TORNADO HITS WEST SIDE
Date: 6/8/2011June 8, 2011
By Debbie Gardner
WEST SPRINGFIELD The call came in to the dispatch office at New England Motor Freight (NEMF) sometime between 4 and 4:30 p.m. an employee's wife warning the 1311 Union St. business that there had been a tornado spotted on Memorial Avenue.
Supervisors pulled workers off the dock and into an interior section of the building, preparing to descend into the terminal's cellar. But before they could make it down the stairs, the winds hit.
"[It] was whipping things around in the yard, the wind was puling at the doors and roof and the lights were flashing," a NEMF employee who wanted to remain anonymous, said. "One employee was still in the back of the terminal ... he had not made it to safety yet ... and he saw the tail of the tornado go past the back of the building."
The sound, the employee said, "was like a circuit breaker that was overloaded" a loud persistent hum.
As quickly as it hit, the storm released its grip on the building. Nothing in the yard of tractors and trailers was touched, nor was there any apparent damage to the adjacent businesses, Plastic Packaging and Airgas. But not far from the terminal's dock doors, everything changed.
"We went 130 yards down the road and right there, at the beginning of the Big Y Plaza [on Memorial Avenue] trees were down and there were bits and pieces of things from all over strewn everywhere," the employee said. In front of the former St. Anne's church, "all the trees were knocked down ... the big oak tree at the corner of [the] PriceRight [Plaza] was knocked down on to Union Street."
At the underpass where the Merrick section of town begins, "it was utter devastation," according to the employee.
The Rotary, too, was nearly unrecognizable.
"All the billboards are gone, yet the Dunkin' Donuts looks like it's untouched," the employee said. Further down the road, the path of the storm from there to Springfield's South End was clearly written in the trees that flanked the section of Route 5 that leads toward the Julia B. Buxton Bridge to Agawam "they are all sheered off or laid over," the employee said.
NEMF employees later learned that one of their drivers had been a mere 15 feet behind the tractor-trailer that flipped over on Memorial Bridge as the tornado crossed the Connecticut River on its way into Springfield.
"It's amazing how the damage was centralized to the Merrick section," Sonia Manley, recreation supervisor for the West Springfield Parks & Recreation Department,told Reminder Publications
. "It's like two different worlds ... in one area it's normal activities, in the other it's completely devastated."
Manley said she used the town's Parks & Recreation e-news system to send out an e-mail on June 3 asking for volunteers to help the Health Department with disaster-related work in their offices. Jobs included answering telephones and taking messages in the Health Department offices and helping to coordinate donations for tornado victims.
"We did have responses a good 20 people who responded and have been working over the weekend to help in the offices," she said.
The Parks & Recreation Department is also serving as a collection point for residents wishing to donate to a disaster relief fund Mayor Edward Gibson has set up for the town's tornado victims.
"Basically, through the mayor and the town's Chief Financial Officer [Sharon Wilcox], they set up for the town a disaster relief fund," Manley said. "We will collect [the donations] through this centralized point and with the mayor, distribute the funds to victims in various ways."
Manley said there is a form, available in the Parks & Recreation office, located at 26 Central St., Suite 19, which must be filled out to designate the donation as a gift to be used at the discretion of the mayor for tornado disaster relief. Individuals can visit the office to obtain a form, or access it through the Parks & Recreation e-news system.
"We've come a long way in five days," Mayor Edward Gibson told Reminder Publications
on June 6. He said the trees and debris blocking public ways had been cleared to make streets passable, electricity and natural gas service had been restored to homes where it was safe to make those connections, and an initial assessment had been made of damaged properties.
"We have nine condemned homes or buildings that will have to be demolished and possibly rebuilt," Gibson said. "There are [also] about 30 homes and buildings that are deemed uninhabitable at this time [where] some level of repairs that has to be made before people or businesses can go back into them."
He said looking at the area now does not tell the story of what happened in town on June 1.
"People that go down there now won't have anywhere near the perception of the devastation that was there, so much has been cleaned up," he said, adding that there are residents who "don't realize how bad the devastation was because their area of town wasn't affected."
