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Western Mass.

Monson relieved as damage limited

Tornado still fresh in residents’ minds

By Christopher J. Girard
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2011

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MONSON - On Saturday, residents of this Western Massachusetts town anxiously tracked Hurricane Irene, fearing a reprise of the destruction caused when a tornado tore through in June.

But it was with a whimper, not a bang, that Irene passed through Monson yesterday, with rain and wind significantly tamer than expected and no discernible storm climax. By 4 p.m., many residents had returned to life as usual under nearly dry skies, and some businesses that had closed for Irene reopened.

The outcome elicited a collective sigh of relief in Monson, where dozens of homes and buildings - including First Church of Monson Congregational - were damaged in the tornado.

Some residents had been bracing for what many had deemed a historic storm, taking steps to limit potential damage and commiserating with fellow townspeople at the general store.

Town officials had encouraged those living in mobile homes to seek sturdier shelter, and 14 people took advantage of one at Quarry Hill School that was staffed by volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, said Elizabeth Manley, a reserve corps coordinator.

“I thought I left all this behind when I moved from Oklahoma,’’ said Legend Durick, 46, who grew up in that Midwestern state and was staying in Monson at a mobile home campground.

“I heard they were close in Monson before the tornado,’’ Durick said. “But now, everybody’s like family, checking up on each other without you having to ask.’’

At 1 p.m., walking around was uncomfortable, though not hazardous, because of wind gusts and steady rain. But many stores were closed, so Main Street was largely deserted.

An exception was the Woodbine Country Store, where patrons stopped for groceries, conversation, and coffee, which was important because the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street was closed because of Irene.

Although driving conditions were safe throughout the afternoon, leaves, branches, and large tree limbs littered some sidewalks and roadways.

As he ate a pastry from the country store, Frank Curto said a tree limb had fallen on his driveway. But the specter of climate change, not his driveway, is what most bothered Curto, who has worked installing solar panels on residential roofs for 30 years.

“People who don’t believe things about our weather changing really need to open their eyes,’’ said Curto, 59. “We had 30 inches of snow in January, a tornado in June, and now a strong tropical storm. I just hope people become more aware of it.’’

Another tree limb was down near the home of Zackery Newton, 19, this one atop power lines. Braving Irene to go for a walk, Newton said he hoped the storm was kind to his family’s home. The tornado had wiped out their above-ground pool. On High Street, a large, leafy limb snapped off a tree and blocked the sidewalk. Just down the street, trees sliced in half by the tornado dotted a bleak hillside, and the First Church of Monson stood with no steeple. The tornado snapped that as well.

Felled tree limbs were not the only source of concern. About 12:30 p.m., an electrical fire flared off Wilbraham Road after a power line fell, a Monson police officer said. The road was closed in both directions, though there were few cars on the road.

Next door to the fire, Stacy Beaudoin and her daughter, Avery, 2, watched firefighters put out the blaze.

“The dog started barking. Honestly, I thought it was because the storm was starting to pick up,’’ Beaudoin said. “But it’s just a little rain and wind. Wasn’t Irene supposed to be stronger?’’

Christopher J. Girard can be reached at cgirard@globe.com.