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Flashbacks and fears a year after the tornado

The little boy couldn’t stop sobbing. As the late afternoon turned dark and the fierce winds and rains of a tornado battered his house, Dante Dailey, 7, was just too scared. Every time his mother tried to reassure Dante that it was just a bad storm, he shrieked the same thing:

“I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”

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One year after a series of tornadoes devastated a 39-mile stretch of Western Massachusetts, including at least seven schools, children of all ages from Monson, Brimfield, Springfield and West Springfield still fear a recurrence of the worst storm of their young lives.

Dante Dailey of Monson, whose terror was recorded inadvertently on his mother’s cell phone, still struggles with the memory and doesn’t want to discuss it. Likewise, Ibone Guerrero of West Springfield, whose mother died shielding her from the debris of their collapsing house, has declined requests for an interview.

Some children, like the daughter of third grade teacher Judy Medina, can seem fine until something happens that brings back the memory of being trapped on a schoolbus when the storm descended.

“She remembers it like there’s no tomorrow,” said Medina, whose school, the Elias Brookings Elementary School in Springfield, was destroyed in the tornado. “She doesn’t even want to ride on the bus. [Her grandmother] picks her up from school now because she can’t.”

Mental health professionals say that some children are suffering longterm psychological damage. Officials at the Riverside Trauma Center in Needham say they’ve worked directly with more than 50 children who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder related to the tornadoes, under an arrangement with the state.

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“It’s been the fear. It’s been the outright crying and hiding. It’s just very classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where it’s flashback time,” said Patricia Hempel, a licensed mental health clinician based in Southbridge.

Christopher Lisojo, 12, of West Springfield, is seeing a therapist every two weeks to treat his symptoms of PTSD from the tornado, which destroyed his family’s house while they hid in the basement. Christopher saw the approaching tornado from his porch and barely had time to take shelter before the wind ripped off one of the walls.

“You know how they say people in the military, when they come back from war have flashbacks and end up going crazy but they don’t realize they are having flashbacks? Sometimes I get that during school, but I don’t tell anyone,” said Christopher, a student at the Renaissance School in Springfield.

Dr. James Canning, who has worked with 10 to 15 children suffering storm-related anxiesties at Valley Psychiatric Services in Springfield, said symptoms of PTSD in children can range from lack of sleep, anxiety, flashbacks, and fear that the tornado is coming again.

“Anxiety would be the primary symptom, kids are anxious and don’t sleep well; [they are] fearful of going out of the house,” said Canning, adding that some patients don’t show any symptoms until long after the traumatic event.

Terry Powe, principal of the Elias Brookings Elementary School -- which is housed in temporary facilities until a permanent school can be constructed -- said he’s seen more behavior problems this year. He’s also overheard more chatter of children fretting about the weather.

“We had a cloud come over the other day and the kids were saying that they hoped that there wasn’t going to be another tornado,” said Powe. “I definitely think there is some trauma of some sort that they associate with the weather, based on what happened.”

Powe said that the ongoing trauma affects children differently and is a case-by-case situation.

“It depends on where they were or what their situation was like during that time during the storm and how traumatic it was for them,” said Powe. “I’m sure some of the kids that went through it do get scared and nervous, and some of them will never forget what happened.”

Children who experience PTSD can benefit from different types of therapy ranging from talking, art, creative writing, or playing.

Hempel has a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and strongly believes in it’s positive affects in children when they work with pastels, water colors, colored tissue paper, storm boxes and other forms of art. Hempel believes art therapy is most helpful in kid’s trauma.

“It’s not about the product, its about the process,” said Hempel.

“It’s about putting what they are feeling down on paper and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. What matter is they are getting it out from within them and they are getting it down on something, making it something concrete. And that’s the therapeutic piece.”

At Elias Brookings Elementary, several teachers did exercises to help the children think about what they had been through.

Medina said that after she read the third-graders a book about a tornado, the kids started talking about where they were when it hit, hiding in their basements and their bathtubs.

“They were okay, they could relate to the book and they were saying the picture of the twister looked similar,” said Medina. “They still remember where they were, exactly what they were doing, exactly what happened. I think it’s something they’ll never forget.”

But not every student wanted to talk about their experience. One girl refused to talk about it and asked to leave the room whenever the lesson was tornado-focused.

“Other kids will talk about it and how they felt and she is still not ready to move on from that like it’s going to happen again,” said Medina.

The same student started crying one day when the skies got dark and it was raining around one o’clock in the afternoon. She wanted to go home to make sure her mom was okay.

“Parents worry about children and children worry about their parents,” said Canning, adding that, the younger a child is, the more they want to be near parents when traumatic events unfold.

Kim Kern can be reached at klkern16@gmail.com. Noelle Richard can be reached at noellejrich@gmail.com.

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