens kits and towels to bring to victims.
Where is he going to sleep? He doesn't know. But, he packed a hammock just in case.
"If you know someone involved, if you're exposed to it long enough, it's going to affect you," he said.
For residents who can't make the trek to the Midwest, they are pulling their resources at home.
“It meant a lot to us after our tornado -- the outpouring of support we got,” said Monson resident, Kimberly Luscombe-Baker. “Now the Monson volunteer team has said ‘OK, here’s a chance to give back.’"
Since last week, Monson residents have been actively pooling their resources to assist those living in Harrisburg, Illinois -- one of the communities hit hardest by the tornadoes. The small town of 9,000 residents, a size similar to Monson, was devastated by a category EF-4 tornado last Wednesday. The tornado damaged approximately 300 homes and reportedly killed six people.
Though Monson fared better on June 1, the recent outbreak of 109 tornadoes across 10 states has brought a flood of traumatic memories back to residents, many of which feel compelled to help the victims in the Midwest.
'They seem to be having the same issues and have the same questions: 'Where do we go for this, how do we know who needs help,'" said Karen King, the founder of Monson's Street Angels. King also set up a Facebook group for Harrisburg residents to mirror the efforts of the Monson Facebook group. The group, Harrisburg Tornado Help has garnered more than 100 "likes" since it was created last Friday.
The Monson Facebook page was filled with discussions on how Monson could help in the recovery and Luscombe-Baker initiated an effort to purchase gift cards at local stores such as Krogers, Home Depot, CVS, Walmart and more so that victims can buy supplies they need to recover. She is also acting as a collection point for care packages to send the Harrisburg Fire Department. Luscombe-Baker said she got the idea from a friend who used to live in "tornado alley," but wasn’t sure how to get started at first.
“I could have said to one friend ‘wouldn’t this be a great idea’ and nothing would’ve happened. But I posted the idea in the Monson Facebook group and presto!” she said.
Monson Tornado Watch 2011 is an active Facebook group with more than 2,000 members that has been instrumental in Monson’s recovery, from organizing volunteer efforts to acting as a pool of resources and information.
Drawing upon her networking experiences after last Spring's tornado, King, a realtor at REMAX Prestige, contacted realtor, Cheryl Winters in Harrisburg to answer some questions residents were having.
King said Winters was grateful for the advice and said, "This is what humanity is about; paying it forward."
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Photo Courtesy of: Paula Nelson/AME Photography: email@example.com
View more pictures of the tornado destruction.
As the holiday season approaches, the “Street Angels” are giving back to the town of Monson, once again. The Angels want to provide Christmas cheer throughout the town, despite the natural disasters that have left several families without a place to call home.
“We’re giving the gift of hope,” said Street Angel Gail Morrissey.
This holiday season, the Street Angels are going the extra mile for victims of the June 1 tornadoes. Angels Karen Maggi, Karen King and Gail Morrissey plan on giving personalized baskets to residents of Monson.
King, the recipient of the “Good Neighbor Award”, received a check for $1500 to any charity of her choice. She, of course, picked the “Street Angels.” With the money, the Angels have been able to go shopping for goodies for the baskets. The rest of the goodies will come from church donations and from donation drives held by different types of groups trying to help out the cause.
The Angels plan on distributing two types of baskets to Monson families, one for Christmas and one for families when they move back into their homes or rebuild a new home. Each basket will contain an angel, freshly baked cookies, hot chocolate and mugs that read “Monson Strong”.
Maggi wants residents to remember that people haven’t forgotten about them and the struggles they still face even five months after the tornado.
“We haven’t forgotten, we’re going to celebrate together,” Maggi said.
The Angels plan on asking for the help of the Girl Scouts and church groups to decorate the boxes for cookies as well as from crafty volunteers to help create the baskets. They will be holding workshops for decorating the boxes and organizing the baskets on Dec. 3 and 9.
Magge, Morrissey and King plan on distributing the baskets to the section of town they have been providing help to since the tornado hit back in June.
“We want every area to be touched by us,” Maggi said.
To help out with the baskets or for more information on the “Street Angels” organization, visit the “Street Angel” Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Angel/183252871760656.
The unseasonably early nor’easter that unloaded about 15 inches of heavy snow in some areas this past weekend left approximately three million business and homes across New England without power at the height of the storm.
For Monson residents, the storm was a flashback to the June 1 tornado. Fallen trees, power lines and debris covered yards and blocked roads.
