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Mass. Town Cleans Up After Historic Tornado

Thu June 30, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

When John Burson started his timber cutting business called Rocky Mountain Wood with just a chain saw and a pickup truck in 1979, he never expected this.

Then again, two, to-possibly seven, nearly simultaneous tornadoes had never hit the Wilbraham, Mass., area before.

Beyond the town-wide piles of destroyed homes, the hundreds of downed trees, the debris that had once been buildings filling the streets of this sleepy western Massachusetts town and 19 others around it, there was a woman alone, isolated and sealed in her own home by fallen trees, at the end of a driveway that was 900 feet long.

“Wilbraham Police Chief (Allen) Stratton had called upon us to help remove trees from a woman’s home in town. She was trapped inside and could not get out,” said Maryellen Burson of Rocky Mountain Wood. “Her driveway was 900 feet long and covered with downed trees and wires. She was diabetic and the EMTs and the ambulance could not get close to the house to get to her.

“Rocky Mountain Wood cleared as much as they could to make it within walking distance for the EMTs,” added Burson. “She was in there for three to four hours. There was just no way to get to her.”

Rocky Mountain Wood is one of dozens of subcontracted companies in the Springfield, Mass., area that have been working for weeks to clear the multi-million-dollar damage caused by the June 1 tornadoes that hit 20 cities and towns in a flash. Debris clearers have come from several states to help.

From that single chainsaw and pickup, John Burson’s company now has a fleet of 15 trucks, from tractor trailers to delivery trucks, 11 trailers with loaders, slashers, skidders, debarker, grinders, fellerbunchers, excavators and more to do clearing, logging and retail mulch yard work.

The company is using every piece of it to clear their town.

“John Burson’s philosophy is, and always has been, that land clearing and logging should be done with care and complete customer satisfaction,” added Maryellen Burson. “And RMW works very had to go beyond what any other land-clearing operation will do. We have been swamped since this began.”

“Damage Was Unbelievable”

The tornadoes were the first major thing to descend on these communities on the first day of June, but they won’t be the last for the next year or two. State, city and federal officials, led by Mass. Governor Deval L. Patrick, dropped in by helicopter to assess the damage. He immediately called 1,000 members of the National Guard and members of the State Police to protect and secure the area.

The Governor declared a State of Emergency across “the whole of the Commonwealth,” followed by the President of the United States declaring Hampden and Worcester Counties a Federal Disaster Area which will help the state with the rebuilding effort.

On June 21, Gov. Patrick signed a $54 million spending bill that included $15 million to pay for costs incurred during the response to the tornadoes. Patrick said the extra money would help individuals, families and businesses harmed by the tornadoes to rebuild their lives.

“Triple deckers were flattened. Cars were picked up, spun around and tossed into buildings,” the governor said the day after the storms. “People have lost everything. I was told a story about a young mother who put her 15-year-old daughter in the bathroom and put the bathtub on top of her to protect her, just in the nick of time as the building was coming down. So, the mother was lost, but the 15-year-old was saved.”

In all, miraculously, only four people were killed although more than 200 were injured. Tornadoes were confirmed in Springfield, West Springfield, Wilbraham, Westfield, Monson, Brimfield, Sturbridge and Oxford. Storm spotters and residents also reported unconfirmed funnels in Agawam, Charlton, Millbury, Palmer and Southbridge.

In a citywide conference held June 22 at the (undamaged) Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, the Governor told a group of 250 people that in a unique way, the tornadoes gave the city and surrounding communities a chance to rebuild even better than before.

At the meeting, the city of Springfield’s interim Chief Development Officer, Christopher Moskel, said storm damage went six miles through the city, affecting 8 neighborhoods with more than 200 buildings condemned. Moskel added that 7,500 “mature” trees were lost forever.

The city plans to hire a consultant familiar with disaster recovery to help rebuild. State agencies said that hundreds of jobs will be created during the rebuilding, many in the construction field.

“The damage was unbelievable. You would be driving down a road. No damage, then, all of a sudden, where before you would see homes with trees behind them, you would see nothing but trees to the skyline,” added Maryellen Burson speaking of the aftermath in Wilbraham. “You could see all the houses that were in neighborhoods that you could never see before (because trees had been in front of them) in more wooded areas that got hit. When you get up in the area you know so well, it is not recognizable. You get turned around. It has a very disorienting feeling.”

