Gaylord is continuing the work after a rare tornado wreaked havoc at the northern Michigan resort more than five months ago.
Traces of its destruction are still visible along the city’s main and neighborhood streets. A few shops have been leveled and others are making repairs. Local residents continue to clear debris and work on repairs.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Dana Bensinger, executive director of the Otsego Community Foundation, which has led relief efforts since the May 20 tornado. “It’s a long recovery. We make progress every week.”
The tornado made its first landfall in east Antrim County that Friday afternoon in May and intensified as the funnel moved west through Otsego County, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado was rated an EF-3 – a severe rating – with winds up to 150 mph in and around Gaylord.
Two people were killed and 44 injured when the tornado swept through Gaylord. The tornado damaged more than 200 homes — it tore through a prefabricated housing development — and nearly 40 businesses, mostly along Route 32, west of downtown Gaylord. Trees were downed and cars overturned.
The Otsego Community Foundation, which manages charitable funds to support local causes, took immediate action and established the Tornado Response Fund to raise money for immediate relief, short-term recovery and long-term recovery efforts.
Little Caesars is razed to the ground as the Gaylord community continues to clean up the wreckage.
So far, the organization has raised $1.5 million and distributed nearly $900,000 in gift cards and hotel rooms to help displaced residents with emergencies such as shelter, critical home repairs, vehicle repairs, and more.
“We had a really wonderful response,” says Bensinger. “People from across the state and country have been extremely generous with monetary gifts. It was empowering and overwhelming – to feel that love.”
Unfortunately, despite the severity of the disaster, Gaylord did not meet the threshold criteria for being uninsured for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer assistance. As a result, Gaylord was classified as an “undeclared disaster.” Without the disaster declaration, there was no FEMA assistance to survivors.
However, the community has made efforts to fill this gap. A variety of nonprofit organizations have stepped in, offering auto repairs, gift cards, rental assistance, furniture, appliance purchases, fencing supplies, and garbage removal.
The Otsego-Antrim Habitat for Humanity, for example, has taken the lead in repairing nearly two dozen homes. VETS Inc. (Veterans Education Training and Support, Inc.) has helped survivors repair or source used vehicles. Organizations such as the Otsego County United Way and the E-Free Church have provided money and other services.
To further help victims, the Tornado Response Fund made a grant to Michigan Disaster Response and Recovery to hire case managers. Case managers help victims assess their needs and connect them to services. They help with insurance inquiries, network with providers, government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations to guide survivors through the recovery process.
Though the Tornado Response Fund has had great success helping victims, some efforts have been hampered by the economy and other issues in the wake of the pandemic: inflation, timber tariffs, skills shortages, and disasters along the East Coast, Kentucky, and around the globe.
“The timing was just bad. It’s been slowing things down and trying to find materials and people to do the work,” says Erin Mann, disaster recovery coordinator. “That happened in the spring and we spent the summer lining up our ducks. People really didn’t know what they needed until it was their turn later. They put everything together to determine the need for refurbishment.”
Displaced people have found temporary shelter. With winter approaching, those whose homes need structural repairs need to come up with a plan B. Crews will be out in the spring, she says, to continue helping remove fallen trees.
The community has divided the phases of recovery into three segments: Immediate, the emergency response phase, to ensure people are safe and basic needs are met; In the short term, the rehabilitation phase, where the community figures out what remodeling and repairs need to be done, works with insurance agencies, gets estimates, and gets the big picture of what the path to recovery might be. Gaylord is nearing the end of the short-term recovery.
The long-term part could last months or years. This step involves rebuilding, but also includes measures to boost the local economy, including looking at the community’s deficits that were brought to light by the disaster.
“Our big project is a long-term build that brings families back to a place they were before,” says Bensinger. “There are still unmet needs in the community.”
The Gaylord Long Term Recovery Group was formed to address and assess local needs; maintain and access available resources; and foster community support with accountability and transparency. Six subcommittees were formed to oversee specific categories: unmet needs, outreach, wellness, community assessment, cCulver’s shield damaged by the tornado.
“There is still a lot to do and we know that we have to work together,” says Bensinger. “None of us is strong enough on our own. For many months we focused on what was needed because of the tornado…. We did not raise funds for our normal mission. There are battles ahead.”
Working in partnership with donors, nonprofits, and the community, the Community Foundation provides targeted grants for a variety of services across the county. They span diverse areas of interest – arts and culture, conservation, community and economic development, education and youth initiatives.
Like other nonprofits focused on helping tornado victims, the Otsego Community Foundation has not kept pace in raising funds for other missions.
“When people have a nonprofit they love and are planning a year-end gift, we encourage them to give an unreserved gift,” says Bensinger. “We are in a difficult position and we have struggles ahead of us.”
Among the houses destroyed by the tornado.
“It’s a long-term recovery process,” says Mann. “Everyone was very nice. (The Aftermath) was like a funeral, everyone shows up and is incredibly empathetic and helping. And then people mourn back, part of the self-help group left. It’s natural progression, but people are still recovering and moving on. We’re trying to make sure it’s a collective recovery for everyone.”