After The Tornado, Southbridge Community Comes Together

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Just off Worcester Road in this central Massachusetts town is a tidy apartment complex called Rosemeade. The grass is manicured, the club house is clean and the residences are all bright white.

The thing is, some of them are missing their roofs and vinyl siding and the glass is blown out of the windows.

"It's been very surreal to have your property that you've worked at for so long look the way it does now, from the way it was before," said Andrea Callinan, the property manager at Rosemeade.

While she has worked at Rosemeade a long time, Callinan just became the property manager a couple of weeks ago. A few days later, part of the complex was slammed by last week's tornadoes.

"Everyone came running from the other end of the property," she said. "Neighbors were forming teams and they checked door to door to make sure everybody was all right."

"They're our family. Rosemeade is more than just an apartment community. It's a community."

Andrea Callinan, property manager, Rosemeade Apartments

Six buildings on the property were badly damaged and 26 families were forced out, but somehow no one was hurt.

But you'd never guess Callinan is new on the job. When we showed up, she was fielding endless questions as residents moved their belongings out of their apartments and into the six rented trailers she'd ordered, all while she directed teams of workers atop the four cranes on the property, re-roofing and securing blue tarps over gaping holes.

"The immediate work was to make sure everything was watertight," Callinan said. "Watertight and safe. No danglers, nothing that could hurt anybody that was walking by. That's why we're handing out hard hats and jackets, so people will know that they live here."

Actually, the hard hats and DayGlo vests were being worn by everybody — workers and residents — making it confusing to tell who was who.

But once Dick Decareau opened his mouth, it was pretty clear.

"I want to break out into 'YMCA,' " he said, sporting his hard hat and vest over a black T-shirt and khaki shorts as he picked up his mail at the club house. "I always wanted to be a Village Person and this is it, my big opportunity."

Decareau is a professional actor who lives at Rosemeade. On tornado day, June 1, he was in Missouri in a production of "Damn Yankees."

"I went to the producers and I said, 'I have some news. I have to leave, I can't do the show,' " he recalled. "They were nice enough to let me out of my contract and I flew back the next day, to this."

Decareau is struck by the oddity of the situation — there he was in Missouri and a tornado hits Massachusetts.

"What are the chances?" he asked. "You know, when I was going to Missouri, everyone was saying, 'Dick, watch out for the tornadoes,' because of those poor people in Joplin and the whole Midwest. And to find out, I come back here, and it hit here."

Decareau came home to find his windows blown out and a hole where his fireplace had been. He got off pretty easy compared to many of his neighbors, but the damage was still bad enough that he had to move out. Callinan placed him in an empty and undamaged unit in a different part of the complex.

In fact, she's working to put all her homeless residents into vacant units, but not all the apartments are ready yet. So Callinan is putting up about two dozen families at a hotel and conference center a couple miles down the road. She said taking that expense was a no-brainer.

"They're our family," she said. "Rosemeade is more than just an apartment community. It's a community."

Down the road, at the hotel, that spirit is carrying over among the residents who have temporarily relocated there. Kristen Durham, a nurse, was in the hotel parking lot packing her young daughter into her van to run some errands.

"Everybody at the complex, we all know each other, we all walk our animals," she said, "so it's kind of like family still getting to be together and be in a really beautiful environment."

She is especially grateful for what it means for her daughter and the other kids from Rosemeade. "I don't think that they're nearly feeling the trauma of all of this that, say, someone in a shelter in Springfield is experiencing," she said. "They're getting to go down to the pool. She thinks she's on vacation. We keep trying to tell her that it's really not all fun and games, not for mom and dad."

Durham expects that her family will be back at Rosemeade by next week, and she feels very lucky for that because she's met other people staying at the hotel whose futures are much less certain.

"In one week's time, I've seen the worst of people and I've seen the best of people," she said.

On the night of the tornado, Durham said there were looters at Rosemeade. Not to mention the crowds who showed up just to look at the damage.

"There's all sorts of people coming up there, driving up there, putting their kids in strollers and walking up there, and taking pictures like they were at Disney World," she said. "And just kind of zipped right past you, didn't even see us, like we were invisible and went right back to home."

On the other hand, Durham said, she's been moved by the people in her community who have reached out to help.

"We had a lady at the hotel that I met at the pool," she said. "And after talking to her for like a half an hour, she got up, she left the pool, she went to the grocery store and bought us groceries."

Durham started to cry as she recalled the woman's actions. "She left her number and was like, 'If you need anyone to watch your daughter when you guys have to move back in your home or if you need anything, you just call me,' " she said. "So, it's overwhelming. I think the people in the community really want to help. That's overwhelming. It's just awesome."

When they go back to Rosemeade, Durham's family has chosen to move into a new unit, away from where the tornado struck, as she says she prefers not to remember that day.

This program aired on June 10, 2011.


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