Gaylord: On the long road to recovery

Gaylord continues to up the pieces after a rare tornado wreaked havoc on the northern Michigan resort community more than five months ago.

Signs of its destruction remain evident along the city’s main and neighborhood streets. A couple businesses were razed and others are making repairs. Residents continue to clear away debris and work on repairs.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Dana Bensinger, executive director of the Otsego Community Foundation, which has spearheaded relief efforts since the tornado struck on May 20. “It’s a long-time recovery. We make progress every week.”

On that Friday afternoon in May, the tornado first touched down in eastern Antrim County and strengthened as the funnel moved west across Otsego County, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado was deemed an EF-3 -- a severe rating -- with winds of up to 150 mph in and around Gaylord.

Two people were killed and 44 people were injured as the tornado swept through Gaylord. The tornado damaged more than 200 homes -- tearing through a manufactured home community – and nearly 40 businesses, mostly along Route 32, west of downtown Gaylord. Trees were knocked down and cars were flipped.

The Otsego Community Foundation, which manages charitable funds to support local causes, immediately sprung into action, creating the Tornado Response Fund to raise money to help with immediate relief, short-term recovery and long-term rebuilding efforts. 

Little Caesars is being razed as the Gaylord community continues to clean up the destruction.

So far, the organization has raised $1.5 million and has distributed nearly $900,000 for gift cards and hotel rooms to help displaced residents with needs such as shelter, critical home repairs, vehicle repairs, etc. 

“We’ve had a really wonderful response,” Bensinger says. “People from all over the state and country have been extremely generous with monetary gifts. It’s been encouraging and overwhelming – to feel that love.”

Unfortunately, despite the severity of the disaster, Gaylord did not meet the uninsured threshold criteria for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer assistance. As a result, Gaylord was deemed an “undeclared disaster.” Without the disaster declaration, there has been no FEMA assistance for survivors. 

The community, however, has strived to fill that void. A host of nonprofit organizations have stepped in, providing car repairs, gift cards, rental assistance, furniture, appliance purchases, fencing accessories and debris 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 obtain used vehicles. Organizations like the Otsego County United Way, E-Free Church have provided money and other services.

To further help victims, the Tornado Response Fund awarded a grant to the 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 vendors, governmental agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations to guide survivors through the recovery process. 

Although the Tornado Response Fund has had great success in helping victims, some efforts have been hindered by the economy and other issues in the wake of the pandemic: inflation, lumber tariffs, skilled trades shortages and disasters along the East Coast, Kentucky, and around the globe. 

“The timing was just bad. It slowed things down, trying to find materials and people to do the work,” says Erin Mann, disaster recovery coordinator.  “This happened in the spring and we spent the summer getting our ducks in a row. People really didn’t know what they needed until further down the road. They’re piecing it all together to know the remediation needs.”

Displaced residents have found temporary housing. With winter at hand, those whose homes need structural repairs will have to come up with a plan B. Crews will be out in the spring, she says, to continue to help remove downed trees. 

The community has broken down the stages of recovery into three segments: immediate, the emergency response phase to ensure people are safe and basic needs are met; short term, the remediation phase in which the community is figuring out what rebuilding and repairs need to be done, working with insurance agencies, getting estimates and capturing the big picture of what the road to recovery may look like. Gaylord is close to the end of short-term recovery. 

The long-term portion could go on for months or years. This step involves rebuilding but also encompasses taking steps to boost the local economy including looking at the community’s deficits the disaster brought to light. 

“Our big project is long-term building, getting families back to a place they were before,” Bensinger says. “There are still unmet needs in the community.”

The Gaylord Long Term Recovery Group was formed to address and evaluate local needs; nurture and access available resources; and promote community support with accountability and transparency. Six subcommittees were formed to oversee specific categories: unmet needs, public relations, wellness, community assessment, cCulver's sign, damaged by the tornado.

“There’s still work to be done and we know we have to work together,” Bensinger says. “None of us are strong enough on our own. For many months we have been focused on what was needed because of what the tornado did …. We did not do fund-raising for our normal mission. There are struggles ahead.”

Working with donors, nonprofits and community, the community foundation provides purposeful grants for a variety of services all over the county. They include various fields of interest – arts and culture, conservation, community and economic development, education and youth initiatives. 

Like other nonprofit organizations focused on helping tornado victims, the Otsego Community Foundation has not kept up with fund raising for other missions.

“If people have a nonprofit they love, and they’re planning a year-end gift, we’re encouraging them to give an unrestricted gift,” Bensinger says. “We’re in a tough spot and we have struggles ahead.”
Among the homes destroyed by the tornado.
“It’s a long-term recovery process,” Mann says. “Everyone has been very kind. (The disaster aftermath) was kind of like a funeral, everyone shows up and has amazing empathy and helps out. And then people are left grieving, part of the support group has left. It’s a natural progression but people are still recovering and moving along. We’re trying to make sure it’s a collective recovery for everyone."
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