He added that a national news crew, fresh from Joplin, Mo., that interviewed him on June 2 was "amazed at how much progress we had made in one day ... in Joplin it took several days to get things mobilized."
Gibson said the town had a high of 175 people housed in two shelters one in West Springfield Middle School, the other at Coburn Elementary School beginning Wednesday night. The number of families needing shelter was down to "about 90" as of Monday morning.
A total of 13 people were transported to hospitals with injuries Wednesday night, and there were two fatalities in town Sergey Livchin, who was crushed in his car on the corner of Main and Hill streets, and Angelica Guerrero, a mother who died protecting her 15-year-old daughter.
He said both the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been on site in West Springfield since the tornado struck.
"[FEMA] sent a team in Thursday that went house to house with dogs to make sure no one was trapped in a home," Gibson said. "They also assessed each individual house and commercial building as to whether it should be condemned, was uninhabitable or safe."
Teams from FEMA, the Department of Public Works and the Army Corps of Engineers were due to assess the town's public buildings and trees for safety on June 6, he added. A third FEMA team was due to arrive this week to assess the dollar amount of individual home and privately owned commercial property to determine if West Springfield will be eligible for FEMA disaster assistance.
Gibson also praised all the mutual aid provided by surrounding towns, especially noting the quick response from Holyoke Mayor Elaine Pluta and crews from the Holyoke Fire Department.
"We had fire and emergency responder crews from Agawam, Amherst, Pittsfield, Lanesborough ... there were so many I know I'm missing some," Gibson said, adding that as he passed the fire station late Wednesday night, he noted ambulance crews from Agawam and Southwick standing by to handle any routine emergency calls.
Gibson said as with any emergency, the tornado taught the town a lesson about communications in a disaster.
"One of the first things we learned 15 minutes into [the disaster] ... not only were the land circuits overtaxed and not working, but the cell phone system was so overtaxed it would just go to voice mail."
Because of the timing of the tornado, most of his department heads had already gone home for the evening.
"We couldn't reach people," Gibson said. "We dispatched police cruisers to go to department heads' homes to notify them what had happened so they could come back and set up a command center."
Once the center was set up, Gibson said, "The radio system worked fine."
The NF-3 tornado that struck parts of Westfield, West Springfield and Springfield on June 1 spared Agawam the brunt of its wrath.
"We had damage to approximately 29 streets, which consisted of a lot of downed trees and power lines and personal artifacts in back yards fences and such," Mayor Richard Cohen said. "Some homes received roof damage and limbs falling on them, but there were no homes where people were displaced."
According to Agawam's Emergency Management Director Chester Nicora, a total of six homes were damaged by falling trees and wind as a result of the storm. Downed trees also caused some power outages in town, but there were no requests for emergency shelter, so the town did not open one.
Nicora did say that two families who were possibly in need of shelter were referred to the Red Cross Regional Shelter that was set up at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield.
"I have to say, I was out [on Wednesday] and the Police, the Fire Department, our call fire fighters, our emergency management team, our town volunteers and the Massachusetts Emergency Management team were all working all hours of the night," Cohen said. "Our roads were passable. We had one injury an 18 year-old who was hit by lightening, but he was released and in school the next day."
Cohen said he felt the town was lucky to have escaped with so little damage.
"I don't take it any less seriously, but compared to the other communities, we are lucky and fortunate," he said.
A memo from the Agawam Department of Public Works (DPW), provided to Reminder Publications
by the mayor's office, provided the following information on storm damage:
1. The DPW does not work on trees on private property. Residents must contact a private tree removal service for that work.
2. Small bundles of debris may be brought to Bondi's Island Landfill for disposal at no charge. Residents must obtain yard waste passes from the DPW office at 100 Suffield St.
3. Bundles of limbs less than 3 inches in diameter, 3 feet in length and weighing less than 50 pounds will be picked up along with regular yard waste.
Neither Mayor Daniel Knapik nor Emergency Management Director John Wiggs were available for comment by press time. Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com