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Powerful storms hit shell-shocked region

Motorcyclist killed; no reports of tornado touching down

Kevin Rothschild-Shea and his son, Liam, cleaned up after a tree landed in the driveway of their Main Street home in Wilbraham yesterday. Kevin Rothschild-Shea and his son, Liam, cleaned up after a tree landed in the driveway of their Main Street home in Wilbraham yesterday. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Billy Baker, Noah Bierman, and Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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WILBRAHAM - In an eerie echo of last month’s deadly tornadoes, a band of powerful thunderstorms rumbled across western and central Massachusetts yesterday, lashing the still-recovering region with a dangerous mix of high winds, heavy rains, and large hail.

A motorcyclist was killed when he was struck by a falling utility pole in Hinsdale, a small town outside Pittsfield, police said. In Springfield, the deafening storm raged for nearly 20 minutes, shattering windows with golf ball-sized hail and littering the streets with debris. With the devastation of early June fresh in their minds, many residents feared it was happening again.

The fast-moving storms, which reportedly spawned several funnel clouds but apparently did not touch down as a tornado, uprooted trees, flooded streets, and downed power lines, leaving more than 20,000 people without electricity, authorities said.

“We thought a tornado had touched down near us,’’ said Alexa Anselmo, a store manager at Chmura’s Bakery in the Indian Orchard neighborhood. “It was that loud.’’

Sweeping east through the Springfield area, the storms cut a similar path to the June 1 tornadoes, which killed three people and caused at least $175 million in damage. For residents of the affected towns, many of whom lost their homes and their possessions to the tornadoes, yesterday’s storms brought back a rush of terrifying memories, and a disbelief that menacing weather had torn into their lives a second time.

“I can’t believe it hit again,’’ said Lauren MacLellan, as she toured the athletic fields at her high school in Wilbraham, where yesterday’s storm tossed the scoreboard 50 yards on the football field, tore away part of the school’s roof, and turned an abutting forest into sticks and stumps.

When MacLellan first heard the tornado warning yesterday, she thought it had to be a joke. Like many residents, she said it just didn’t seem possible that two devastating storms could strike within such a short amount of time. But this time, she wasn’t taking chances.

“The first time it happened, I thought there was no way a tornado would hit,’’ she said. “But this time we went to the basement of my house right away. All my friends went to their basements.’’

Towns throughout the region sustained damage from the storm, which reached Pittsfield around 3:30 p.m., then moved through the Springfield area between 4 and 5, before weakening as it moved east.

In Holyoke, where winds reached 70 miles per hour, a brick warehouse partially collapsed, and two boaters were rescued from the Connecticut River when their canoe capsized. They managed to cling to some rocks under a bridge, and a rescue boat pulled them from the water, uninjured.

National Weather Service officials will visit the hardest-hit areas today to determine whether any of the damage appears to be the work of a tornado, though they said they had no confirmed reports of a twister touching down.

“We’re not aware at this point of any significant damage like we saw associated with the tornado a month and a half ago,’’ said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

In the Springfield area, the storm knocked down trees and caused flash flooding in areas with poor drainage. But that appeared to be the extent of the damage, Judge said.

In Hinsdale, yards and streets were partially flooded and trees were knocked down. Half-inch hail fell for about 15 minutes before sheets of rain deluged the area, so heavy “you couldn’t even see across the street when it was raining,’’ said Kathy Cormier, chairwoman of the board of selectmen.

“It was a bad storm. There is some significant damage here,’’ she said.

In Pittsfield, Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski estimated that more than 30 trees had been toppled by strong winds in his community, and large areas were without power.

Tree limbs were also reported down in Easthampton, Southampton, and Holyoke.

In Wilbraham, neighbors had gathered outside a home where an old maple tree had fallen just two hours before. They had already chopped up most of the 40-foot tree to wood.

David Ervin, a 60-year-old landscape contractor, came over to help. He noted that the town had suffered unusually high snowfall this winter that caused water damage to roofs; the early summer brought a tornado and then yesterday’s storm.

“It’s been a long year so far, 2011,’’ he said.

In Springfield, Jason Gagne, 36, who works in tire sales, was standing in front of the home he shares with his parents in the Indian Orchard neighborhood, clutching his left arm.

He said he was on his way to the hospital with scratches on his back and no feeling in three of his fingers.

“That tree fell on me,’’ he said. Beside him was a massive uprooted tree that had taken out a 10-foot chunk of the sidewalk on its way toward destroying two vehicles parked next to the house. Neither car was visible beneath the large tree, but Gagne said they were both destroyed.

“They’re just smushed.’’

Gagne had finished work in the afternoon at about 4:30 and was about to go fly fishing. But with memories of the past storm, he went to check on his parents. When he got home, the marble-sized hail turned into hail stones. “The next thing I know, I couldn’t see out of my car.’’ He decided to make a run for the house.

He said he dove out of the way, onto his stomach, as he ran up the driveway and saw that the tree was falling. Despite this, he was still hit. “The tree nailed me,’’ he said.

In the eight weeks since a tornado tore through their Wilbraham neighborhood, Jillmarie DeCarolis said her three kids have developed a new obsession: They watch the Doppler radar.

Yesterday, her 9-year-old daughter, Sage, was pacing around nervously as she watched the radar with an app on her iPod.

“Can we go now? Can we go now?’’ she kept saying to her parents, asking when they would head down to the basement.

The problem was that her parents just couldn’t believe they would get hit again. Then they did. Members of the DeCarolis family, who saw their back deck leveled in the last tornado and a piece of their fence blown away, emerged from their basement this time to find huge trees down all around them.

In Monson, downed trees and telephone poles as well as a few flash floods were reported. A 16-year-old boy was struck by lightning as he stood in the garage of his home, but the teenager is in good shape, Monson Fire Captain Dave Martin said.

The small town suffered the worst of the June tornadoes, and many in the town were feeling grateful that the storm did not provide an encore.

“We’re very happy,’’ Martin said. “It wasn’t even comparable.’’

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents L. Finch, Jenna Duncan, Amanda Cedrone, and Derek Anderson contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.