Their Stories tells the experience of some of the individuals who were affected by the June 2011 Springfield, Massachusetts tornado. Their Stories utilizes the tradition of black and white portraiture photography with handwritten quotes and short stories written by each of the portrait sitters. The portraiture and text in THEIR STORIES symbolizes the strength and resilience found in the community of Springfield, and reflects the personal strength and perseverance of individuals whose lives were changed by that natural disaster.
Producer: Laura Roy
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140 Chestnut Street, Box C
Springfield, MA 01103
Don Courtemanche and Bryce Tolassi
Panic. No sooner had we made it to the basement stairs then the trees started coming down on the house. The kitchen window blew in just as my black lab and I closed the basement door. The rest of the evening is a blur. I remember finally escaping the house to find our roof in the driveway, the cars covered in trees, and the police running from house to house. Then the rain started again and we quickly realized how bad the damage was.
I wouldn't wish the past year and three months on my worst enemy. To live in a construction zone with contractors coming and going at all hours, takes a toll on you fairly quickly. Many days of frustration with insurance, mortgage lenders, contractors, etc, drives one to tears. Finally, the construction is for the most part over. It's amazing however to see how fast one adapts to living in an area that looks still like a war zone, and the complete lack of trees in our neighborhood. I hope that the other historic houses in our neighborhood are able to be saved. They are a treasure of Springfield's proud history.
The air seemed ominous and I saw a random fellow or two standing on the street, cell phone in hand, looking skyward. Still I knew nothing of the danger. Unknown to me, I was driving parallel to the eye’s path. As I entered Wilbraham, I looked up in the sky toward Monson and saw the funnel head up and over Minnechaug Mountain. It was a numbing feeling because I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real. Trying to keep my eyes on the road, I shakily pulled into my driveway, having successfully dodged debris on the street. I couldn’t wait to open the garage door and drive safely inside. With trees and wires down all around, the automatic door opener did not work. Unable to get into the garage and eventually the house, I searched in my purse for the keys to let myself in through a door. It was not about to happen since I recently had all the locks changed, but neglected to change the keys in my purse. Sitting in the car presuming the worst of the storm had passed, I wondered what I would do next. I ended up leaving my driveway, cautiously avoiding fallen trees, and headed to my sister’s house about two miles north where she anxiously greeted me. I stayed with her overnight until the power was restored. I was one of the lucky ones.
The affect this storm had on me was a surprise. It’s put me on high alert for things to come. Never have we experienced this type of disaster in this area—ever. Now every time it rains heavily, winds blow or there is any kind of storm warning, I feel my anxiety return and I can’t wait for the weather to clear. Many of my friends and neighbors feel the same and we continue to look out for each other. There is more of a sense of community and caring; and neighbors have come together, are friendlier, more helpful and want to spend more time chatting. It’s too bad a disaster had to occur, but I do hope community relations and friendships continue.
Now the trees are finely trimmed, the electricity and other utilities are sharply tuned and working spot-on repair free. I found it interesting that with all the line work that the tornado necessitated, we now have a system in Wilbraham that seems to be dependable and improved. I don’t want to say we needed a catastrophe to produce repairs that remain intact, but power and service runs smooth and continuous to this day. Home repairs, tree clean up and replacement surges forward.
Within one week he found a temporary location a few blocks from where we were. Within three weeks after the tornado, we were up and running.
Seeing all the rebuilding around me makes me very happy we stayed in Springfield. Many of my fellow business owners agree that the South End is experiencing a renaissance and we look forward to many years of positive experiences to come.
Fifty four years later, l was returning from grocery shopping about 4:10 p.m. (l am retired, and l complete all of the household chores while my wife continues to serve as a school psychologist in a nearby school district.) The sky was ugly and the radio newsmen had been warning us all afternoon of the possibility of damaging winds---maybe even a tornado. wasn't worried about the latter. Massachusetts doesn't have tornadoes; Missouri is in the Midwest's Tornado Alley (Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and lowa). l backed into the driveway (we both back in due to the traffic on our street) and unloaded my car. My wife was home early, and I could hear her complaining aloud that a local television station had interrupted "Judge Judy” (my wife's favorite television show). She hollered down the hall that the TV weatherman said that a tornado had been sighted in West Springfield and Westfield. But she yelled, “It's on the other side of the river (the Connecticut River)!! I can see it!!" Then she yelled, "Jerome, it's crossing the river into the South End (a section of Springfield), but we're OK.” responded, "Tornadoes run from the southwest to the northeast, and we live directly northeast of the South End. We're going to the basement." She hesitated. She was still watching it on TV. I was going to the basement. Then the lights went out, and the ”freight train sound from 54 years ago" sounded like it was going to hit our house. We huddled on the stairs until the sound ended (about 30-40 seconds). l was very concerned about how we could handle it. But noticed that the house did not shake. That meant "no direct hit".
