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A year later; Still living in chaos.

Byline: Craig S. Semon

BRIMFIELD - It's been almost a year since a vicious tornado churned through this community and upended the lives of many people. The initial feelings were ones of thankfulness that they had survived. Then came the reality of coping with damaged or destroyed homes and land. The Telegram & Gazette has been following three families on three roads that experienced the worst of the destruction in less than a minute. Staff reporters George Barnes, Kim Ring and Craig Semon focus today on what their lives are like now.

BRIMFIELD - Life changed, and a year has passed. But the work goes on.

Steven E. Bush and JoAnn F. Kass, husband and wife, said they don't feel as if the tornado's June 1 anniversary is near because they are doing just what they were the day after the storm struck.

"We're still cleaning up," Mr. Bush said. "There are days that I just get totally overwhelmed. There is no doubt about it. The chaos that we live in, it just gets to you every once in awhile. There are days that I really have to sit down and cry."

His wife feels a similar burden. "Every once in awhile, more often than I like, I still look around and think, my God, I can't believe that this really happened," said Ms. Kass. "It is still surreal to me...You see a new house going up. That's very slow. But, around the house, it's still like a war zone. The progress on that is like molasses in the wintertime. It is very, very slow and that's very discouraging."

The earliest the couple expects their new home to be completed is July but they feel that may be wishful thinking on their part. While the interior, basic plumbing and wiring are done, the kitchen, bathrooms, the porch and outside steps have yet to be constructed.

Before the tornado, Mr. Bush and Ms. Kass lived in a colonial at 51 Paige Hill Road on 14 acres with majestic trees and a barn that housed four horses. Their property remains a reminder of the indiscriminate, devastating power of nature. And no matter how hard they try to forget, they remember that day as if it were yesterday.

On June 1, 2011, Ms. Kass came home around 4:45 p.m. Hearing that a bad storm was forecast, she asked her husband if he could help take down some umbrellas and secure a few things. Mr. Bush shrugged. "It's beautiful out. We're not getting a storm," he said.

The couple went inside, turned on the Weather Channel and saw they were in the path of an EF-3 tornado. Then the Emergency Alert System message was broadcast, advising them to take shelter immediately.

"I said to him, `Do we need to go into the cellar? I got horses to feed. I just got home. I got stuff to do.' And he said, `No, I think we're fine,' " Ms. Kass recalled. "And, then, he muted the TV and that's when we could hear it coming. And he said, `Get in the cellar.'"

The couple, along with Ms. Kass' 18-year-old grandson, Joel J. Kass, a Tantasqua Regional High School senior, went downstairs and huddled in the basement. Roughly 45 seconds after that, all hell broke loose.

The tornado took the roof off the house, shattered windows, scattered personal possessions across the neighborhood and likely beyond, toppled and snapped thousands of trees and left the family stunned. Minutes later, they emerged from the basement to look for the horses.

Dakota, an 18-year-old quarter horse, was killed by an airborne camping trailer flung 22 yards. Cajun, a 9-year-old paint, was impaled by a finger-sized piece of wood that penetrated his leg, and he needed medical attention. Another horse had minor cuts and lacerations, and their pony suffered an eye injury.

The couple's home, two cars, horse trailer and barn were destroyed.

"When I came upstairs and looked inside the house, I just went wow. But it never dawned on me the devastation that would be outside," Mr. Bush said. "I saw the dead horse. I was just...stunned...That doesn't begin to describe it."

Cajun had three surgeries at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton and recuperated at a Sturbridge farm. In August he was reunited with his stablemates but had a hard time adjusting. Two weeks ago, Ms. Kass rode Cajun for the first time since the tornado.

"Swinging my leg over that saddle was extremely emotional," she said. "With what that horse has been through, the chances he had for survival...I just could not believe here we were walking off. It was just amazing."

Nature struck another blow April 4, when a tornado debris-fueled brush fire burned 40 to 50 acres nearly in the couple's backyard.

"You start taking it personally. Why is this happening? What is going to be next? It's just unbelievable," Ms. Kass said. "For me, it was pretty tough. It was kind of like the last straw."

Mr. Bush and Ms. Kass said insurance pays nothing toward tree removal on their property and they think the state or federal government should help out because families and their homes are at extreme risk of fire, as was demonstrated in April.

"We're in Brimfield. Everyone lives in the woods. We're not the only people that have this problem," Ms. Kass said. "You got people all over this 39-mile path, that are in the same situation that we're are. They will never be able to clean their land up in their lifetime."

Peter W. Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said his agency doesn't remove trees on private land but coordinates and provides assets to clear public roads and public entities, such as Brimfield State Forest, that are not private property.

"MEMA doesn't touch trees. Our responsibility has been, in any event, to coordinate with communities with whatever state assets we have to open up roads, the public safety piece of it," Mr. Judge said. "My understanding in the (Brimfield) State Park, the crews in there were opening up the fire roads. They weren't in the woods picking up dead trees type of thing. They were keeping those roads' access open so if there were an issue they could actually get equipment up to those areas."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't remove trees either but reimburses communities that have cleared fallen trees and debris, Mr. Judge said. However, communities can't get reimbursed for anything they remove from private property, he said.

"Generally speaking, it's not the government's job to clean up everybody's yard in the country after an event," Mr. Judge said.

While they are grateful for the outpouring of support from family, friends, first responders and countless volunteers, as well as the generosity of Tufts, Mr. Bush and Ms. Kass are now on their own. Their insurance company finally came through and treated them fairly, but any semblance of normalcy has yet to return. They still work every daylight hour, seven days a week, to clean up the property, a task they acknowledge will never be completed in their lifetime.

"I'm not surprised that people think the tornado's over, people rebuilt their houses, they have lawns and everybody's life is back to normal," Ms. Kass said. "Why would they think anything different? I get that. But, it isn't that way. The house is still being built. It's very slow. And we're living in the middle of war zone still, and life is still hard. Living in a trailer is not fun. It leaks when it rains and we have mice. But I wouldn't expect people to know that."

But the couple said they know their list of blessings is longer than their list of complaints. Embracing that notion, along with an unwavering faith and daily dose of humor, has sustained them through the ordeal.

"When you're in a bad situation, you do the best you can," Ms. Kass said. "But, afterward, you realize that as bad as it was, you got through and it could have been worse and there are worse situations out there. If this has to be my worse plight in my life, thank God."

Contact Craig Semon by email at csemon@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: JoAnn Kass and grandson Joel Kass with Cajun, who was injured in the tornado.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 27, 2012
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