After Deadly Tornadoes, Massachusetts Town Trying to Heal

MONSON, Mass.-- A strong, spring sun reflected off the canopy and folding chairs set up behind Monson High School on Wednesday, setting a placid stage for graduation ceremonies a week after a tornado tore up the small town.

Less than a mile away, houses and yards on Main Street remained buried under trees and the town office building was a roofless shell. Damaged houses that weren't obliterated were covered in blue tarp. Exactly when things will get back to normal was uncertain.

But on that soccer field, behind the high school, life's traditions went forward. Seniors in caps and gowns, some holding flowers, laughed as they walked to their seats with their families.

School officials chose to have graduation outside this year for the first time, to make room for anyone in town to come.

"It's the first part of the healing process to be outside enjoying the company and celebrating," said Principal Andrew Linkenhoker.

Kathleen Norbut, whose son is a freshman at the high school, said students stepped up to help the rest of the community rebuild.

"This is their town," she said. "We're sending them off just a mile from their town, which is in debris. We're sending them with prayers, blessings, and balloons and hope."

Tornadoes ripped up communities in central and western parts of the state June 1. Three people died. Monson was one of the hardest hit towns. Not surprisingly, the effects of the twister were still being felt, as some families discovered that homes they thought were slightly damaged were actually structurally unsound.

"It's beginning to set in with some of our students," Linkenhoker said. "It's almost like a second wave of grief."

The high school graduated 103 students Wednesday evening. Class president Alex Joseph spoke at the ceremony a week after his house was destroyed.

Gov. Deval Patrick offered remarks after attending an interfaith prayer service earlier at Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield that was also hit hard by the storms.

He greeted the crowd by saying, ""Hello, Monson ... I wanted to crash the party."

Calling the graduates the "tornado class," the governor said the tornadoes brought out the best of Monson.

"We will rebuild. We will renew. We will rebound," Patrick said.

Norbut, also Monson's emergency management director, said one week wasn't long enough to put a disaster in this tight-knit town of 8,500 into perspective. She said the realization of how hard it will be to recover and rebuild is replacing the initial shock. Mixed in with that is frustration with the process of getting federal and state aid, she said.

"It's a bureaucracy and it's a slow-moving bureaucracy," she said. "It's an upside down pyramid. The local community has the greatest need and the fewest resources. We need to flip that pyramid."

At the makeshift town offices in an abandoned former school building, town administrator Gretchen Neggers tried to conduct business Wednesday relying on her cell phone's fading battery, and looked forward to graduation.

"Things are not back to normal," she said. "People have better days and they have worse days, but it's clearly in a cycle. ... The ceremony is something for the community."

At her house Wednesday afternoon with her mother, senior Laura Sauriol prepared for graduation.

During the storm, Sauriol set up a Facebook page from her basement so that people could communicate and get help where it was needed. The work she did to coordinate the efforts had her thinking of majoring in management when she heads to Westfield State in Massachusetts next fall.

She said she hadn't thought much about graduating in recent days.

"Maybe when I get there tonight it will hit me," she said.

Sauriol said she has thought more about what was lost in the tornado, and what wasn't.

"You realize the things you think are important, sometimes aren't," she said.