📸 Mark Cruz courtesy photo of damage in the immediate aftermath of a tornado in Webster on Saturday morning.
At least two buildings to be torn down due to damage
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
WEBSTER — As many as 50 locals are homeless and one woman suffered minor injuries after a tornado tore through downtown Webster on Saturday morning.
The National Weather Service has confirmed a tornado touched down in Webster around 10:30 a.m., though, through a Tweet, NWS officials said they are “continuing to survey the damage, will take quite some time to determine strength, path-length, etc.”
In a Saturday afternoon press conference on scene, Webster Fire Chief Brian Hickey estimated 30-50 people have been left homeless in the tornado’s aftermath. He said a better estimate would be available after the American Red Cross completes its processing from the Webster Police Department and Webster Senior Center.
Buildings to be demolished
Hickey, who also serves as the town’s Emergency Management Director, said at least two buildings would be torn down on Saturday, with at least one other possibility to be assessed further. The buildings at 42 and 46 Main Street will be torn down “because they’re just structurally unsafe,” the fire chief asserted. He added 56 Main Street and other properties would be assessed by the building commissioner “in the next day or two.”
The roof of one building was ripped up by the tornado and fell atop a nearby building and onto the street, hitting a vehicle and causing minor injuries to a motorist.
“The roof was torn completely off the first building and a lot of the damage from that building landed on the middle building and damaged the backside of that building, so its structurally unsafe,” Hickey said. He later noted that the roof membrane from 42 Main Street remains hanging over the front facade of 56 Main Street, a vacant building that was once home to a small grocery store. Of the three buildings highlighted in the press briefing, officials said 42 Main Street was the only one currently occupied, serving as a mix of residential and commercial occupants, including Shear Elegance Beauty Salon and Downtown Tattoos. As a precaution, crews taking down the buildings are operating under the assumption the structures contain hazardous materials such as asbestos. “Everything that is being torn down is being treated as hazardous waste,” Hickey said.
Hickey reported there were people inside at least one of the three brick structures on Main Street when the tornado came through Webster, but none of the occupants were hurt.
Records from the Webster Assessors’ Office indicate all three buildings were built in 1900, and each has a different owner. According to assessors’ records, 42 Main Street, which features more than 8,000 square feet of space, is owned by Mary and John Konicki of Charlton; 46 Main Street is owned by Hometown Property Group, Inc., of West Boylston and has nearly 6,100 square feet; and 56 Main Street is owned by Sophia and Vassilios Siozopoulos of Dudley, featuring more than 6,400 square feet.
“Minor injuries” to motorist reported
An unidentified woman suffered “minor injuries” after a tree and “structural debris” fell on her vehicle on Main Street. She has since been treated for her injuries and released.
“They were driving down the main street when the tornado came through,” Hickey said. “The roof of this first building came off and it landed on the second and third buildings, and part of it landed on top of her car.”
Considering the extent of the physical damage to buildings and the number of downed trees and limbs, officials expressed relief only one person had been reported to have suffered a minor injury. Hickey said the town was “extremely lucky, very fortunate” to avoid major injuries or loss of life.
The fire chief credited technological advances in helping prevent further injuries.
“The warnings that come out, now thankfully everyone has cell phones now, I’m sure most of you got a tornado warning on your phone, MEMA puts out a lot of stuff, the [National] Weather Service puts out a lot of stuff, so thankfully with social media today it’s easy for us to get a lot of information out quickly, and it does help quite a bit,” Hickey said.
He added: “Immediately, our first concern was obviously the safety of the residents of this area and making sure there was nobody else that was hurt, so thankfully no other injuries other than the minor injury in the car.”
Crews continue to assess, work toward normalcy
Shortly after 2 p.m., Hickey said “most” of Webster’s electricity had been restored by National Grid, with the power outage “contained to the downtown area.” He said Main Street would likely reopen “probably tomorrow sometime.”
On Twitter, State Representative Joe McKenna said the tornado’s path appeared to run nearly 1 1/2 miles.
Congressman Jim McGovern expressed his gratitude for emergency response efforts and pledged to work to assist in dealing with the tornado’s aftermath.
Mutual aid was utilized in one form or another from the neighboring communities of Douglas, Dudley, Oxford, and Southbridge, while a number of other agencies and officials have arrived on scene as well.
“We just want to thank everyone, especially all the emergency responders, they did a great job getting here as fast as they could. We also had a lot of help from the state, from other agencies; National Grid has been great, even Lt. [Gov.] Karyn Polito called us, so we appreciate all the effort and time that they’ve given to us, and MEMA as well,” said Webster Town Administrator Doug Willardson. “We’ll get this cleaned up as soon as we can.”
Representatives from MEMA are conducting numerous damage assessments in the area. Hickey said much of the damage was reported as “extensive trees and limbs down in backyards, on top of cars, porches, that sort of thing.”
As cleanup continues, locals are reminded and encouraged to avoid any downed power lines or cables.
“Obviously if you see any kind of line on the ground that comes off a telephone pole treat it as it is live,” Hickey said. “There’s always a good chance that it could be live so treat it as such.”
While Webster appears to have been hardest hit, the tornado also caused damage to other communities. The neighboring town of Dudley was also impacted, primarily along the French River. In a Tweet on Saturday afternoon, the town’s official account advised: “Dudley Public Safety and MEMA is assessing the tornado damage from this morning in the area between the French River and Schofield Avenue where several homes were damaged and numerous trees and power lines down. Please drive with caution as traffic signals may not be working!”
The National Weather Service also confirmed on Saturday afternoon that a separate tornado touched down on the west side of Woodstock, Conn., with damage to two corn fields and an oak tree split in two. Initial estimates from NWS show a path length of one-block and a width of eight yards.