A huge task of recovery along a path of ruin, loss

Aerial surveys confirm 3 tornadoes, 1 of awesome power

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By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / June 4, 2011

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Taking to the air for the first time yesterday, National Weather Service meteorologists confirmed that three separate tornadoes struck Massachusetts on Wednesday afternoon, a main twister that accounted for nearly all the damage, and two smaller ones that touched down for only a few minutes each.

The first and most powerful tornado struck at 4:17 p.m. in Westfield, and over the next 70 minutes reached a wind speed of 160 miles per hour and plowed a path of destruction 39 miles long and a half-mile at its widest before lifting off in Charlton at 5:27.

“This storm will be noted not only for its intensity,’’ the weather service said in a new analysis released late last night, “but also for the length of the continuous damage path.’’

The weather service categorized the main twister as a category EF-3 tornado — a severe storm that packs winds of more than 135 miles per hour and is seldom seen in New England.

The other two tornadoes were much briefer: one touched down around 6:30 in Wilbraham for eight minutes and covered 3.6 miles; the other, an offshoot, hit North Brimfield at 6:54 and ran 1.3 miles before lifting off three minutes later.

While less intense than the primary storm, the two later twisters still reached top wind speeds of 90 miles per hour, the meteorologists added, ranking them as category EF-1 tornadoes. However, they largely struck wooded areas with most of the damage fallen or uprooted trees.

Weather service officials said they decided to conduct an aerial survey yesterday after being unable to document the tornadoes’ trail through woods and determine the end points.

“We decided with such a long track, we really wanted to make sure we could get the end points and get a better idea as to the width and just how continuous the tornado was,’’ National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Thompson said by phone earlier Friday after stepping off a Civil Air Patrol plane.

Using broken clocks from damaged homes, meteorologists confirmed that the first tornado touched down near Shaker Road in Westfield at 4:17 p.m., Thompson said.

The Massachusetts twister pales in comparison with the monster storm that devastated Joplin, Mo., on May 22, leaving more than 130 dead. That tornado along with the three others that tore through Alabama and Mississippi on April 27 was considered a devastating EF-5 that delivered winds of more than 200 miles per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Enhanced Fujita scale, named for its creator in 1971, gives wind estimates based on damage and was revised in 2007 to take account for more types of buildings and quality of construction. The worst tornado on record in Massachusetts was in Worcester in 1953, which lasted for 84 minutes and killed more than 90 people and was later categorized an F-4 under the previous system.

With no new reports of people missing, search and rescue teams halted their scouring of battered communities for survivors as disaster teams began assessing the damage, said Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Peter Judge. State and local crews were clearing away downed power lines, fallen trees, and damaged homes, and some 12,000 residences still had no electricity by yesterday down from the 40,000 Thursday, said Judge.

The tornadoes, which caused at least three deaths and 200 injuries, had also displaced many families. In Springfield, at least 78 families and 24 individuals were forced out of their homes by the twister, officials said.

Meanwhile in Springfield yesterday, a man and a woman were shot while trying to flee police. Springfield Police Department spokesman Sergeant John Delaney said the two were being sought in connection with an assault on a woman, not because they were suspected of looting.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency asked people to call 211 to provide a general report of damage as the state begins to make its case for federal disaster aid. Massachusetts must meet a threshold of $8.3 million in damages to qualify, Judge said. Homeowners will still have to register later this year if recovery aid is approved and a call to 211 is not a substitute for contacting insurance companies, he said.

“You have to paint the picture of how impactful the event was the number of deaths, injuries, schools that had to close for a period of time,’’ said Judge. “This is a life-changing event for a lot of people. I don’t think we have to stretch too far to show there was a significant number of homes and buildings impacted.’’

Leaders of the Massachusetts Legislature also toured the damaged areas yesterday and pledged to help out in any way, including providing additional state funds if necessary. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said he was willing to dip into the state’s approximately $600 million Rainy Day Fund.

In Springfield, officials said they are looking for about 100 housing units to accommodate displaced residents. Citizens Bank donated $25,000 to help pay for security deposits for people to move into apartments. Most of the displaced have been staying at Central High School, but with the school slated to open Monday for classes, an alternate site must be found, officials said.

Other schools remain temporarily closed. Elias Brookings School and Mary Dryden Elementary schools were heavily damaged and preschool has been canceled at five sites throughout the city. Cathedral High School and St. Mark’s School have also been closed, and the city is looking for alternate sites for those students for the remaining 12 days of classes.

Springfield’s fire department will be going house-to-house in the neighborhoods affected, handing out information about assistance and performing well-being checks, according to deputy fire chief Joseph Conant. Drinking water is safe and there was no structural damage to the city’s sewage system.

Billy Baker, Brian R. Ballou, John R. Ellement, and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this story.