By Ellen Bemben, Wilbraham, MA, Co-Founder, Twister Sister Towns Project
Hello, from Wilbraham, MA, in the new "Tornado Alley"!
I am in the process of preparing "thank you's" for the many wonderful volunteers, adults and students from Concord, MA who converged on Wilbraham on Saturday.
You can try to prepare folks for the sight of tornado devastation, but it's not until they see if for themselves that their minds can better wrap around it -- the vast sea of downed trees, the smell of so much broken wood, trees halves left standing like so many old, proud, dying soldiers, the now, desert-like sun beating down with no shade left to escape to, the cacophony of chain saws, heavy equipment and chippers every day, all day, non-stop, a sea of blue plastic tarps on roofs trying to protect what's left of someone's beloved home and color coded stickers on houses placed by engineers who passed judgment as to which homes would be repaired -- and which ones would be bulldozed due to extensive damage.
I met with the FEMA folks last Wednesday on top of Wilbraham mountain, totally surrounded by huge, fallen trees, circling damaged homes. Homeowners and helpful neighbors, crowded around us hoping for any good news that would mitigate the rumors that FEMA was cutting their debris removal assistance -- by several much needed weeks -- to Wilbraham and other hard hit towns.
I asked the FEMA official if he had traveled a lot around the country for the organization. He had, over many years. I then asked him where he saw the most tornado damage. He saw it in the midwest and the south. I then asked him which had the most tornado damage to remove: an Iowa cornfield and some farms, OR, a 39 mile-long, half-mile wide path left by an EF3 to and EF4 tornado that plowed through thousands of massive trees and thickly settled homes in Massachusetts?
He thought quietly about this for some time, then replied, "I got it." He seemed a kindly man. Sometimes "officials" have to be brought back to reality, numbed after years of visiting devastation -- after a while, it all looks the same and should all be handled alike -- until someone snaps you out of it. I tried.
FEMA originally told the folks in Wilbraham that they would help underwrite the removal of tons of tornado debris from June1 to July 31. Then they cut that back to July 6 - with only
a few days notice. It was now official. The result, most of Wilbraham was out all day Saturday, July 2, with equipment and just bare hands, cutting and moving tons of what was left of FEMA -- "legal" debris to the curb. They had been moving debris daily and could do it in their sleep - but this new time compression now forced them to move even faster and over a long, holiday weekend.
The folks from Concord did not know, nor did I, that we would be involved in this FEMA-forced, massive effort Saturday. It was amazing as the kids joined in with exhausted homeowners,
their relatives and friends, and the townspeople, all working shoulder-to-shoulder, nonstop, under a clear blue sky - the relentless July sun beating down on all of them. Some neighbors sickened from the sun and heat and had to drop out. These folks did not know what made FEMA cut them off. They no longer cared. They were just determined to get the job done, with the clock ticking so cruelly in their minds. At the end of the day, the streets had become canyons of tree debris - massive stumps, tree trunks, branches - all neatly piled by the sides of the once bucolic, tornado-scarred Wilbraham country roads. Most were too exhausted to hold a 4th of July celebration.
The Wilbraham homeowners who they helped could not say enough good about the Concord students and the adults with them. I heard:
- "We are grateful for the volunteers we have had over the past month - but THIS group from Concord was just amazing! They never stopped!"
- "What a bunch of really great kids!"
- "If the Concord folks ever come back, we have first dibs!"
Even the charter bus driver from Ritchie Buslines of Northborough, MA said to me, "If you ever need someone to bring this group back here to Wilbraham, I would be honored." Richard, the driver, is a retired hospital executive who got bored and now drives for owner, Dianne Ritchie, just "for the fun of meeting so many nice folks". (Many thanks to Dianne Ritchie for donating this bus -- and Richard -- to us. Her son's home in Brimfield and both his vehicles were totally destroyed by the June 1 tornado. They just wanted to help).
I hope the Concord folks will return. We are already talking about future town collaborations: transplanting trees from yards that were untouched; bringing trees from Concord to be planted in Wilbraham, and a fund raiser to help Wilbraham homeowners cover their insurance deductibles and more. The Principal of Concord-Carlisle High School, Peter Badalament, told me as he boarded the bus for home that his students told him "they were going home and recruiting their friends to come back to Wilbraham to help again." The kids had been so moved by the people they met and the sights they saw.
Mari Weinberg of West Concord, my Twister Sister Town Project co-founder, described Saturday in Wilbraham correctly: "gut wrenching." It was an incredible day. We know we helped some folks who needed it very badly. We did not know we were helping so many in the Town meet this cruel new government deadline, that made no sense. Ironically, the Wilbraham real estate tax bills arrived on Saturday. Maybe some day all government folks will again work "shoulder-to-shoulder" with its citizens in need...
Mega kudos to Governor Patrick, Lt. Governor Murray, Secretary Bialecki, and so many in Massachusetts government for their rapid -- and sustained -- response to so many hurting folks here in western Massachusetts. It has been one month since the tornado struck and our state officials have been here since that very day. These leaders are here every week
and are making careful, well-thought out plans for the rebuilding of this region. Unlike FEMA, they are not cutting off service just when we need them the most. We are deeply hoping that the Governor might be able to help get FEMA to reconsider packing up and abandoning us on July 6. We are still buried in massive tree debris (now an extreme fire hazard). The FEMA people return July 5th from enjoying their own long holiday weekend -- something few of us here in tornado-struck Wilbraham were able to even think of enjoying. The very next day, July 6, FEMA cuts off assistance to Wilbraham.
I am reminded of the blizzard of '78 when some folks on a farm in Connecticut stomped out a message in the 2-foot deep snow to then Governor Ella Grasso that read, "Help, Ella!" She responded -- big time. On July 6, Wilbraham residents might just stack their huge fallen trees into a message that reads, "Help, Deval!"
The FEMA clock is ticking.
Wilbraham farmers helped Concord at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775. Thank you, Concord AND Wilbraham Minutemen and women, for once again so proudly working together!Photos from top: Glendale Road home suffering from heavy structural and tree damage; next, the homeowners, Jim & Susan Dowd and family. The next three photos are also of the their home, the last one showing the huge pile of debris brought to the curb by Concord volunteers, comprised of adults and high school students. All photos by volunteer Nancy Hall of Westford, MA.