As state and local governments moved from the rescue and recovery phase to cleaning up, they grapple with unbelievable amounts of wood from thousands of cracked trees and rubble from hundreds of destroyed buildings, blocking roads and filling streets.

“A Giant Project”

According to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations, more than 8,200 insurance claims, totaling some $140 million were filed by June 19. This would make the natural disaster the most costly in the state’s memory.

Of these claims, more than 4,200 are related to homes, with 3,700 auto insurance claims filed for destroyed or damaged vehicles buffeted by the twister. MEMA also reported some 200 commercial properties damaged in the nearly two dozen towns, totaling $5 million in claims. A total of 1,400 buildings were damaged and about 400 homes wiped out.

The storm cut a 39-mile path from Westfield east. The four deaths occurred in West Springfield, Sturbridge and Brimfield.

FEMA officials said that the federal government would pay for some 75 percent of the costs of debris removal. State and local government will cover the rest. Total costs are estimated to be in the tens of millions.

“This will be a giant project,” said Peter Judge, spokesman for MEMA.

“This is totally new for us, dealing with this type of clean up, though we are more than willing to help and do whatever needs to be done,” added Burson. “We are using our equipment to grind and chip trees for the town. We set up at a site at Post Office Park, just down the street from Rocky Mountain Wood yard. (We) set up a CBI 6800 grinder with a 330 Cat excavator with DBI Shear to do loading into a grinder. Just from Wilbraham alone, so far (as of June 19), we have ground over 60,000 yards.”

AshBRITT Environmental of Florida is the main contractor for the work and many other contractors like Northern Tree and Rocky Mountain Wood are subbing.

“Our crews, under Northern Tree, who are in charge of the cleanup operations, are going yard to yard in the Monson area, that was very hard hit,” said Tom Cowhey, general foreman for Rocky Mountain Wood. “In Monson alone, I believe some 56 houses were total losses.”

“At first,” Cowhey added, “Officials said it would take about two months to clean up. There are a lot of crews out here. Storm chasers, so to speak. There are guys here from Florida, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. They have done a pretty good job of cleaning up brush. You’d be amazed at how fast they have cleaned up.”

“Some areas are a total mess, but, compared to a week ago, when the tornado hit, it is amazing how much has gotten done,” added Maryellen Burson.

’Walking Around in a Trance’

Ted Soini – an independent contractor who headed up much of the operations for Northern Tree in hard-hit Monson and has been there since the morning after the storms crushed the area on June 1.

“This is the worst devastation I have seen by a storm ever,” said Soini. “I have never seen the amount of damage to buildings and homes. Three days later, people were still walking around in a trance, walking down Main Street, crying. From that perspective, I hope to never see this kind of thing again.”

Soini received a call at 8:30 a.m. on June 2, and arrived at Northern Tree by 9:30 a.m.

“It took me four hours to drive the six to eight miles from Northern Tree to get to the Monson DPW office across town,” said Soini. “All the roads were blocked. It was a mess.”

John Mills of the Monson DPW handed Soini a map with three lines drawn on it, marking the three main roads that the town desperately needed to be cleared.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I drove down the first street. It was incredible,” he said. “There were trees 40 inches in diameter snapped off and blown upside down.”

Soini’s crew was responsible for cleaning up debris for the First Responders in order for them to clear the roads. The immediate goal was to get National Grid trucks in to restore some of the power that had been cut off to some 55,000 people spread over two counties.

“I got to the second road and every house was smashed or flipped over and had a tree on it,” added Soini. “At the third road, it was like a bomb went off.”

Soini brought in six logger trucks called ’Forwarders.’ “They are big machines, strong machines, that can tear tangled trees apart so the other trucks could move them out,” he said. “(Over the past weeks) We’ve been able to move quite a bit of material.”

Since the first day of clean up, Soini said his human reaction has been, “pretty heartfelt.”

“I felt helpless for the people. I still can’t believe how many survived that storm (with so few deaths),” said Soini. “Not that many (people) were injured. After 72 hours here, you don’t sleep much. You think about the planning of what you have to do for the upcoming weeks. You’re working for (National) Grid and they are worried about getting it all done. Push, push, push, the entire time. But it stays with you. I have heard so many stories. And you don’t sleep much.

“My thanks to the people of Monson who, in their time of need, fed, provided drinks and expressed their appreciation to all the crews in the field,” Soini concluded. “In addition, I’d like to thank my crews for their hard work, long hours and great attitudes, which made my job easy.” CEG

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