A year after rare twister, Mass. residents rebound
By BRIDGET MURPHY
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 someone found the 39-year-old's wedding and engagement rings 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 coffee house 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 in the state's western and central sections. Damage to insured property surpassed $200 million in claims. 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 came from Springfield, touching down in the heart of Monson's downtown before crossing Bethany Road in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods.
As the anniversary of the destruction arrives, Bethany Road is still undergoing a facelift. There are five new homes on the street, and one more under construction. 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 100-year-old Victorians.
It was a makeover no one wanted. But Bethany Road residents are rising from the rubble.
For many people, the storm brought misery and stress. They lost belongings, had to haggle over insurance claims, and had to cram their families into temporary quarters.
For Fisk Bacon Jr., the tornado 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. Part of a local ball field dugout got stuck near their roof, and the two chimneys of Bacon's childhood home tumbled onto his minivan.
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.
Historic maps show the Bacon family settled on Bethany Road by 1912. Fisk's grandfather worked in the town's granite quarry, and his father worked in the hat factory.
The block was first known as Pearl Street, probably getting a name change later because of the cemetery at one end, Monson Historical Commission chairman Dennis Swierad said.
Fisk Bacon Jr. 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. Everybody helped everybody," he said.
Other neighbors agreed: The tornado cemented their sense of community as they pitched in 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."
In Pia Rogers' case, the storm also sparked a personal transformation. The mother of two started losing weight while combing through rubble, eventually shrinking from size 18 to size 6.
Her family will be moving to a house in Brimfield, while their lot at 14 Bethany Road will lay fallow for now. But Bethany residents still see the Rogers family as neighbors.
"The house looks great!" Rogers called out recently, before crossing the road to hug Debbie Meacham.
A new home rose into the sky behind them at 11 Bethany Road, where grass was just poking up in the yard.
The new bathroom cabinets were on the Meachams' porch when the storm came, blowing them away with the rest of their 1898 Victorian.
Debbie and her husband, Dwight, had made their last mortgage payment in May 2011 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."
They didn't plan to rebuild, until a neighbor persuaded them. Construction on their new home started in October, but remnants from their old home reappeared from time to time.
Strangers mailed back paperwork that took flight during the twister, sometimes tucking in a $20 bill, Dwight said during a recent tour of the new house.
The couple has a $10,000 loan now, but their two-story Cape has upgrades that include more than one bathroom.
After about two months in their rebuilt home, the Meachams don't have plans to mark the storm's anniversary.
"I'd just like to forget," Dwight said.
Up the block at 6 Bethany Road, neighbor Kim Slozak said memories of that day have been barging into her dreams.
When she heard the twister's roar, Slozak grabbed her family's kitten, Rex, and their Golden Retriever, Maggie, and hunkered down in a bathtub.
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 and Maggie.
The 12-year-old dog is sporting a lot more white whiskers since the storm.
"I think about that day now more. Some days I get really sad and sometimes I'm happy," Slozak said during a recent interview on the family's new back deck. "It's all part of the process I guess."
On one side of the Slozaks' property, twin storage pods rested on a cleared lot. Their neighbor of three decades, Diana Robbins, said she was planning a tag sale to sell some of what she salvaged before the demolition of her 1901 Victorian at 10 Bethany Road.
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.
"As much as there was this destruction, there were just amazing opportunities for rebirth," she said. "Over time, you will see a softening of the destruction you see right now."
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.
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