“It’s like June 1 all over again,” said Gail Morrissey, Street Angel volunteer.
“We’re just getting everything done and now we have to do it all over again. On Sunday, I started hearing chainsaws and I thought, oh no, not again.”
(See related coverage.)
Much of the town is without power, shelters have little food, cell service is limited and gas stations are running out of gas and diesel, said Street Angel Volunteer Coordinator, Wendy DeShais.
DeShais made rounds in Monson yesterday to check on the well-being of residents living in mobile homes who lost their houses due to irreparable tornado damage. She also checked on families who were unable to contact loved ones to make sure they were okay.
Many residents are seeking shelter at Quarry Hill School on Margaret St. though food supplies were scarce. DeShais brought food to the shelter following her neighborly rounds.
“The sense of families taking care of each other, making sure we are all safe, is stronger now that we have a template left from the storm in June,” he said.
Farber also credited the Facebook group, Monson Tornado Watch 2011, created after the tornado, for being extremely helpful as a “storm info and check-in site.”
The group has been instrumental in organizing volunteer efforts and bringing the community together. This week it is serving as a forum for residents to communicate about the storm during a time when land lines are down and cell service is limited.
However, Karen King, founder of the Street Angels, the volunteer group that has spearheaded the tornado recovery efforts in Monson, said that this storm is different.
“The difference versus the tornado is that it’s so widespread across so many towns, there are not a lot of people out helping because everyone’s overwhelmed with their own personal problems,” she said. “Everybody has been affected by this. Everyone’s just trying to stay warm."
“We’re all just so tired. And it’s ruining Halloween for the kids,” said King.
Monson's trick-or-treating was cancelled, according to the Monson town website, which states, “Conditions in neighborhoods, including downed trees and limbs, hanging limbs, power outages and uncleared sidewalks, are too dangerous to allow children and families to trick or treat.”
Monson residents aren’t expecting to get their power back for four to five days. Schools in Monson will be closed until Thursday.
Photo Credit: Stacey Dill, Monson resident
By Anna Meiler and Amy Chaunt
Monson residents and the Street Angels talks about how their community has come together and accelerated the recovery process since the June 1 tornado.
The first glimpse of Monson off of route 32 is a barren hill. Broken trunks snapped by the June 1 tornado lay tangled and stacked in piles where lush, majestic old trees used to stand. In a town that regarded its trees as the heart of its forested community, where homes were concealed and private, the desolate landscape is more than an aesthetic change. It’s one of the greatest emotional struggles Monson residents are facing after the storm.
“Once everybody knew that friends and family were okay, it was the trees they cried about,” said Hope Bodwell, a Disaster Recovery Specialist in Monson. “We’re a very forested community and we love our trees so this was very hard for us.”
Gail Morrissey, a Street Angels volunteer, said that even though the tornado destroyed her house, the loss of the trees has been the hardest part for her.
“Every week you see differences where there are less blue tarps, there are roofs that are done, people’s houses are going up… but the trees are going to take years, years to be replaced,” she said.
The trees are the most important thing that residents are focusing on, aside from rebuilding homes, said Bodwell. But, many residents have voiced the same sentiment; insurance will help with the buildings, but how will they restore the 962 acres of affected land?
The Replanting Monson Tree Committee was founded by residents after the storm in a group effort to restore the trees and open funds for donations. So far they have received $10,000 from People’s Bank and are awaiting a $16,000 donation raised by a local golf tournament. With additional help from the Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as tree donations from local tree nurseries, Monson is slowly starting to rebuild its landscape.
On Oct. 15, the community came together to kick off the first town tree planting, part of DCR’s $100,000 grant-funded restoration project across the 9 affected communities. Monson residents gathered to plant 26 trees and 30 shrubs in an event meant to bring them inspiration and hope.
“We felt it was very important to have at least some replanting start this fall season… to show that we value the importance of those trees,” said the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Rick Sullivan. He said the event was one of the proudest days he has shared with DCR. Two more replanting ceremonies are already scheduled for the spring.
Residents noted the ‘great turnout’ of their community, especially the number of kids helping replant. Youth groups such as TMAC (Teens Making A Change) and the Girl Scouts helped replant and even gave the trees names like, “Elmo” and “Merve.”
Several residents said the kids were having an especially difficult time with the tree loss and recovering emotionally from the tornado.
