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Two years ago Saturday, a tornado wreaked havoc on a 39-mile stretch of western and central Massachusetts — destroying buildings, toppling trees, and causing injury and death. A full 24 months later, recovery efforts are still ongoing.
Driving along the wooded roads into Monson, you would never guess a tornado hit here two years ago. Then you come to the center of town, and the destruction is abundantly clear. On a hill overlooking new houses and a few damaged buildings is a wide swath of treeless land.
"If you notice driving through downtown that pretty much all the roofs on all the buildings are brand new," says Dan LaRoche, Monson's disaster recovery manager.
LaRoche was hired last year as part of a $500,000 state grant. He stops behind the soon-to-be demolished former town administrative building and police station.
He points east and west, to the open path left by the tornado.
"There's been some regrowth, and it's great to see things are greening back, but this whole area used to be very thick forest," LaRoche says. "It was lots of very mature trees right in the downtown area and out in the more rural parts of town, and you can still see the alley that was created from the tornado."
Within that alley lie several still-damaged properties, including the First Church, where owners are working to replace a toppled steeple, and an old Victorian house, fenced off and preparing for a full restoration.
LaRoche says in a matter of days the old police station and town hall will be torn down.
"People in town are very excited about seeing the change," he says, "seeing the building come down, because they know we're going to be building a new town office/police station next year."
LaRoche points out areas behind the building, where the tornado alley continues: the former site of a parks and recreation building, now just a grassy field; a few small, recently planted elm trees; and many newly built houses and a few vacant lots.
Gretchen Neggers, the town's administrator, says all this — both damage and regrowth — is now part of daily life in Monson.
"Every day there's something that comes up that's relative to what happened on June 1, 2011," Neggers says. "Be it a tree ceremony, be it working on the town hall project, some of the other residential issues out there, historic preservation, and also just in terms of being better prepared for the next event."
Neggers says many residents have safe rooms in their new houses, and new construction is adhering to current building codes for both private and public structures.
LaRoche says most of the cleanup is finished on public land, but debris is still left on private properties. From Flynt Park, which overlooks central Monson, he points to one property.
"See where that large, gray house is, that large house that's been rebuilt?" he asks me. "There's just sticks behind it where the tornado hit, and that hasn't been cleaned up."
LaRoche says the town can only do so much to encourage private landowners to clean up their property.
"I think the idea is we're leading by example, trying to do cleanup on the town property, and hoping others will follow," he says.
Besides the physical debris, Neggers says for some residents, the emotional impact of the tornado may never fully go away.
"We have a large segment of the community that was right there where it happened that certainly suffers some residual psychological issues when it's storming out, when it's bad weather," she says. "That I think is going to be carried with people — many of them for the rest of their lives."
And Neggers says part of the town's landscape has changed for good.
"And I think that's probably been the most dramatic change, the loss of some of the buildings that weren't rebuilt and the housing, and particularly the physical landscape because you can't rebuild a tree, but we're trying," she says.
That effort continues this weekend with a tree-planting event in Flynt Park to mark the second tornado anniversary. Neggers says the town's dedication to rebuilding reflects its hard-working, family oriented residents.
"That's one of the many strengths that helped Monson experience the tornado and come through with such a robust recovery, has been the resiliency and character of the people, and the joy that they take in living in this town," she says.
Neggers says Monson will stay in a long-term recovery phase for several more years, but she says she's glad to have made it this far.
"We're doing well here in Monson, and we look forward to continuing to do well."
First Anniversary Coverage, Last Year:
This program aired on May 31, 2013.
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