We came upstairs and looked around the house. Everything appeared to be somewhat normal. My wife went outside. And I heard her yelling loudly, “Jerome, Jerome, a huge tree has fallen on my car!!!" Actually, it landed on both cars and pushed the roof of her car down to the seats. Trees were down in every direction. Our next door neighbor had a city tree lying on the front and roof of their home. And our back yard was filled with limbs from the trees of other neighbors. The flying limbs had left scratches on our siding. Some parts of the walls had chunks knocked out of them. When we stood in the street, we could see damage to the peak of our roof and shingles were torn up everywhere. However, we had suffered no damage into the attic, and we would not have to move out, even short term.
We received about $15,000 from our insurance company for house damage. That only replaced the roof and some fencing. The auto insurance covered my old car because it suffered low damage. My wife's car was totaled, and she received a small check—about $3100. We are still saving in order to replace the aluminum siding (hard to find nowadays) with vinyl siding and some light decorations. But we are doing all right.
He took me to a meeting of First Responders where a woman was saying “we are going to need to set up a central area, we need internet, etc.” By the time she reached the third item on my list, I raised my hand, introduced myself and showed her the paper that listed what we were prepared to do to help. They basically gave us the ok, and I was off back to the church to organize the Brimfield Tornado Relief Center. It was one central area that all volunteers could receive orders where and how to help. In addition, we fed all the homeowners, first responders and volunteers who needed to eat. There was an information center for homeowners to get much needed information such as where to get clothing, showers, paperwork, help with FEMA applications, Mental Health Disaster Support, etc. Anything they needed we were able to get. We served as a central area for assigning volunteers so that the work was spread out evenly.
Following the tornado, I continued to operate the Tornado Relief Center at the same time as the Senior Center. In October, when we had the big snow storm that cut power for over a week to our town, we changed the name to Brimfield Disaster Relief Center! As soon as our power was restored we served meals to anyone who needed. We offered a warm, cozy place to be. In addition, I have continued to be a part of the Long Term Recovery Group (ours is named Pathway to Renewal). Through this group we have continued for the past year to help fund those in need from the June 1 Tornado.
My plans moving forward are to help institute a CERT team in our town, that will assist with future disasters should there be any.
The Duggan Family
Next thing we knew, as fast as lightning, we saw everything whip by the windowed door and though everything was instantly caked with dirt, somehow I knew that Rex’s hutch was gone, in a flash, just like that. The kids were sitting on a couch and I was standing facing them and we were all just wide-eyed and slack-jawed wondering what in the world was happening. There was this piercing, high-pitched whine sound, like a train’s whistle, that must have been the sound of the tornado from the back of our house (creating a wind tunnel) and it drowned out any sounds of the destruction that was happening outside. When the tornado was swirling behind our house, the door of the room we were in blew wide open and a ton of dirt, debris, and branches came in – we could taste the grit in our mouth and felt our ears popping from the pressure. Then, just as suddenly as it blew open, the tornado sucked the door closed again. When the sound finally subsided, Jimmy opened the door and sure enough, there was no sign of Rex’s hutch. In its place were some large branches. As we looked out at our back yard and the neighborhood around us, our eyes couldn’t make sense of what we were seeing. There was utter devastation everywhere we looked and there was a strange orangey hue to the air. Everything was different, but we wouldn’t realize just how different until well afterwards.
A few hours later, my sister-in-law, who lives across the street from us, spotted Rex in a huge uprooted tree hole in the front yard – there he was, perfectly okay and hiding where it was safe. We were shocked and amazed and were overjoyed to tell Jessie and the other kids that he was okay. We only found one small piece of his very large and heavy homemade hutch – on my sister-in-law’s roof – so it’s all the more amazing that Rex made it out alive and well. We can’t imagine what his “ride” was like, but Rex has been fine ever since. He’s a lot more pampered now – we bring him inside whenever the weather gets scary and we spoil him a lot more. Rex is one brave and resilient bunny.
Brian and Deanna Hale
As it turned out, all of the north/south roads were blocked by downed trees and wires so it took her about three hours to get home and she ended up walking the last mile! There was just no clear path to our house from Indian Orchard.
The next day we found out how extreme the devastation was and how fortunate we were. We were able to get help from our landscaper and his crew who took the tree off our roof and covered it with tarps the next day. The day after that a contractor we know came over to patch the roof. Our insurance company was very helpful and we got our roof and shed repaired and new ceilings and paint in our kitchen and bedroom.
