Uprooted Springfield family vows to resettle

Rebuilding piece by piece after the tornado

Beatriz and Michael Runnells studied classified ads in the local newspaper to look for housing. Beatriz and Michael Runnells studied classified ads in the local newspaper to look for housing. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — Even before disaster struck, life was not easy for Michael Runnells and his family. He lost his job two years ago, which left just his wife’s modest paycheck from Starbucks and their food stamps card to support their three teenage children.

They struggled to make rent each month, and watched pennies. So it was a special triumph a few weeks ago when, after a year of saving, they bought a $1,200 bedroom set for their 16-year-old daughter, borrowing $50 from a friend to pay the sales tax.

Then the tornado came, sweeping away the bedroom set and virtually everything else they owned — save the clothes they were wearing.

The devastating tornado that gouged a path through the city June 1 destroyed some 800 homes in the region, leaving families like the Runnellses with nearly nothing to their name and nowhere to go.

Since that night, about 275 displaced residents have taken shelter in the city’s convention center, while hundreds more search for a permanent place to live while staying with friends and family.

For the Runnellses, home is a set of cots in a corner of a large room, where strangers sleep side by side and babies wail through the night. Days are a litany of phone calls and paperwork as they search for a new place to live, and ceaseless anxiety as they struggle to regain their footing in a world that feels suddenly unfamiliar.

“All gone, everything, in the blink of an eye,’’ Runnells, 38, said at the shelter one recent afternoon. “What are we going to do? It’s hard to see it.’’

After days of calling every apartment listing they could find, on Thursday morning Runnels and his wife Beatriz met with a woman from Catholic Charities at the shelter. The couple, looking worried and exhausted in their donated clothes, handed her their licenses, recent paystub, and wrote down their Social Security numbers.

“We’re looking at three bedrooms, right?’’ asked Eryn Tobin, social service coordinator for Catholic Charities. “About how much in rent?’’

“$700?’’ Michael asked tentatively. Beatriz, her face drawn tight, stared at the floor.

Tobin thumbed through her listings, shaking her head as she went.

“Oh God,’’ Michael whispered, his left leg bouncing.

Tobin asked about Chicopee, and they both nodded yes. One apartment was listed for just $500, although it only had two bedrooms. Maybe they were big ones, she offered. But when she called the landlord, he said they weren’t.

“He said you couldn’t fit two beds in any of them,’’ he said.

The next place, a three-bedroom in Springfield, sounded perfect, but it was taken. Tobin suggested Holyoke, but the couple said they didn’t think it was safe for their children.

“I don’t want Holyoke,’’ Beatriz, 41, said firmly.

“We need a house,’’ Michael explained, “but the kids need to be able to go out front safely.’’

After a few more calls, Tobin found another three-bedroom in Springfield. It was $850, but came with heat and hot water included. After exchanging a quick glance, the couple said they could handle it. They would head up to Maple Street to apply.

“I pray we get it,’’ Michael said. “Please let us.’’

Life before the storm
Over the past year, the family’s walk-up apartment on Hickory Street was home for a modest, happy life that seemed bound for better things. Christian, 13, and his brother Neftali, 17, played basketball for hours and Stephanie studied and texted her friends in her bedroom. They went to church together three days a week and visited relatives on Michael’s side a few blocks away.

Money was tight, especially after Michael lost his job at a wireless store, then struggled with anxiety when he couldn’t find other work. But they scraped by, and even managed to squirrel away a few dollars. When they gave Stephanie her new bed, she squealed with joy.

Now it was covered in rubble under a half-gone roof, and Stephanie slept in a narrow cot in donated clothes. Tossing beside her with his racing thoughts, Michael had scarcely slept in days.

“I just lie there, thinking about everything that’s happened, and what will happen now,’’ Michael said. “If I get a place for my kids, we’ll be fine. It will still be hard. But that’s all we really need.’’

When the storm came that Wednesday, the family was getting ready for church. Beatriz had showered and changed and walked to the front window to check the weather before heading out. She saw an ominously dark sky, a crazy swirl of leaves and debris, and heard a deafening buzz.

