Life seemed pretty ordinary in Central Massachusetts before the tornado of June 1, 2011 carved a destructive path through the area. Pia Rogers, owner of Sturbridge Coffee House, and her family were visiting friends at B.T.’s Smokehouse when she received a call from her staff saying that a tornado was closing in on Sturbridge.
Rogers was aware of the tornado warning, but she had little idea of what destruction could lie ahead. She instructed her staff to close the shop and that they could go downstairs to take cover or leave if they were more comfortable. She then went over to the coffee shop. The staff had already locked up the business and had vacated the premises. Relieved that her staff was safe, she headed back to B.T’s Smokehouse, to check on her family, who had stayed at the restaurant.
“On my way back, it started hailing. I poked my head in the door at the Smokehouse and said, ‘You guys should come check this out,’’ said Rogers.
When her family and friends came outside, they observed toilet paper and dirt flying around. She remembers that one of the cooks at B.T.’s Smokehouse was hit in the head with a large hailstone.
Rogers looked at the sky, in the direction of nearby Admiral T.J. O’Brien’s restaurant.
“What is that?” she asked someone at the scene. Rogers can’t recall who replied.
“I think that’s a tornado,” someone in her group said.
Rogers and her husband decided to check on her mother, who lived alone in Brimfield, before checking on their own home in Monson. They had to take an indirect route to the Brimfield residence because of blockages at the main roads. Rogers’ husband went ahead to check on his mother-in-law and Rogers stayed behind with their daughter, Claire. Rogers and her daughter then heard on the radio that there could be more tornado activity approaching the area.
“So, Claire and I quickly ran to the shelter in Brimfield and we went downstairs. Many of my customers were there. It was so funny, but so weird because I still didn’t understand what was going on,” commented Rogers.
There was no cell phone service in the shelter, so she went upstairs at one point to make calls and to check on other family members. When she went upstairs, her phone rang immediately. It was a friend of hers from Plymouth with close ties to the Monson police.
“Pia, the Monson police want to know where you are,” her friend said.
“And I was like, ‘I am in a shelter in Brimfield, why?’” recalls Rogers.
“Because your house is gone,” the friend informed Rogers, who was incredulous at the news.
“I said, ‘Well, how do you know?’ She knew because the police had told her. Still, I just didn’t quite understand or believe it,” explained Rogers.
She tried to call her husband but could not get in touch with him, so she left for Monson with her daughter.
As she arrived in Monson, Rogers recalls that the sky was an unsettling and strange greenish hue. She remembers the distinct smell of pine trees and electrical fires wafting through the area. The air was heavy and humid.
“It was weird. I will never forget that smell,” she says.
She approached her property on foot, unable to drive all the way to the house. Rogers and four-year-old Claire began to run in flip-flops toward the house to survey the damage. Claire quickly became tired, but a neighbor offered to watch the child. Rogers ran ahead to see what damage had been done.
“I went down there and I was like, ‘I don’t understand what is going on. Where did the house go?’ I just remember standing there and not knowing what to do. And it was getting dark,” remembers Rogers.
Rogers’ house was not just severely damaged. It had been in effect removed from the property by the force of the tornado. Fractured and scattered contents of the household were all that remained. There were no signs of any of the household furniture, appliances or other large items. The rock and stone foundation of the 1889 house was only partially discernible.
“There was water shooting out on the property because we had town water. I just stood there in shock. Kids were walking by and stealing coins off the lawn, and I was like, ‘Put that back! It’s not yours!’” Rogers recalls.
Although large household items had been carried away with the tornado, other small items remained. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to what was swept away and what remained.
“I had a shoe cleaner on my porch – one of those mats that you can use to clean your shoes before going in. That was five feet from where it had been. And the tornado moved the granite steps a short distance, but they were still there,” Rogers describes.
Some details of that day and the weeks following the tornado are hazy from the shock of the extreme loss. Rogers says that occasionally when people mention that they visited her in the days following the tornado, she has no memory of the visit. Other details are burned into her memory with vivid permanence.
“I saw the bedroom floors, flipped over. My son’s ceiling and bedroom floor were on the neighbor’s house, across the street. And our bedroom floor had flipped over onto the neighbor’s house,” Rogers says, recalling the aftermath.
She remembers combing the property with her family and she recalls many friends, neighbors and even strangers who helped out. There were moments of comic relief as well in the days following the tornado.
“One little girl came running over and said, ‘I found your pet fish!’’ relates Rogers. “And I thought, ‘That’s not our fish,’” she shares with a chuckle.
Rogers’ children were ages four and eight at the time. The family didn’t bring them to the see the property for about two weeks after the tornado, but when they did, the children seemed to approach the site as a treasure hunt.
“They thought it was kind of fun because they were finding little chips of their things around. I was thinking, ‘This is not fun,’’ shared Rogers.
Life changed dramatically for Rogers after the tornado. She lost nearly everything and she struggled to adjust to the “new normal,” but there have also been unexpected blessings.
“Not that you want to remember the tornado, but also good things have come from it. The house that I had before, it was a work in progress. Every time we turned around, it was another project,” she shares.
Rogers now lives in a house where there aren’t as many maintenance tasks involved. As a result, she has more time with her family.
“The most I have to do is paint something. So, some good came of it,” she says. “We only re-purchased stuff we really needed, so we don’t have clutter.”
Rogers still owns the land in Monson where her former house stood, seven years after the storm.
“We still get mail there. The kids and I go and walk on the land. The landscaper still comes and mows for us. I just don’t want it to get out of hand and make more work for me later,” Rogers says.
The possibility of finding personal items on the property lingers. Rogers knows that with each rainfall and change of season, new items could be unearthed. Last year, a surprising find on the lot provided a connection to her family and her past. Rogers conveys the excitement of the discovery when she tells the story.
“I was up there with the kids and there was a little hill. And I found a stone. An aquamarine stone that my mother had given me in a ring, in high school. There it was,’ she relates. “I couldn’t believe I found that stone.”
Other items that they find on the property are more ordinary. “We found an AC/DC tape the other day, and I just thought, ‘Really? Why can’t we find something that’s worth something?’” she laughs.
During visits to the property in Monson, Rogers sometimes wonders where other stuff ended up, and how long it could take to discover parts of her former home, even though she says that she doesn’t get as attached to things anymore.
“I always think about this, a hundred years from now when kids are exploring and saying, “How did this freezer get in the middle of nowhere?” Rogers reflects.
She hopes to see a few items.
“I had this sapphire and diamond ring that I really liked and I never found it,” Rogers shares. “I thought, what if someone finds it someday and they think, ‘What is this ring doing here?’ I would love it if somebody ever found it and they would say something,”
Rogers has a painting that commemorates the tornado, created by artist Ashley Decelle. Rogers added a variety of found objects from her previous household to the canvas to create a striking reminder of the life-changing event.
“The painting has pieces from all these things I found later, like a piece from my kids’ Sesame Street plate. My daughter’s little bracelet. All different miscellaneous chips of things,” she shares.
The advice she would give to others is practical in terms of emergency preparedness. Have a family emergency plan, a meeting place and a way to contact each other. Carry back up battery chargers. Document your belongings and store the information in a secure place.
Her best advice though involves family and touches upon what she has learned about impermanence.
“Hug your kids every day and be grateful for what you have. No matter what. My motto is to do it today because you might not be here tomorrow.”