My wife grew up in Oklahoma and went to school in Kansas. All those years living in tornado alley and she never knew anyone who was directly affected by a tornado. It was a very disruptive experience and took quite a while to settle, but all in all, we benefitted in the end by having the inside of our home freshly redecorated.
What I've witnessed and have written about is something I find rather
difficult to summarize — so instead, I've created a 1,000 page story called ”The Chosen Path," which will be published sometime in the future.
For more info., feel free to visit my website & take a look at some of the photos I've posted; sometimes, even when you're an author — there are simply no words to summarize such a dramatic, life changing experience.
Rosemary Morin and Alicia Zoeller.
I was under a debris pile and was perilously close to being squashed by the huge trucks working nearby to rebuild the utility poles. I heard human voices near me so I yelled and yelled again as loud as I could. The voices kept getting closer until they were right in front of me; they seemed to be calling to me. I backed away from the sound at first but then one of them spoke to me softly, picked me up and wrapped me up in her sweatshirt. My eyes were sealed shut with gook, but the new voices cleaned them and fed me my first solid food meal; it was delicious! They named me “Dorothy” from the Wizard of Oz.
The kind voices belonged to my Moms, Rosemary and Alicia. On June 1st, Mom A arrived home just minutes before the tornado hit and was able to protect the other kitties in the family by hiding in the basement with them. Mom R was in her downtown Springfield office and was on the phone with Mom A throughout the tornado. She was trying to get her staff away from their office windows during the storm.
Things have been very different for me since the tornado. I now live inside and not outside, sleep on very soft comfortable furniture and I have all the food and treats that I want. I still use my big voice to get attention! I’m now the baby among my seven brothers and sisters. _Dorothy
Our historic Victorian house and yard were severely damaged by the tornado and sadly, we lost all of our trees. As of December 1, 2012, nearly everything has been rebuilt and we are looking forward to gardening in the spring. The tornado taught us to expect the unexpected, to be resilient and patient and to appreciate our neighbors and community.
We will be eternally grateful to our family, friends, and co-workers who helped with clean up, fed us and most importantly, provided emotional support, and to the contractors (now like family) who helped us rebuild, Jay Croteau and Larry Daviau (GC), Vinny Pallotta (Paving), Jim and Scott Curran (Crane), Jonathan (MassTree) and especially - Pat Sugrue (Roof) and Joe DeCaro (Landscaping). _Rosemary Morin & Alicia Zoeller
Michael Gossman and Beatrice Puglise
Life is still mixed up - We cannot settle down, nowhere feels like home, our Insurance is a fiasco and combined in all it is a mental and physical anguish that we experience everyday when we awake without our home.
We wish it had never happened but Here’s to Mother Nature - Cheers!!!
The help and kindness given to me from other communities and from the people of Monson was phenomenal.
After thinking about what my plan was to be rebuilding my house I decided to go green. Going green means special insulation, windows, doors, and best of all photovoltaic on my roof. This system provides all of my electricity and also allows me to sell back surplus power to national grid.
The community came together and donated many trees. They helped with raking and seeding of my yard. Prior to the tornado my yard which is 3 acres was fully landscaped with fruit trees , flowers and about 40 large shade trees. All of this was gone after the tornado struck.
Although it was a tragedy I realized that the best part was that I walked away. I have come to realize that God has a plan for all of us. I am grateful that He spared me to enjoy my family and friends.
Michael Runnells and family are still in transition from temporary housing to permanent housing.
Jeff and Lillian Green-Gray
SHE SAID: The trauma stays with me. I am afraid more than I ever was, more stressed by little things in everyday life. I cry during thunderstorms and actively avoid talking to people about the experience. I learned how much the insurance company will cheat you when you need them to just do the right thing. I anger easily and struggle to contain it.
I am more distrustful and have to hide that from people who knew me as optimistic and compassionate. I don’t know how that is related to the experience; it’s just how I am now. I fake happiness a great deal now and smile a lot less.
I pray often, knowing that God will not grow weary of me and instead understand.
How did you feel during the tornado?
HE SAID: Surprised that, after living here my whole life, a powerful tornado would hit this area. When I got home, I was scared for my family still inside the house and felt an urgency to get them to safety.
SHE SAID: Disconnected. Thankful that God was holding me in the palm of His hand and did not leave me alone.
What is your life after the tornado?
HE SAID: What she said…
SHE SAID: Trying……trying to forget, trying to get over the trauma, trying to move forward. Trying……