A year after rare twister, Mass. residents rebound

May 26, 2012 - 12:40 PM
Massachusetts Tornado

In this May 10, 2012 photo, Pia Rogers stands by her front steps in Monson, Mass., the only part of her house left intact after a year after a tornado blew through central Massachusetts and devastated her town. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

MONSON, Mass. (AP) — Pia Rogers still goes home every day, even though all that remains of her two-story farmhouse are two granite front steps.

When it rains, treasures pop up in the dirt. That's where the 39-year-old's wedding and engagement rings were found after a tornado cut a swath through this rural Massachusetts town on June 1, 2011.

But she and her husband, Harry, still have a mortgage on this land, and the coffeehouse owner comes to collect letters from their new mailbox. It's the only repair they've made since the storm decimated nine houses on Bethany Road and 31 others in town a year ago.

Four tornadoes touched down in Massachusetts, destroying or damaging 1,400 houses and 78 businesses. Damage to insured property surpassed $200 million. Three people died because of the storm, the state's first tornado deaths in 16 years.

Monson, population 8,500, got a visit from the biggest twister. With 160-mph wind gusts, it touched down downtown before crossing Bethany Road in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods.

The road is still undergoing a facelift. There are five new homes on the street, but empty lots remain in places where no building permits are pending.

Bald patches mar slopes where pine trees once towered. The rumble of trucks and buzz of saws drown out songbirds. New homes mingle with century-old Victorians.

It was a makeover no one wanted. But Bethany Road residents are rising from the rubble.

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For many people, the storm brought misery and stress. For Fisk Bacon Jr., it also brought heartache.

He and his 75-year-old wife, Joan, took cover in the basement of their Victorian at 4 Bethany Road when the tornado struck.

Their house suffered damage, but the worst came later.

Bacon's wife of 58 years died the next morning, following a heart attack he believes the tornado brought on after she heard one of their sons lost his nearby home.

"I still can't believe that my wife isn't here," the 82-year-old retired electrician said recently.

Bacon lived through the 1938 hurricane and the 1955 flood on Bethany Road. While he said it won't be the same after 2011, he believes the twister didn't bring only bad.

"It seems like it brought a lot of people back together again," he said.

Neighbors came together to clear debris, make meals and figure out what exactly to do next.

"It's a different-looking Monson, but it's still a beautiful Monson," Town Administrator Gretchen Neggers said. "In many ways, it was even beautiful the day after the tornado because of the way the people came together."

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The new bathroom cabinets were on the porch at 11 Bethany Road when the storm came. It blew them away with the rest of Dwight and Debbie Meacham's 1898 Victorian.

The couple had just made their last mortgage payment and were wrapping up a remodel.

But when Dwight made it home after the tornado, the 60-year-old wiring and cable company supervisor called his wife to say it was just a cellar hole with water shooting out of it.

"It's gone, Deb," he told her. "Don't even come here."

Construction on their new home started in October. But remnants from their old home reappeared from time to time as strangers mailed back paperwork that took flight during the twister.

The Meachams don't have plans to mark the storm's anniversary after about two months in their new two-story Cape.

"I'd just like to forget," Dwight said.

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At 6 Bethany Road, neighbor Kim Slozak said memories of that day have been barging into her dreams.

Slozak hunkered in a bathtub with the family's kitten, Rex, and their Golden Retriever, Maggie, when she heard the twister's roar.

The storm sucked the 1870s Colonial off its foundation before dropping it in the wrong position. But Slozak and the pets made it out alive.

"Our house looked like a Dr. Seuss house," the kindergarten teacher's assistant said. "It was crooked."

She and her husband, Tony, just moved into their newly built house after nearly a year of living in a trailer with two of their three college-age children.

"I think about that day now more. Some days I get really sad and sometimes I'm happy," Slozak said in a recent interview. "It's all part of the process."

On one side of the Slozaks' property, twin storage pods rested on a cleared lot. Their longtime neighbor, Diana Robbins, said she was planning a tag sale to sell some of what she salvaged before the demolition of her 1901 Victorian.

From a window at the Slozaks', Robbins looked toward a church that lost its steeple, guessing how many years it would be before the storm-ravaged vista got its green back.

On the other side of the Slozaks' property, Fisk Bacon Jr. descended the steps of his fixed-up home that day to make the half-mile trip to Bethany Roman Catholic Cemetery where the road ends.

Joan's grave is there. He visits every day.