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One year later, recovery, healing continues following Waverly tornado

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WAVERLY - “There was a lot of sadness and, to be frank, there still is.”

Feb. 24, 2016 transformed the community of Waverly, the county of Sussex and much of the commonwealth as a line of dangerous and life-changing thunderstorms swelled into cells that spawned tornadoes across a seven-hour period of time.

In their wake, lives were transformed and that was no more apparent than in the Town of Waverly, where an EF-1 tornado ripped through the town, destroying several mobile homes and businesses and claiming the lives of three residents, including a young child.

That date is etched into the minds of those who lived through the 2016 tornado, where residents can recall with full clarity of where they were when their town became a target of nature’s fury.

For longtime Waverly resident and mayor Walter Mason, he and two other men were near U.S. Route 460 and Route 40 at the, then, BP gas station campaigning for the upcoming town elections when the weather began to change rapidly.

“All of a sudden, it started raining really hard and the wind just started raging and the sky got really dark and I told them, ‘Hey man, we gotta get out of here, something is happening,’” Mason recalled.

Choosing to head home, Mason said he was on the computer when he heard a common sound.

“It sounded like a train was coming,” he said. “I just stood there baffled. I was thinking, “There are no trains up here! The sound just got louder and louder and I was just waiting for it to hit something because that’s how close it was,” Mason remarked, estimating the cyclone missed their home by a mere 50 feet.

“We were fortunate and blessed that it didn’t touch our house, but it came right by it,” he said.

In the minutes after the tornado, residents made their way outside to survey the damage and came to realize that this storm was unlike the typical thunderstorms that move through the area.

Debris littered the roads leading into and out of the Town of Waverly, twisted metal and broken tree limbs accompanied pieces of people’s homes and damaged cars, and the stark realization that members of their community had perished in the storm.

“I saw these people gathered by the laundromat and I went there, but couldn’t get there,” Mason remarked. “Then, someone stopped me and said, ‘They just found Larry Turner and his house had blown away and he’s dead.’”

50-year-old Turner was one of three victims of the Feb. 24 tornado that also claimed the lives of 26-year-old Devine Stringfield and 2-year-old Ian Lewis.

“Larry was a friend and my cousin and I think of him often,” Mason shared. “When I saw his mother, it was just devastating. I got as close as I could get to his house and tried to console the people there. My condolences still go out to the families of those who were lost in the disaster.”

As the community mourned, they unified and helped one another, offering their hands, equipment, and physical and emotional support as they worked to pick up the pieces. For Waverly, tornadoes are not uncommon, with a weak EF-0 tornado touching down in the town in 2014, causing minor damage to homes and businesses, but something to the scale of the Feb. 2016 storm was a rarity.

“We have had tornadoes, but they were light ones,” the mayor said. “I have been here through hurricanes, devastating ones, but not tornadoes.”

As part of the recovery, requests were made by the Town of Waverly, along with a number of localities to receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, but all those requests were denied by the federal agency, stating the tornadoes “was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the commonwealth, affected local governments and voluntary agencies."

While the assistance would have been helpful in the town’s recovery, Mason admitted, he said the town’s efforts to garner other grant and aid funding has helped Waverly reach approximately 80 percent recovery.

“While I was not in office at that time, I would have liked and hoped that Waverly could have gotten that, but I don’t put all my marbles in one box, so to speak.” he said.

According to the mayor, the town is in the midst of applying for a tornado relief grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, totaling $700,000. Through those funds, which will be managed by the Waverly Methodist Church, there are plans to repair dozens of homes that were impacted by the storms across Sussex County.

“$700,000 is a tremendous amount of money for this town and we have been working really hard, in conjunction with the county, HUD and Wakefield, on this grant since last July,” Mason said, adding that the town will need volunteers to help with various projects once that funding comes through within the next several months.

In the weeks and months following the tornado, Mason said the town has been committed to enhancing community and public safety, re-implementing an emergency call system that allows residents and anyone else to sign up at town hall for phone alerts from the town and looking at additional ways to keep the people of Waverly safe.

“If anything goes wrong, tornado or otherwise, they will receive a notification,” he said. “We are also looking to establish a siren. Back when I was a child, we had a siren on the water tower and during any emergency, that siren would go off. So we are looking to try and put some funds toward that.”

The scars of the Feb. 2016 tornado are still visible around town despite the significant recovery, helping keep that day in the forefront of the minds of Waverly’s own. Mason remains thankful to those who helped his community recover after last year’s devastating events.

“I truly thank everyone who assisted us, like Waste Management who provided a dumpster for us, and all the volunteers from different parts of the state and locally,” the mayor remarked.