Western Massachusetts tornadoes
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 Boston.com. 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
BY RACHEL ROBERTS AND DEAN CURRAN
It’s a brilliantly sunny day outside as five-year-old Leanna Livchin dances with her 14-year-old sister Victoria, while three-year-old Artem punts rocks, pretending to be a soccer player. Their father, Vladimir and mother, Yelena, are planting flowers in the back yard of their West Springfield home as Melanie, 9, looks on. Max, 17, is up to his elbows inside his shiny silver Taotao 50 Moped, which he has been fixing up to get back on the road.
Only the oldest boy -- Sergey -- is missing.
Irina, 20, can see Sergey would right by his brother’s side, consumed by his knack for mechanics shared by the male side of the Livchin family. One year after Sergey was killed when a tree fell on his car during last spring’s tornado, the Livchin family gives the appearance of going through everyday routines.
But, for the Livchin family, time has not healed all wounds.
For those who knew 23-year-old Sergey Livchin -- one of three people killed in last spring’s series of tornadoes in Western Massachusetts -- time is relative. Family and friends say that one year after Sergey's death, a tragic hole remains in their lives.
Sergey’s mother, Yelena can barely talk about the loss of her son. Sergey’s sister Liya got married -- but without her older brother there.
How do families deal with the loss of a young life?
In early March, Sergey’s headstone was erected at his grave, in Pine Hill Cemetery in Westfield. Since then, the Livchin family frequently visits his final resting spot, but it still does not bring closure to the life he lost.
“After he died, you’d see him everywhere you know?” said Irina. “We had those little moments where we connected, we didn’t need anything big.”
Irina says she picked up a job at a Felix’s Family Ristorante in Springfield to get out of the house and get away from it all, but quit after a few months to spend more time with her Mom.
“We all deal with it in different ways,” said Irina. “My Mom lets it all out and my Dad holds it inside. I don’t know what is better or worse.”
Sergey was the oldest of nine children and known to his siblings as both the loving older brother and family comedian. Before his death, Sergey worked with his father at National Envelope Corp. in Westfield. His sister says he recently expressed interest in getting his GED and going to college for mechanics or training to repair heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
“To tell the truth, I don’t have closure…we don’t have closure,” said Irina. “I think that something died in me the day he did and that changed not only me but how I see things now. Maybe something died in all of us who were really affected by Sergey’s death.”
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.
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.
Just three days before the one-year anniversary of last year's devastating tornadoes that hit Western Massachusetts, the National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for Berkshire County.
Along with the tornado threat, the NWS watch also warned residents of the potential for two-inch diameter hail, dangerous lightning, and thunderstorm-related wind gusts up to 70 mph.
An approaching cold front will run into an unstable air mass in place over Massachusetts and trigger conditions for severe storms to develop. A strong line of storms has been moving across New York state throughout the day, and at 5 PM the NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Berkshire County as the first of these storms began to enter western parts of the state. Another severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the area at 5:45.
Tornado watches are also posted for parts of Eastern New York state and Southern New Hampshire, as well as the entire state of Vermont. A tornado warning -- indicating weather radar has detected rotation in a storm, not necessarily a confirmed on-the-ground tornado -- was issued for Windham County in Southern Vermont and Cheshire County in Southern New Hampshire at 4:32 PM this afternoon.
The tornado watch comes as recovery efforts from last year's devastating tornadoes -- including an EF-3 that tore a 39-mile path from Westfield to Charlton -- continue. The region has been hit hard by recent weather events, including Tropical Storm Irene and last October's freak snowstorm.
May 29 is also the anniversary of the Great Barrington tornado, which killed three people and caused $24 million in damage in 1995. Prior to last June's tornado, it was the last fatal tornado to strike the state.
Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.
T.J. Houpes can be reached at email@example.com.
In Southbridge, 50 acres of forest that was mostly leveled by last Spring's tornado will be left alone to heal itself.
The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, (DFW) which owns the 50 acres, out of a total of 350 acres of forest in Southbridge, decided to leave mother nature alone.
“DFW will help conduct whatever clearing of tornado debris is requested by public fire and safety officials in coordination with adjacent property owners. Other than that, we like the habitat structure as it is,” said John Scanlon, the Forestry Supervisor of DFW.
David Kittredge, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, says there were “two schools of thought” on what to do with the tornado-stricken land.
“Some people think that, well we got to get right in there and clean up that forest now, cause it’s either a mess or a fire danger or we cant hike in it or recreate thru it, there’s a human compulsion to make it look better than destruction,” he said. “The other school of thought, says you know, that’s the way it works, and even though it was destroyed, it’s really a relatively unique circumstance out there.”
The tornado’s path covered 7,200 acres in Western Massachusetts – with 4,500 of that being considered forest – and 65 percent of that is now considered “open.”
Kittredge thinks that people are most likely to want to fix the land and pick it up because it is a mess to look at.
“The most important thing is that it (tornado) converts standing forests to a big mess of horizontal sticks and trees all jumbled together, however, nature is pretty clever and wild life is pretty clever, and tornadoes were happening long before we got here,” Kittredge said.
Massachusetts is the third densest populated state in the country but it is ranked eighth in the highest percent of forest cover. Before the storm, people were living in communities surrounded by trees and now, the landscape has changed.
“You know forests deal with this stuff all the time, they have adapted in evolutionary time, where either the trees snap or get uprooted,” said Fletcher Clark, a UMass graduate student in forestry. “I think the decision to keep it as is and do nothing is probably a good one.”
“It’s sad for the people’s homes that were affected, but….. the forest is messy place but it’s also a resilient place, this is what forests do,” said Clark.
Photo Credit: John Scanlon
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @anna_meiler.
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.
Volunteers 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.”
Wells 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.
Members 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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TJHoupes.
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.”
“I didn’t want to give up because of the tornado. I didn’t want to quit,” said Couture, a Monson resident and mother of three.
Couture began taking nursing courses at Holyoke Community College last fall, about three months after the tornado ripped the roof off her home, allowing rain to flood inside and cause about $180,000 worth of damage. Now, with an anonymous donation of $30,000 to Holyoke Community College for tornado victims, Couture is one of many students hoping to get support.
“There’s not a lot out there for tornado victims,” said Couture. “I think it’s wonderful they are doing this."
Out of the 7,000 students enrolled in Holyoke Community College, about one-third were affected by the tornado in a significant way, according to Erica Broman, vice president of Institutional Development.
The donation will be distributed in amounts ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student, depending on the financial need expressed in applicants' 250 word essays describing how the tornado impacted them.
“We’re not looking at grades or anything. We want to know how significant an impact the tornado had on their life,” said Broman. “If their house was destroyed we would be looking to provide a great deal of help for them.”
Couture’s situation reflects those of many tornado victims. She received $30,000 less than her total damage costs from her insurance company and many of the repairs, such as getting the house up to code, replacing the staircase, the lawn and trees, will be paid out of her own pocket. A scholarship award would eliminate her need to take out a loan and would offset the hardship of her recovery expenses.
The donation came from the Tides Foundation in California, inspired by the story of Angelica Guerrero, who gave her life to protect her daughter from the June 1 tornado. Holyoke Community College set up a scholarship fund to support both of Angelica’s daughters. Now, the college has the opportunity to extend financial assistance to even more students affected by the tornado.
Scholarship applications must be submitted by April 27 and the recipients will be awarded on June 1, the anniversary of the tornado.
“It feels wonderful to be able to do it and we’re so grateful to the donor for making it possible,” said Broman.
For more information on the scholarship and to download an application, click here.
Photo provided by Kelly Couture.
Anna Meiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter: @anna_meiler
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.