“It’s very heartwarming to see them investing in their own future. Unfortunately I think most of us adults working on the tree committee will never see these trees come to full growth, but certainly the teenagers and kids here will,” said Leona Brahen, Secretary of the Tree Committee.
“You know, there’s a Confucius saying that one generation plants the trees and the next generation enjoys the shade,” said Leslie Duthie, a member of the Tree Committee.
Duthie said that the Tree Committee is focused on replanting the public areas, but she hopes to extend aid to homeowners starting next year.
In the meantime, tree donations from local nurseries are helping homeowners restore their land.
John Kinchla, owner of Amherst Nurseries, said that when he saw the tornado destruction it was hard to swallow.
“It dawned on me that being a nursery grower, I’ve got something that is in desperate need in Monson,” he said.
Amherst Nurseries is donating one tree per family. Those who want a tree must preregister by Oct. 26 and provide personal information so Amherst Nurseries can confirm that they are tornado victims. Trees will be dispersed on a first come, first serve basis on Oct. 29.
“The trees are 20-25 feet tall, so they’re going to have something that’s an instant impact on their landscape,” said Kinchla.
Amherst Nurseries is donating 100 trees, but has received only 40 requests so far, mostly from Monson and Brimfield, with very few requests from the Springfield area.
Kinchla has tried to get in contact with Springfield officials and residents, but hasn’t had much luck.
“It’s harder to figure out who is getting the word out and who is in charge,” he said of Springfield, which contrasts Monson’s successful organization and communication.
For areas like Springfield that are farther behind in the rebuilding process than towns like Monson, Kinchla said, “it may be another year before trees become a priority.”
A few days after the June 1 tornadoes hit western Massachusetts, a town meeting was held in Monson that was attended by FEMA representatives, who came in to help residents. Several families were without homes and shelter. Realtor Karen King remembers several Monson families being told that FEMA had little resources for assistance.
“I remember seeing a family at the meeting with just the shirts on their backs, from days ago when the tornado hit. They had nothing,” King said.
King approached FEMA representatives, explaining how she was a realtor and could help people find places to live. Eventually FEMA gave King a table at the meeting and she became the “housing person”. She placed several families in homes and today she has helped place town residents in 25 homes.
The devastating June 1 tornadoes left 60 homes completely destroyed in Monson, while 175 had some structural damage and 300 had some form of damage. Luckily for King, her home wasn’t in the path of the storm.
“Everyday I knew what I was going to do, when the tornado hit, I shut that off,” King said.
The day after the tornado, people began going to the First Church in Monson for food, water and toiletries. Families were without cars, food and some even without homes. June 2 was a nightmare to many in town.
However, there was something in the town of Monson that surrounding towns didn’t have, “Street Angels“ -- a volunteer group started by King.
“I realized that people needed help and I wanted to help them,” King said.
After attending FEMA meetings, King began making flyers with the numbers and names of places for people in need to contact. Geri Germain, a Monson resident for 44 years, describes the help King provided as invaluable.
"Our home wasn't livable and we needed somewhere to live," Germain said.
Germain didn't want to move but had no luck finding a home. King found them a place to live and convinced the landlords to settle on a month-to-month lease for the Germains.
"We wanted to keep our family together and Karen pulled the hat trick for us, she was an angel," Germain said.
From that moment forward, she was the leader of what is now the “Street Angels”.
Today, the “Street Angels” is comprised of eight Monson volunteers whose sole goal is to help with the recovery efforts throughout the town.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know any of the “Street Angels” beforehand,” King said. She met two of the “Street Angels” at the church in Monson and on July 1 started talking to volunteers via Facebook. Since then, the “Street Angels” have been working around the clock to help residents come together and rebuild their town.
Gail Morrissey, one of the 'Street Angels,' dedicates her weekends working for the volunteer group as well. Morrissey said she met King just after the tornado, but she knew of her as a strong community member.
"She's a wonderful lady with an amazing heart. Her mission of spreading hope is what we all aspire to do and that is really what the volunteer group is all about...spreading hope!" Morrissey said.
King has dedicated so much time to helping that she has put her career on hold for the moment.
“People will call me for anything and everything, I end up being the go-to person,” King said. “Sometimes it’s stressful but it’s so fulfilling.”
She recounts wishing for more volunteers in June because the town needed all the help it could get, however now there is an overwhelming number coming in.
“I need to be careful for what I wished for,” King said with a chuckle.
“Everyday’s a new challenge but it’s like Christmas everyday when I know I can help people.”
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.