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For young victims, tornado lives on

Memories haunt in new surroundings

Pupils from Springfield’s Mary Dryden elementary, which lost part of its roof, were reassigned. Pupils from Springfield’s Mary Dryden elementary, which lost part of its roof, were reassigned. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — No matter how hard she tries, 9-year-old Amelia Trahan can’t stop the awful dream from coming. She thinks about lollipops before bedtime, but that doesn’t work. Her subconscious keeps carrying her back to last Wednesday’s tornado when her mother was away, and she was crowded under a futon in the basement with her two sisters, while her father stood watch.

“I try to get out of the dream, but it doesn’t work,’’ the third-grader said.

In the dream, she said, her mother is “driving on the highway . . . and the storm would hit on the highway, and the car would get into the tornado.’’

Her sister Athena doesn’t have bad dreams “because it’s over with,’’ but the fourth-grader does have survivor’s guilt, though that’s a phrase lost on the elementary school student. “When I saw the trees and the houses blown away, that’s why I felt depressed because that didn’t really happen to our house all that much,’’ she said.

The Trahan sisters are among about 40,000 students who returned to school this week after three tornadoes tore through western Massachusetts, leaving a trail of physical destruction and emotional reticence.

Their school, Mary A. Dryden Veterans Memorial School, did not survive the storm. Part of Dryden’s roof was ripped off, so classes are being held inside the Frederick Harris School, a neighboring elementary campus in the East Forest Park area.

Returning to the classroom, educators say, is a way to restore at least part of students’ daily routines. But even that proved challenging in storm-ravaged Springfield, where the Dryden school and one other elementary had extensive damage. Those schools were relocated to other campuses, all of which are now operating as two schools in one building.

Sitting in the shade, the two girls enjoyed an afternoon snack on the lawn of what will be their campus for the rest of the school year.

“Considering what these kids have been through, they are doing a phenomenal job and are very well adjusted,’’ said Shannon Collins, principal of Harris School, while standing in the hallway outside of what used to be a preschool classroom. It is now a Dryden kindergarten room. “Kids are resilient.’’

And while school officials said there were no reports of major outbursts among students in the first days back to school in Springfield, the aftereffects of last week’s traumatic experience are subtly revealed in the children’s dreams as well as in their behavior. Some kept bags packed and ready to go in case their family had to make another quick escape. Others had separation anxiety, sticking close by their parents’ side. And then there was the Harris student who brought her teddy bear to school.

Second-grader Neváeh Best dropped her pink backpack off with her mother after school Monday and ran around Harris’s playground with her Dryden friends.

The tornado, which apparently had been a hot topic of conversation during science class, was something Neváeh now discussed with an 8-year-old’s shoulder-shrugging indifference as she climbed off the jungle gym.

“Mommy saw a tornado out the window, and she shouted, but it was heading the other way,’’ she explained. “My dad was in the tornado, and he’s still alive.’’

The man her class read about in a newspaper article, however, was not so lucky. “One of the people died in his car,’’ she said. “It was in a horrible place and got damaged.’’

As Neváeh returned to her schoolyard games, her mother, Cheryl, explained that she and her husband discuss the storm in hushed tones, so as not to worry their girls (Neváeh has a 3-year-old sister), but the girls still worried.

Shortly after the tornado, Best found something sitting on the floor. “They had backpacks packed and ready in the middle of the room,’’ she said. Food, one shirt, and a teddy bear each were inside.

Taylor Fiore packed a bag, too, but the second-grader’s was packed as the storm approached. It was a let’s-get-ready-to-go bag. “I grabbed my blanket, Kitty, Huggie, Flippy, and Baby Flippy,’’ she said, rattling off the names of her stuffed animals. “I also packed my PJs . . . and I had the idea of taking the cats.’’

Taylor insisted that her family flee to her grandparent’s house because they have a basement, said her mother, Angela. They left right after the emergency warning sounded and missed the storm.

But that doesn’t stop the energetic 8-year-old from excitedly talking about the tornadoes that caused more than $90 million in damage to homes.

She acts out descriptions rather than simply recounting them, bending over to touch her toes when explaining how the wind bent a neighbor’s pine tree to the ground.

“It’s kind of cool and kind of scary in the same way,’’ she said, before explaining in great detail the violent clash of cold and hot air that causes a tornado to form. “We watched this video at home on the computer. Tornadoes do not make me feel safe at all.’’

But, she said, looking upward: “The skies are looking good, and it’s very rare to have tornadoes here.’’

Nine-year-old L Bit didn’t have time to pack a bag before his house began to shake and break apart. His family spent years in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to West Springfield with little else but the clothes on their backs. And now, he is again without a home.

When asked what happened to the three-family house he lived in, L Bit shook his head side to side, and sighed. “It broke,’’ he said.

The tornado, he said, “was scary because I thought it was going to blow me away.’’ Staying at local shelters for storm survivors, though — first at West Springfield Middle School and now at The Big E fairgrounds — is not so bad.

“We get to play here,’’ he explained.

As Collins said, children bounce back.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.