“Like a lawnmower,’’ Beatriz said. “It was so loud. Then I saw a big tree falling toward the house. It felt like it was in slow motion.’’

As she ran to the kitchen, the windows shattered, and Beatriz said she could feel the wind pulling her from the house. She dove into the kitchen, where Michael and the children were curled in a ball on the floor. For a minute, maybe more, the storm raged all around them.

“We were screaming, crying, and trying to breath all at once,’’ she said.

Finally, the storm moved through, and the dazed family stumbled outside to a surreal scene of devastation. As they tried to make sense of what had happened, they realized that Christian may have gotten caught in the storm on his way home from school.

Frantically, they tried to call him and Michael’s relatives, but couldn’t get through. Neftali jumped on his bike and rode to find his little brother, but the roads were blocked. Some two hours later, the phone lines cleared and they got word. Christian had walked home from school to the relatives and was fine, as was the rest of the family. Michael nearly fainted with relief and Beatriz wept uncontrollably for several minutes.

With little more than the clothes on their backs, they found their way through tree-strewn streets to the shelter, where they found their extended family.

Since then, their days have been a dispiriting grind. Without a place to regroup and unwind, the Runnells are at once trapped and adrift, with time providing little distance from the storm.

Beatriz has taken off work to stay with the family and run errands during the day, picking up toiletries and other basics at Wal-Mart with her last paycheck. In between calls to landlords and building owners, Michael has helped other families find the right people to talk to, and, because he also speaks Spanish, translated for those who didn’t speak English.

Since the storm, the family has tried to stay close. When filling out paperwork for apartments, they sat in a tight circle of chairs, carving out a small cocoon of privacy in a room packed with strangers. Michael and Beatriz often pulled their children even closer, as if worried that without their touch, they just might float away.

“I can’t help myself,’’ Beatriz Runnells said, a sad smile crossing her face as she gently patted Christian’s arm. “I can’t let anything happen to them. We have to all stay together, whatever happens.’’

“I hug them all the time, too,’’ her husband whispered. “To keep them close.’’

Christian tugged at the oversized T-shirt swallowing his thin frame, trying to make it fit right. Stephanie looked beside her at her father, hunched over so he could fill out the stack of forms on his leg, writing slowly so the names and numbers were clear. She asked where they might move, and when.

“Somewhere soon, I hope,’’ their mother said as she patted Stephanie on the head, the way she did when the teenager was little. “We need somewhere to go. We need a place to be.’’

With no credit cards or renter’s insurance and just a few hundred dollars in the bank, the family’s finances are precarious, but they say they are used to living modestly and have faith that “God will provide.’’

Haunting recollection
Yet they remain haunted by the memory of the storm, which rushes into their minds as if they were living through it again.

“It’s hard to get away from it,’’ Michael said. “It’s like it’s scarred in our heads.’’

A few days after the storm, they visited their apartment, but found nothing to salvage. Beatriz said she will miss the family pictures, like the ones of her late grandfather and her children’s first steps, most of all.

“They are lost,’’ she said. “Just memories now.’’ Thankfully, she was wearing her wedding band and the ring Michael gave her on their second anniversary, which he had hidden in a bouquet of roses.

“I never take them off,’’ she said.

Beatriz said the storm has lent them perspective. They have also been heartened by the kindness of others, friends and strangers alike. The Starbucks where Beatriz works donated clothes, as did a Wal-Mart where a relative works. Teachers and friends from church have brought small gifts throughout the week. Time and again, they thank the Red Cross for its help.

It has also shown them, they said, that the material things don‘t really matter much, as long as the family is together. And as they ate a late lunch from McDonald’s last week, they joked over each other’s donated outfits: the misfit T-shirts, the baggy basketball shorts, and the Pac-Man pajamas.

The family is hopeful about finding a place soon and leaving the shelter behind for good. But as the afternoon fades and another night in the noisy, crowded room with well over 200 cots nears, the family seems to sigh in unison. Still uprooted by the wind, for one more night.

“We’ve got nowhere to go,’’ Michael said. “It’s a great weight.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at