Volunteers begin sorting through the wreckage of a building leveled by a tornado in Conway on Feb. 25. Photo courtesy of Adam Caron
When a tornado hit Conway in the early evening on Saturday, Feb. 25, both Town Administrator Thomas Hutcheson and Emergency Management Director Dave Chichester happened to be out of town — the former on vacation in Puerto Rico and the latter in Maine.
Fortunately, the town had a resident volunteer with a particular set of skills that matched that temporary gap in expertise — Patricia Vinchesi, the town administrator in Scituate and a veteran of devastating winter storms and acts of nature.
Vinchesi filled in for two days as the acting town administrator and public information officer for the town, taking Monday as a vacation day from Scituate after checking with her own Board of Selectmen, as Conway began its recovery efforts from the EF-1 tornado that caused substantial damage and utility outages, but fortunately no deaths or serious injuries.
The tornado’s path ultimately took it into neighboring Goshen, along the way damaging at least 12 homes, two barns and a church, according to reports, while felling hundreds of trees and knocking down power lines.
After waking up on Sunday and finding her home still without power from the night before, Vinchesi said she found out about the tornado that drove a path near her home. Knowing that the small town of 1,900 could use any help it could get, she went to Town Hall to volunteer in any way she could.
“I love the town,” she said. “When you live in a tiny, tiny town for 30 years almost, you know almost everybody – those people that were affected and lost their property … What could I do but help?”
She got in contact with Conway Selectboard Chair John O’Rourke and met him at Town Hall. Vinchesi asked how she could help, and O’Rourke asked if she’d consider serving as acting town administrator.
“You know when these things start there’s a period of chaos that happens,” O’Rourke said. “Getting through that initial period is important. Tricia has handled numerous emergencies down in Scituate. When we initially spoke, I immediately knew that we needed somebody with her skillset on scene to help organize things. That was very important in the initial stages. She was very helpful.”
Along with fellow selectmen Bob Armstrong and Robert Baker, who is also the town’s fire chief and the incident commander for the recovery operation, O’Rourke convened an emergency meeting to designate Vinchesi as acting town administrator.
Vinchesi stressed that she was happy to volunteer in any form and that the response was a team effort, from the other local volunteers, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
An initial meeting got the necessary resources lined up, including many local volunteers, she said. All involved began following the emergency protocols to address issues and get information out to residents.
“All three board members never left, and the resource we had in MEMA in the initial hours as the sun came up was invaluable, as well as DCR,” Vinchesi said. “Once you start to marshal state and county resources, I knew the town was in good hands when we had all that expertise coming to help.”
O’Rourke lauded the work and resources offered by MEMA and DCR, along with Eversource, the Northwest Massachusetts Incident Management Team, county building and electrical inspectors, and emergency management personnel from surrounding towns.
“It was very important that all those agencies came in early Sunday morning, and then we were able to figure out where to put people, what information we needed, and how to assess the different situations we were dealing with,” he said. “Tricia had some pretty good experience at doing that, so she was very helpful in saying, ‘This is what we need to do,’ and discussing it with me.”