SPRINGFIELD (CBS) – Thunderstorms break up and sweep across New England every spring and summer. They brighten the sky and bring relief from the heat, they are usually more exciting than terrifying.
But 10 years ago a thunderstorm grew to a level not seen in decades. In the course of 70 minutes, this storm would devastate cities and towns along a 38-mile route from Westfield to Charlton. Three people were killed and another 200 injured. Nobody had seen anything like it since the 1953 Worcester tornado.
Unfortunately, the Americans had already experienced a lot of storms in the months leading up to the June 1, 2011 outbreak. It started with a tornado outbreak in the south in late April, moved to Joplin, Missouri, in May, and then threatened the unlikely location of Massachusetts in early June.
From a forecast perspective, it was abundantly evident that something significant was brewing. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma, outlined New England for severe weather five days earlier. The region was put on alert every day leading up to the incident. And on the afternoon of the 1st, a tornado clock was issued.
Photos from June 1st, 2011: Tornadoes break through Massachusetts
To create the conditions for tornadoes, a warm front with a round of rain and thunderstorms passed through in the course of the morning, some of which were already producing hail. Behind the front, temperatures were hovering into the 80s, along with a large increase in humidity.
WBZ-TV weather producer Terry Eliasen worked all day, noting the more technical variables that meteorologists consider when deciding whether rotating supercell thunderstorms will develop:
- 1) The raised index: This is a model predicted number that we, as weather forecasters, look at during severe weather. The Lifted Index is one of the most common ways to measure how unstable the atmosphere is. The value is obtained by calculating the temperature the air near the ground would have if it were raised to a higher level (about 18,000 feet) and comparing THAT temperature to the actual temperature at that level. Negative values indicate instability … the more negative the number, the more unstable the air. On a typical storm day, we can see LIs between -1 and -5, but on Wednesday the LI was in the -8 to -10 range.
- 2) CAP: This is another important meteorological term that stands for convective available potential energy. Put simply, this is the measure of the amount of energy that is available in the atmosphere for convection (storms). CAPE is directly related to the maximum possible vertical speed within an updraft (in other words, how fast can the air rise during a thunderstorm); thus higher values indicate a greater potential for severe weather. Observed values in thunderstorm environments can often exceed 1,000 joules per kilogram (j / kg) and in extreme cases exceed 5,000 j / kg. Wednesday’s readings were nearing 4,000 joules in western Massachusetts.
- 3) helicity: This is another very important meteorological factor, especially in tornade development. This is perhaps the most difficult to explain. It is a measure of spin in the atmosphere and is measured by looking at a vertical wind profile of the atmosphere. The more wind shear you have (wind blowing in different layers of the atmosphere at different speeds and directions), the greater the rotation within a storm. In general, for any type of significant rotation, you’re looking for a helicity number of 150 or more, and Wednesday readings were between 200 and 300 in the lower 3 km of the atmosphere.
Everything was in place for explosive supercells to form, and they actually did. At around 4 p.m., several of them descended from the Berkshires into the Connecticut River Valley.
At 4:15 p.m., a clear rotating storm that could create a tornado quickly hit Westfield.
And at 4:17 p.m. the first touchdown took place in the Munger Hill district, where the elementary school was damaged.
The first tragic death occurred in West Springfield when Angelica Guerrero was crushed by the collapsing roof. She lay in the bathtub, protecting and covering her 15-year-old daughter. She did everything right, but it wasn’t enough to survive when her house collapsed.
As the tornado targeted downtown Springfield, some of the storm’s most dramatic images occurred. The swirling debris was captured by a tower camera as it leaped across the Connecticut River along Memorial Avenue Bridge.
It was 4:38 pm, and the city has held moments of silence every year since then. Numerous homes and businesses in downtown Springfield were damaged or destroyed. The Island Pond neighborhood would take a big blow, hitting Cathedral High School, St. Michaels, and dozens of homes.
Further, the tornado would follow through Wilbraham before reaching its peak intensity in Monson and Brimfield, where 160 mph winds and EF-3 damage occurred. Here, in the Brimfield State Forest, the tornado would reach its maximum width of half a mile. Monson High School was destroyed along with nearly 10,000 acres of forest. An absolutely terrifying scene would take place in Brimfield at the Village Green Family Campground, where 95 of the 97 motor homes parked there at the time were destroyed and one woman was thrown and killed by hers.
The last stop was in Southbridge, where the city airport was damaged. Finally it picked up in the southwest corner of Charlton. Debris would be found as far as Natick in the east. Although it wasn’t the only tornado of the day. Another supercell to the north, 2 hours later, would skip and produce three short-lived tornadoes in Wilbraham (EF1), North Brimfield (EF1) and Sturbridge (EF0). In the end, the Massachusetts Division of Insurance reported 9,500 claims with a loss of $ 175 million.
Years later, the scar dug in the ground was visible to anyone driving along the way or flying over it. Kinked trees marked the way along Route 20 or for travelers coming onto I-84 in Sturbridge. And in winter, the disappearance of the trees was so remarkable that snow filled the scar and appeared on satellite imagery, giving a distinctive outline from space that perfectly traced the path of destruction. A decade later, it was one of the first winters that the scar was barely visible. Nature is slowly healing, but the memories of the survivors will remain for the rest of their lives.