BOSTON — Tornadoes roared through western and central Massachusetts on Wednesday, causing damage in at least 18 communities, ripping off roofs, uprooting trees, scattering debris and leaving at least four dead (Update: One death may not be storm-related).
Speaking late Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick said two fatalities were reported in Westfield, while one died in West Springfield and one in the town of Brimfield. Patrick had no details about those killed and said the death total was preliminary.
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Residents in tornado-damaged parts of the state were urged to stay off roads Thursday, and schools were closed and non-essential state workers had the day off as officials assess damage and begin the daunting task of cleaning up.
The tornadoes caused an unknown number of injuries and extensive damage throughout the affected communities. As a result, the governor declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening and activated up to 1,000 National Guard troops.
Springfield, Monson and Brimfield were among the communities hit hardest.
Monson Emergency Management Director Kathleen Conley Norbut says more than 40 homes have been severely damaged and the emergency operations center has lost its roof. She says they are asking for mobile communication centers from the state, and trying to rely on social media sites such as Facebook to communicate with residents.
Reporting on the damage in Brimfield, WBUR's David Boeri described the catastrophic scene.
"Two trucks upside down here, the skins completely torn off by the wind, there have been a number of barns completely devastated," he said.
Looking to the west from where he was standing at a quarter-mile-long ridge, Boeri said, "Every pine tree has been snapped off, some at the base, some higher up."
Across the street, on Hollow Road, of the four houses there, "two of them [are] gone altogether, another one devastated, the third it's not clear. As far as we know, everyone has been accounted for."
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Routes 19 and 20 in Brimfield were closed during the Thursday morning commute as search and cleanup operations continued. Both are major commuter routes for Worcester and Springfield.
Police say many secondary roads in central and western Massachusetts are also impassible.
The violent storm system descended on the Springfield area at around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. There were then reports of other apparent tornado touchdowns in other parts of the state in the evening.
Thomas Walsh, mayoral spokesman in Springfield, the state's third largest city, told The Associated Press he was looking out his City Hall window at around 4:30 p.m. when he saw a "massive cloud of debris" floating in a circle.
Local television footage shows a debris-filled funnel roaring through the downtown area.
WFCR-FM reporter Anne Mostue saw the apparent tornado from her office in Springfield.
"I ran out of the studio and looked into the street facing downtown Springfield and saw this enormous black cloud heading in a downward direction and a tremendous amount of debris and trash in the air swirling around," Mostue said.
Heavy damage was reported in the city’s South End section.
"There are entire buildings that are collapsed, caved in, and then there's several first or top floors that have been ripped off, and roofs that have been ripped off," Mostue added later from the South End. "Lots of trees down, lots of debris and trash in the streets. It's quite a scene."
Greater Boston, meanwhile, experienced heavy thunderstorms and high winds as the system moved east through the metropolitan area.
Meteorologist Marc Rosenthal said the reason for the violent weather is a powerful jet stream, plus a contrast between two big air masses — one hot and the other cold.
Compiled by Benjamin Swasey, with additional reporting from The Associated Press