State pledges support to Conway in aftermath of tornado

  • The United Congregational Church in Conway sustained damage from Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Trees down and damaged homes and the United Congregational Church along Whately Road in Conway after Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The salt shed located at the Conway Grammar School lost its metal roof, peeled off by Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The salt shed located at the Conway Grammar School lost its metal roof, peeled off by Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The salt shed located at the Conway Grammar School lost its metal roof, peeled off by Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The United Congregational Church in Conway sustained damage from Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tree and homes with damaged tops on Whately Road after Saturday's tornado in Conway. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Antiques are salvaged from the collapsed barn at J&J Maggs Antiques in Conway after Saturday's tornado. February 27, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks to reporters Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in the aftermath of Saturday's category 1 tornado. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo. Recorder Staff—Andy Castillo

  • Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks to reporters Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in the aftermath of Saturday's category 1 tornado. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo. Recorder Staff—Andy Castillo

  • Conway resident Jeanne Thompson (left) describes damage to her house at 100 Whately Road to state Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito (center), Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, looks on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in the aftermath of Saturday's category 1 tornado. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo.

  • Conway Fire Chief Robert Baker describes the situation to state Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in the aftermath of Saturday's category 1 tornado. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo.

Recorder Staff
Published: 2/27/2017 8:58:05 PM

CONWAY — State officials including Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Sen. Adam Hinds visited Conway Monday to survey the aftermath of Saturday’s category 1 tornado, assuring residents of the state’s intention to help out.

Flanked by representatives from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and other state agencies, Polito surveyed Pumpkin Hollow and Whately Road, which received the brunt of the tornado’s force.

As she walked past damaged houses and fallen trees, Polito listened to updates from local emergency officials and talked with residents directly affected by the storm, including John Maggs, whose barn was destroyed, and Jeanne Thomas, who lost the entire front of her house.

Addressing a large group of reporters from as far away as Boston, Polito highlighted successful state and local collaboration in response to the storm, which she described as a “force of nature on a Saturday evening.”

“After the tornado touched down in Conway, a state of emergency was declared within two hours. The emergency response was rapid, it was collaborative, and it worked to bring stability to this community in about a 36-hour time period,” Polito said.

Moving forward, Polito said the state will continue to help Conway with ongoing operations and “calculating costs.” Polito said state engineers would help assess damages.

Continuing, Polito called for “state leaders” to “work with local officials” to help Conway with the financial burden, “being a small town with a $5,000,000 budget.” To that end, she said “Governor Baker and I have been in strong communication through the last 36 hours.”

Church damage

“The bottom line is it’s a terrible incident,” Hinds said, walking past the United Congregational Church of Conway, which was structurally damaged during the storm. “We feel blessed that no one was hurt.”

Hinds’ comments were echoed by Bill Leno, a member of the Church Council, who is also on the church’s building committee. While work crews continued to remove tree limbs, rappelled down the historic church’s roof to secure loose slate shingles, and cover a large hole on Monday.

“We have no loss of life,” Leno said as he helped to clear brush. “That’s wonderful when you look at the magnitude of what happened.”

“Today’s mission is to secure the outside of the building so we don’t have inside damage, which is sufficient already,” he said as behind him, a Bobcat loader and a few chainsaw workers removed larger limbs.

Inside the church, built in 1885, Leno said the walls have “many cracks,” caused by torque as the building twisted, while buffeted by 80- to 110-mile-per-hour winds.

As a result, Leno expressed “structural concerns,” noting the building is insured and that its foundation wasn’t damaged.

High winds also knocked the church’s bell from its mounting. Leno said while it’s still in the bell tower, “you can’t pull the rope and make it do anything.”

Three years ago, the church underwent extensive renovations — essentially overhauling the entire interior — which Leno said cost upwards of $400,000. At least some of that money was contributed by taxpayers, through Community Preservation Act funds. In light of those renovations, Leno said the recent storm damages are “a huge blow.”

As far as how much the damages could cost to repair, Leno said it’s too early to tell, adding, “we don’t even have a preliminary number. What’s next is to get an evaluation from an engineer.”

Looking ahead

Hinds said moving forward, “My job is to work with the town and the governor’s office to make sure the financial burden” isn’t too much for the town to handle.

Addressing finances, acting town administrator Patricia Vinchesi said it’s too early to give hard numbers. The Selectboard deputized her with the position Sunday while current administrative aide Tom Hutcheson is on vacation.

“We’re still assessing the extent of damages. We have a (long) tree removal process ahead of us,” Vinchesi said. Also the town will be fixing its salt storage facility.

In the short term, Selectboard Chairman John P. O’Rourke said there’s still a safety concern, and the next step is to remove debris and assess damages.

“The town was lucky. No injuries,” he said.

Throughout the day Monday, Eversource linemen worked with tree crews and private contractors continued cleaning debris and damage left by the tornado.

Officials said Monday that thousands of trees fell in the path of the storm, 33 roads were closed, at least half a dozen homes were damaged, and about 87 percent of the town lost power.

As of Monday, electricity had been restored, and all but three roads were open to traffic.

“We’re good today — everyone has been restored,” Eversource Regional President Craig Hallstrom, who’s responsible for Connecticut and Massachusetts.

One thing that helped, said Hallstrom, was preplanning. “We watch the weather constantly,” he said, noting that extra crews were called in ahead of Saturday’s storm.

While the town emergency situation has officially ended, state agencies continued to work with the town to focus on recovery and repair efforts.

Vengeful tornado

The tornado touched down with “vengeance,” the National Weather Service said on Monday morning.

The weather service reported that the EF1 tornado first touched down in Goshen at 7:18 p.m. It then headed to Conway from 7:20 to 7:25 p.m. Winds reached 100 to 110 mph on Main Poland and Whately roads.

“It was very fortunate that nobody was killed in this event,” the weather service report states.

It was the first reported tornado during the month of February in Massachusetts. Official tornado statistics date back to 1950.

The report listed one injury. Conway Fire Chief Robert Baker in a published report said there were a few minor injuries.

The path of the tornado varied in width, ranging from 50 yards in western Conway to 200 yards near the town hall, according to the report.

“We got a lot of (state) assistance, fire crews are dead on their feet,” said Baker on Monday about the town’s response to Saturday’s tornado.

Donations

To provide relief for the Thomases and the Conway Congregational Church, a Conway Tornado Relief Fund has been set up. Those interested in donating can do so through a GoFundMe page, bit.ly/2lZcUB6. It’s managed by Conway’s Firemen’s Auxiliary, with input from town officials.

According to a news release, “cash and gift cards for the Conway Tornado Relief Fund are also being accepted at the Greenfield Savings Bank Branch on Route 116 in Conway.” Send checks to Conway Mass Tornado Relief, c/o Greenfield Savings Bank, 181 Parsons Road, Conway, MA 01341.

Clothing donations aren’t needed and won’t be accepted. For more information and updates visit Conway’s website, www.townofconway.com.

Since Saturday

The town declared a state of emergency at 9 p.m. on Saturday, two hours after the tornado cut through town from Main Poland Road to Route 116. The town received mutual aid from fire and police departments across the county. Mass. Emergency Management Agency and the utility companies were also in the area throughout Monday.

Conway Grammar School was closed Monday because roads were not all passable at the start of the day.

Town officials kept the public away from the Pumpkin Hollow section of Whately Road for much of the day Monday, allowing reporters to take a supervised tour in the late morning and then again when Polito arrived.

Many trees were sheared off along their trunks on parts of Main Poland Road. The tree damage and cutting was so extensive that at dawn Saturday motorists could smell the odor of pine pitch in the air.


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