December 6, 2022

One Month Later

Gaylord rebuilds following deadly tornado
By Jillian Manning | July 2, 2022

On May 20, 2022, a tornado tore a 16.5-mile path through Gaylord and other parts of Otsego County with 140-mph winds that leveled homes and businesses, caused several deaths, and sent dozens of people to the hospital. Though the news cycle has moved on and the busy summer season is underway, the work in Gaylord is only just beginning as the community continues to assess the full scope of the damage and seek solutions for rebuilding.

From Touchdown to Cleanup
Tornados are a rare sight in northern Michigan, so rare that counties like Otsego County don’t even have tornado sirens. The county uses the CodeRED system, which sends alerts via text to cell phones or via a call on your landline (the latter if you have signed up for the county service). On that fateful Friday in Gaylord, an alert went out eight minutes prior to the EF-3 tornado’s arrival.

Gaylord’s City Manager Kim Awrey calls the CodeRED system “the 2020 version of a tornado siren” and says when she got the alert on her phone, it was not something that could be ignored.

“It was very loud,” she recalls of the alert triggered by the National Weather Service. “[CodeRED] reaches far more people than a tornado signal in downtown Gaylord would have reached. Other people outside of town would never have heard [a siren] anyway.”

The tornado was the first of its kind in Gaylord, but Awrey believes that the first responder reaction was quick despite the unprecedented circumstances. An incident command center was set up within 45 minutes to coordinate the fire department, EMS, police, hospital, and city personnel. Awrey says that they were lucky to have support from Verizon and AT&T—which quickly brought in services to support the spotty cell service following the storm—and from Consumers Energy, which sent in 100 crews Friday night and worked with the Department of Public Works to get lines cleared, roads opened, and power restored within 48 hours.

In the days that followed, the DPW also took in and handled the cleanup of 30,000 yards of vegetative debris. But perhaps even more impressive was the community volunteerism, especially the first weekend after the tornado.

“It was amazing to see,” Awrey says. “About 1,500 volunteers showed up on Sunday. It was amazing that our roads were cleaned and people’s yards were cleaned, and they were able to get the debris hauled away.”

Paul Beachnau, executive director at the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau, echoes the sentiment. “There’s a silver lining in every cloud, and it has brought our community together. It’s brought people together, and it’s made us more conscious of our neighbors.”

What Comes Next
But even though Awrey says the immediate response couldn’t have been better, the damage was done. More than 300 homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, including 47 homes in the Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park and multiple buildings in Gaylord’s business corridor, two areas that were hit especially hard.

The dollars keep adding up too, with millions in damage estimated throughout the county, though the final figure will take time to unveil. At this point, Awrey says Gaylord has not reached FEMA’s threshold for economic destruction, though they are waiting to find out if they qualify for funding based on the impact on the community. There is also hope for reimbursement from the state if federal aid does not come through.

“We’re getting to the end of our budget year,” Awrey says. “Obviously, we’re going to have expenses that we never anticipated on having at this point in time. We’re … trying to get the cleanup done and not spend a lot of the taxpayers’ money to do that without knowing exactly what the reimbursement is going to be and how long it’s going to take to get that reimbursement.”

So what can neighboring northern Michiganaders do to help? Donations of time and dollars are still welcome and necessary for organizations like the United Way and the Otsego Community Foundation (more on the latter below). But Awrey says another solution is just as critical: helping Gaylord move on with normal life.

“We definitely welcome people back to town,” she says, noting that Gaylord is at a point where it’s time to “rebuild what needs to be rebuilt and just move forward.”

Beachnau says that tourism resources like hotels, downtown, golf courses, and natural areas were largely untouched by the tornado. He adds that events and activities like the annual Alpenfest (July 12-16) are on track, as is an observance and celebration of Gaylord’s centennial.

“Our message from the tourism bureau has been to continue your trip,” says Beachnau. “A lot of people that were affected need to get back to work; they need to get back to their jobs in a strong, successful, vibrant economy.”

A Long Road Ahead
Even as the summer marches on, it will be a while before life goes back to normal for the Otsego Community Foundation (OCF). The organization normally focuses on local philanthropy, but even a quick visit to their homepage shows disaster relief has taken center stage.

Dana Bensinger, OCF’s executive director, says that once she knew her family was safe, her first contact after the tornado hit was to Treetops Resort to see if they had rooms for displaced tornado victims. And though power, internet, and phone lines were down around the region, Bensinger managed to connect with other community foundation leaders across the state to get input on how to handle a crisis of this magnitude in her backyard.

By 9pm that Friday night, OCF had already established a tornado relief fund. Bensinger had originally hoped the fund would raise $100,000. To date, it has rallied more than 1,300 donors whose generosity exceeds the $1.2 million milestone. (Go to otsegofoundation.org to see more.)

The fund focuses on three phases: immediate relief, short-term recovery, and long-term rebuilding. At the time of this article, OCF has awarded $390,000 in grants from the fund, including $140,000 in the “immediate relief” phase to United Way for providing shelter and basic needs items and services to tornado victims.

Another grant—one of the largest in the foundation’s history, according to Bensinger—has been awarded to Habitat for Humanity for the “short-term recovery” phase to help with critical repairs to homes that have had minor or major damage but were not completely destroyed. This will help people get out of temporary housing and back into their homes.

A third grant that Bensinger mentions as particularly impactful is to Michigan Disaster Response and Recovery. It will support the hiring of two disaster management caseworkers to work alongside tornado victims, helping them get access to community resources for everything from building a new home to replacing items that were lost or broken in the storm like eyeglasses.

But even $1 million can only put so much of a dent into the total damage costs the tornado incurred. Bensinger explains that Gaylord is “a service desert” when it comes to disaster-relief organizations and infrastructure, so much of her time is spent looking for nonprofits around the region and the state with expertise in recovery.

“Disaster relief is all new to us,” she says. “We say it’s a marathon—there are some really challenging, hilly, lonely miles.”

As such, Bensinger admits that “what was adrenaline is kind of starting to feel like exhaustion” as OCF continues to look for new routes to meet the evolving needs of the community.

“We’ve explored many solutions, but it’s like every solution has 12 barriers,” she says.

This is particularly true in the case of long-term housing, and Bensinger says that there are families still staying in hotels to the tune of $1,000 a week. But the frustrating trifecta of a housing shortage, high cost of supplies, and limited contractors makes rebuilding a challenge. She gives an example of how OCF found a potential opportunity with RVs, which could offer a shelter solution this summer, but campgrounds in the area are full and staying on private land requires considerations like insurance, septic, and electric generation.

But the marathon still has miles to go, and so does OCF.

“We’re in this together,” Bensinger says, “and I sure hope that the rest of the community and surrounding communities can continue to see us through.”

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