Gaylord: A community comes togetherOtsego Community Foundation leads relief efforts

Within hours after a tornado wreaked destruction on Gaylord, the Otsego Community Foundation sprung into action, launching a relief fund to help victims of the disaster. 

The non-profit organization, which manages charitable funds to support local causes, is spearheading the Tornado Response Fund, raising money to help hundreds of residents as well as businesses impacted by the May 20 tornado that swirled along a two-mile-stretch of the city.

The foundation hopes to raise $1 million, a goal not too far off after just three weeks. To date, nearly $800,000 has been raised through individual donors from across the country as well as a host of businesses in Gaylord, the surrounding region and Michigan. The money will be used for immediate relief, short-term recovery and long-term rebuilding efforts.   

“The response has been incredible. It’s so heartwarming,” says Dana Bensinger, executive director of the Otsego Community Foundation. “I think as a nation we’ve been pretty divided the last couple of years, but this has been absolutely uniting.”

Even her 14-year-old son, who has helped with clean up efforts, remarked about how it was “really cool” to see all different kinds of different people working together. 

Gaylord, a city of about 4,000 off Interstate 75 in Otsego County, is a year-round tourist destination and highway stopover, welcoming outdoor enthusiasts to the surrounding state parks, forests and rivers, as well as ski areas and golf courses.  

“The help from outside Gaylord has been amazing, including a lot of letters and notes with Bible verses, offering hope,” Bensinger said. “They come with checks of all sizes.”

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado first touched down in eastern Antrim County and strengthened as the funnel moved west across Otsego County. 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 that Friday afternoon, according to news reports. The tornado damaged numerous homes -- tearing through a manufactured home community and businesses, mostly along Route 32, west of downtown Gaylord. Trees were knocked down and cars were flipped.

“Initially, with those that were impacted, they were devastated. There was a lot of shock,” said Erin Mann, executive director of Otsego County United Way, which is partnering with the Otsego Community Foundation in relief efforts and organizing volunteers. Other community organizations and churches are helping as well. 

“The community rallied together quickly,” she added. “We jumped into action. There is a lot of support and a sense of connection, people wanting to help one another. There is hope but we have a long road ahead of us.” 

Mann noted that about 1,000 people from across the state initially volunteered to help in the aftermath. Hundreds of volunteers have helped with cleanup, sorting and organizing supplies and distributing food. 

Local officials cannot recall Gaylord sustaining a weather-related disaster of this magnitude. In all, the tornado damaged 210 homes, about half of them were completely destroyed. Thirty percent had 50 percent damage. Nearly 40 commercial properties sustained damage, and dozens of cars were damaged or destroyed.

“We are only 20 days in and while hopeful, we have a long road ahead,” Bensinger said. “Recovery is not only about the restoration of structures, systems and services – although they are critical. It is also about addressing sources of inequitable and unjust outcomes, and individuals and families being able to rebound from their losses and sustain their physical, social, economic, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

The Tornado Response Fund is aimed at providing relief on three different levels. 
Immediate relief has targeted providing the basic needs of the victims. Those needs include shelter and food. The fund was able to get money out right away to the Refuge,  a nonprofit focusing on emergency shelter. To date, the Refuge has served 32 families, placing them in hotels and rentals. Other basic needs included helping people repair damaged cars so they can get to work.

“To keep people out of the poverty cycle, we have to keep them working,” Bensinger said. 

Short-term recovery, she said, moves beyond immediate relief to help with longer-term issues such as housing. A lot of families in hotels are going to have to stay there awhile -- “they have nowhere to go,” she said. In addition, the fund was recently awarded a grant to hire two case workers to help victims navigate through the assistance system. 

“We’re spending a lot of time in discussions to figure out what long-term building looks like,” she said. “We don’t know what we are going to need as a community yet. We are not far enough in the process yet. We do anticipate that we will need a large chunk of money -- $500,000 -- for long-term building effort, leveraging federal, state or private grants to help out with the community’s needs.”

While short-term housing is a huge need right now, affordable housing for those who have lost their homes will be an issue down the road. And there are a host of other concerns, including the mental health of those impacted by the tornado.

“There are so many other aspects. We’re still learning. This is all really new to us,” Bensinger said. 

The Oil and Gas Industry Friends of Otsego County – made up of 11 producers – quickly joined forces to put up a $180,000 match to the community, which was not only filled in less than 72 hours but really created momentum for the fund. 

Donations have come from corporate and fraternal foundations, including Consumers Energy Foundation, $25,000, the Michigan Elks Association Charitable Organization Fund, $10,000, as well as other community foundations and businesses, including Meyer Ace Hardware, a hardware chain in northern Michigan. The family-owned business donated $15,000, matching donations contributed by customers.

“We were very fortunate our store in Gaylord was not damaged and none of our employees were directly affected,” said Jonathan Meyer, whose family owns and operates the stores in Petoskey, Harbor Springs and St. Ignace. Each store participated in the fund drive.

Meyer said customer response was overwhelming.

Meyer Ace Hardware presents check to the Tornado Response Fund.
“I think we really had an excellent response. We had more than 3,000 customers contribute,” he said. Customers were asked to donate $1, $3 or $5 during checkout -- the average donation was $3.80.  “There were a lot of people contributing $5 or more.” 

Meyer, whose hardware has been in Gaylord 12 years, praised the Otsego Community Foundation for its efforts.

“Dana (Bensinger) and her team are doing a tremendous job, rallying the troops and collecting money for the fund,” he said. “I’m amazed what that team is doing for the community.”

It’s not the first time the Otsego Community Foundation has sprung into action because of a community-wide emergency. The organization raised money for its COVID19 Response Fund during the pandemic. The fund provided more than $100,000 to organizations, nonprofits and small businesses.

“Ironically, that fund closed in mid May – we spent that down,  just in time to start the fund for the tornado response,” Bensinger said. 

To donate, go to the Tornado Response Fund.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.