Montana Phipps was supposed to go out for a run with a friend after school, but the dark storm clouds squelched their plans. So on June 1, she was in her bedroom at the end of Stewart Avenue, with a view across her neighborhood of wide lawns, hedges, and leafy trees in Monson, a town of some 8500 people nestled in a valley about two hours' drive west of Boston. Her grandmother called with tornado warnings. A friend texted alerts.
"I looked out my window and saw the tornado in the distance. It was big and dark, like a monster," the 14-year-old tells me. "We had like two minutes to get in the basement. I got my [two older] sisters into the basement and pushed my dogs in and I held onto a pole for my life. I could hear the trees breaking and glass shattering and the house move. So I look up and I see insulation everywhere and I see the house getting lifted up. I was thinking I was going to die. I didn't think I was going to see the next day."
The red, three-story house slid back from its foundation several feet and collapsed backward, splintering to bits, and in places tumbling down upon itself and into the cellar. Then the tornado was gone. Montana and her sisters called their mom and dad at work, yelling into their cell phones because the tornado had temporarily shot their hearing. As their parents raced home, the teens called 911. Within minutes, three neighbors arrived to help them climb from behind a broken chimney and out of the now-exposed cellar. There was lightning, and people glancing up worried another tornado would hit. Houses were smashed. Trees and live powerlines were down everywhere. But the teens were unscathed.
For a generation, America has been focused on every-man-for-himself individualism. But in Monson, I witnessed a different venerable national tradition: when community tragedy strikes in America — from 9/11 to tornadoes — neighbors rally and volunteers come from all around to help out.
In the center of town, wreckage of the steeple of the First Church of Monson Congregational lies where it fell across the white clapboard church's front lawn. But on the side, women sit at tables under awnings, directing volunteers. In the church kitchen, women prepare meals for relief workers.
As I talk to the Phipps family, Steve Baer walks up the hill, pulling a cart behind him. He's been giving out cold drinks and a few hundred burgers and hot dogs a day. "I'm just from town. You look out from the porch of our house, which is okay, you see the perimeter of destruction. This is the least we can do."
Some will argue that the reaction and recovery along the path of the tornado shows that we don't need government's help. But the volunteers in Monson are, in fact, a model for what government can be. Government is far from perfect, but neighbors helping neighbors only goes so far when the grandmother living next door regularly struggles to pay the mortgage and medical bills and the laid-off guy down the street still can't find work. For too many today, the everyday is extraordinary, and only through the reach and resources of government can we extend to them the helping hand so clearly working in Monson.
Let the neighbors coming together in Monson be our role models: we take care of our own.
The American Red Cross of Central and Western Massachusetts (redcrosscwm.org) and United Way of Pioneer Valley (uwpv.org) are among the legit groups collecting donations for tornado relief. Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.