Pastor Darrick Jackson normally has office hours on Wednesday afternoon at his parish, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Monson, Mass. But yesterday, he had an offsite meeting in Springfield and then, after considering heading to the church, decided just to go home, driving an hour back to Meriden.
That decision might have saved his life. By returning home, he missed the tornado that whipped through downtown Monson and tore off part of the steeple on his church.
"At 8 p.m. our board president called and said, 'Just so you know, I just came from the church, and the steeple is on the lawn in front of it,'" Jackson said by phone from Monson Thursday afternoon, as he was surveying the damage to the town of about 9,000.
Monson's Main Street was one of the hardest hit areas by what the Hartford Courant is reporting as at least two, and possibly three tornadoes, that touched down Wednesday in Western Mass. at around 5 p.m., killing at least 3 people. Residents reportedly saw a funnel cloud speed through Monson's downtown, tearing apart businesses, homes and trees, the Courant reports.
Nineteen communities were affected, according to the National Weather Service, including Westfield, Springfield, West Springfield, Sturbridge, Oxford and East Douglas. Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick has declared a state of emergency, mobilizing 1,000 National Guard Troops, according to a press statement.
With the disaster area located just an hour's drive away from Meriden, it's no surprise that local residents have connections to those affected.
Meriden City Councilor Keith Gordon was also out on Main Street in Monson Thursday, assessing damage at the town's Adams market.
Gordon is the Loss Prevention and Safety Director for the small grocery chain owned by Bozzuto's in Cheshire, which has seven locations in Conn. and Mass. The tornado caused structural damage to the Monson store and the area around it. From photos of the scene, the area in front of the market looks like a junkyard -- filled with tipped over shopping carts, plants and wood boards that appear to have come from the building's roof.
"All my employees were safe, they followed procedures and went into a cooler," when the storm hit, Gordon said. He traveled to Monson Wednesday after receiving a call at about 4:30 p.m. that the store had been damaged -- and said he was driving right into the storm as the tornado touched down again north of the store.
Now he, like many others in the area, is dealing with the aftermath. On Thursday morning, Gordon was waiting for insurance adjusters to come and look at the damages. He said employees were also working to salvage perishable items – since the electricity has been down since the storms hit – by loading what they could into refrigerated trucks.
The store was also handing out pallets of bottled water and ice to people in the area, Gordon said.
"Who'd expect it to happen up here?" he said.
Gordon's sentiment has been echoed by many. Tornadoes do form in the Northeast, but are not as common as in places like the Midwest.
Jackson, who is originally from Michigan, said he too was surprised by the storm's ferocity and its seemingly random path of destruction.
"One street you walk down, the trees are bent over, a house has some shingles off, and the next one is completely demolished," the pastor said. "Just seeing the huge pile of wood and copper in a huge mound of what used to be our steeple...it's amazing."
Jackson has been spending the day trying to find out the status of each of his 20 parishioners. He said he believes everyone is safe, either because they've checked in with him or other parishioners, or because he has stopped by their homes, and the structures are in good shape.
He's also been offering emotional support to people throughout the town, and figuring out what happens next with the building.
The Massachusetts Unitarian Universalist District has also created a donation site for those who want to contribute to the church's reconstruction and needs of three other UU congregations who were affected by the storm. The site is here.
Connecticut's Red Cross also has a website and hotline (1-800-REDCROSS) set up for donations.
"The best way that people can help is with a financial donation," Paul Shipman, a spokesman from the agency's Farmington office said. "It's the fastest way to turn things into assistance, whether it be food, water to assist when people are cleaning up, it's going to evolve throughout the process."
The Connecticut chapter has sent two volunteers and three trucks to affected areas in the last day, to help with everything from planning logistics to delivering supplies.
He also recommended that if people want to give to the Red Cross, they don't ask to earmark funds solely for this specific disaster, but for all "disaster relief" so that leftover funds can go directly to the next disaster that happens.
"As we've seen this spring, they just seem to be happening one after another," he said.