Still reeling from tornado, Springfield, Mass., now in Irene's cross hairs

Springfield, Mass., has been hit by a tornado, a microburst, and tremors from the Virginia earthquake since June. Now, hurricane Irene could be tracking toward the city.

By , Staff writer

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    People look at storm damage on June 2, a day after a tornado in Springfield, Mass. Storm trackers suggest that hurricane Irene could hit Springfield late this weekend.
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Tornado. Microburst. Earthquake tremors. And now a hurricane, to top it all off?

Residents of Springfield, Mass. – having shown their resilience during a series of earth-shaking events this summer – are watching hurricane Irene’s path closely, wondering if they’ll catch a break this weekend.

Heavy rains and winds could further damage homes still patched with blue tarps in the wake of the June 1 tornado that traveled through the entire seven-mile length of the city. On July 26, another tornado warning was issued for Springfield, but instead, it was hit with a microburst – another type of wind event that brought down trees in a smaller area. Then people felt the tremors from the Virginia earthquake earlier this week.

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Now, with early hurricane forecasts raising the possibility that Irene could barrel right through the city, officials are prepping in case there’s a need for emergency shelter. Counselors will be on hand if the new storm exacerbates the anguish that many survivors still feel.

“To be honest with you, I’ve already thought of going west in the car – that’s how scared I am,” says Sheila Genereux, whose business, Aquatique Pools in nearby West Springfield, was damaged by the tornado.

She’s been watching the forecast closely, and as of Thursday morning her impulse to flee had lessened. Worried about flooding, Ms. Genereux plans to move some materials up to higher shelves. “I’m sure we’ll just deal with it,” she says.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is busy tracking the storm and making statewide plans Thursday. But tornado-damaged areas “are very high on our radar,” says spokesman Peter Judge.

“We just had a National Weather Service conference call [Thursday morning] and had the latest map up, and the line ... the center of that cone of uncertainty ... literally was going right through Springfield and we said, ‘Oh no!,’ ” Mr. Judge says. “But with these storms, two days can make a lot of difference” in terms of the path and the strength.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is in hourly contact with emergency officials. By Friday afternoon, he will be able to give residents more information on the storm’s predicted impact and the services available, including shelter and food aid if needed, says Tom Walsh, the mayor’s communications director.

Understandably, “some people feel a little nervous about what may be coming, but ... all precautions are being taken,” Mr. Walsh says.

Particularly in the first few months after a severe weather event, some people – and even pets – experience increased anxiety, says Larry Berkowitz, director of the Riverside Trauma Center in Needham, Mass. “The sky darkens, the wind starts to blow, they get a little worried,” he adds.

On the flip side, Mr. Berkowitz says, “some people feel a little more of what we would consider mastery – they’ll have been through this [with the tornadoes] ... so [they] might actually be a good resource to others who haven’t been through it before.”

When the tornado hit

Genereux's experience with tornadoes in the Berkshires and California may very well have saved lives on June 1.

Normally she has 16-foot-high doors open for truck deliveries, but that day happened to be near the doors and see the outside edge of the tornado. “I saw the swirling and said to my customer, ‘You better get in,’ and she thought I was being kooky. That’s when I saw the black cloud ... and realized what it was,” Genereux says. “We were just able to get that door down. I bolted both sides, and I ran to shut the front and I already saw rafters coming off the buildings across the street. That’s how quickly it hit.”

She’s gotten insurance payments to fix her broken windows and replace lost vehicles. But she’s still waiting for compensation for loss of business when utilities and phone lines went down at the height of the swimming-pool season.

Rebuilding is under way in damaged neighborhoods, including downtown Springfield, which lost some historic buildings and a community youth center, Mr. Walsh says. Students at one school will be returning to mobile units. Downed trees are still being cleared. Total recovery for the city is expected to take at least three years.

Extreme home makeover on tap

The television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has announced plans to come to Springfield in September. But as usual, it will be a surprise to the family whose home will be rebuilt.

Twenty-five homes will be repaired in five days thanks to volunteers being organized by the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Springfield. The group has been helping the elderly, veterans, and families who haven’t been able to cover all their reconstruction costs through insurance and FEMA.

Many elderly people on a tight budget think they can get by without insurance, which isn’t required after the mortgage is paid off. “You never think a tornado is going to happen ... especially in this area,” says Colleen Loveless, executive director of Rebuilding Together Springfield.

But now that it has, people in the area are on high alert as Irene approaches.

Advice for emergency preparedness is available on a number of websites, including the National Weather Service.

“We hope people will do all they can to be prepared,” Berkowitz says. “Social support is really what helps people in tough times – family and neighbors looking out for each other.”

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