On June 1, 2011, heavy, dark-gray and greenish clouds descended from the skies above Central Massachusetts. Swirling funnels cut swaths through the city of Springfield and neighboring towns. Trees and housing debris flew through the air. One tornado seemed to travel along the Massachusetts Turnpike, shearing woods in the tiny hamlet of Monson. Homes and town offices were devastated.
“It was surreal, it was just unbelievable,” said Monson resident Mike Gilman.
“The entire roof came off, all the wood, the structure inside, everything had to be removed,” said Gilman's mother, Donna.
The tornado sucked the roof off the home of the Gilman family — gutting it, but leaving the stone structure standing. Parents Donna and Tom waited it out safely in the basement. Then their son, Mike, came home to help them with extensive repairs.
“It was really difficult on them," Mike said. "This is the only home my mother has ever known. It was really frustrating because it was three years without a definite end date. And it seemed like one thing after another.”
'We probably won't see the same trees, same buildings in our lifetime. That's the new normal.'
New windows, a roof, floors and cabinets. The Gilmans had to replace their entire garage. The work totaled more than $300,000. Homeowners insurance covered most of that, but not all.
“In order to get back home we had to dip into Tom’s life insurance, borrow against that, $16,000. We had to take $55,000 out of our retirement account to get back home. So right there is a lot of money out of our own pocket that we would never, ever recoup.”
But the Gilmans aren’t complaining. They finally moved home about a month ago, after nearly three years renting a condo nearby. They say they were overwhelmed by the generosity of family, friends and neighbors, even Habitat for Humanity.
“We’re feeling very uplifted," Donna said. "We are very grateful to be home. You know the old saying: 'No place like home.' There really is no place like home."
Son Mike Gilman says he still can’t believe the changes to the landscape.
“None of those houses you could see," he said. "They were all completely covered by trees.”
The loss of trees is not just a visual change. Some residents say the town is noticeably windier.
All the changes prompted a few families to move away, but most have stayed, opting to rebuild. The lush woods are starting to fill in. The steeple is back on the First Church. The most historic home on Main Street still looks haunting, but it’s under construction.
“We probably won’t see the same trees, same buildings in our lifetime," said town manager Evan Brassard. "That’s the new normal.”
“You can drive down Main Street and see we’ve done a lot of tree planting, there is a lot of rebuilding," Brassard said. "But trees are 15 feet tall. They’re not going to be those big, beautiful luscious trees that we remember.”
Brassard is overseeing the new construction of a $10 million town hall and police station. The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to reimburse Monson 75 percent of the disaster dollars, but it took awhile. There was some frustration with paperwork and processes.
“You’re dealing with federal and state-level bureaucracies that have certain ways that things need to be done, and I think they need to be to done that way because of fraud and all these kind of ancillary concerns,” he said.
But as the town recovers, financially and physically, there’s still that lingering question: Will another tornado touch down in Massachusetts? In Monson?
“I think we still have people that are leery of weather," Brassard said. "We still have a lot of kind of that fear out there. That’s one thing that I don’t think people think about as much. We rebuild homes and the trees come back, we’ll do all of that but there is a psychological impact that has taken its toll on people.”
And both Brassard and the Gilman family say the town pride, and volunteer spirit, in Monson, remain strong.
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