Gaylord cleans up after rare violent tornado kills two

GAYLORD — With Haisley, her 18-month-old sister, on her back and a rake in hand, Kennedy Robinson methodically raked the rubble in front of her.

The scene around Kennedy and Haisley was dark: an SUV with blown windows. An unrecognizable tangle of metal. Insulation scattered around the dusty ground. Kennedy’s mother, Ashley Chipman, 39, cleaned up the debris with her daughter outside a destroyed Little Caesars pizzeria.

Why did they volunteer to clean up, just a day after a destructive storm knocked out Gaylord?

Because, Chipman said, “This is our town.”

Chipman’s home was undamaged by the violent tornado, but parts of the small northern Michigan town, located about 3 1/2 hours northwest of Detroit, were decimated, including buildings along along Gaylord’s central trade corridor. Two people died and 44 were injured, according to Michigan State Police. The National Weather Service rated the storm EF-3, with maximum winds at 140 mph.

The two dead were discovered in a mobile home park, Nottingham Forest, which was significantly damaged. An aerial view of the park shared by Michigan State Police on Saturday shows many houses completely bulldozed, turned into mounds of insulation, plywood and the contents of people’s lives.

It’s the first tornado to hit Gaylord, celebrating its 100th anniversary as a town this year, since 1950, according to John Boris of the National Weather Service.

Gaylord Police Chief Frank Claeys said the tornado decimated about a three-block stretch of his small town. The community has mobilized to help each other, but the damage is devastating.

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“You’ve seen people that it’s more than just a house, it’s more than where they’re going to live for a few years,” he said. “They lost their homes yesterday. So it’s tough.”

On Saturday, stunned residents of Gaylord and their neighbors worked together to clean up, while dealing with the horror they witnessed on Friday.

Terrifying times

Tornadoes in Gaylord are rare.

The city does not have tornado sirens, but residents receive alerts through their cellphones. It is unclear how people without mobile phones are alerted.

Laurie Noa of Gaylord said she first saw warnings about the storm on television. The tornado passed quickly, it felt like a minute had passed, she said.

“It was loud, like a roaring train,” she said. “It was very stressful. … I’ve never experienced one.”

Residents of Gaylord assess the damage after a tornado hit part of town Saturday, May 21, 2022. Jerry Speckman sits outside his destroyed home, he drove the tornado into his base men.

It was a combination of forces that led to such a powerful tornado, according to the National Weather Service. A combination rarely seen in northern Michigan, officials said.

On Friday, a storm with damaging winds began moving across the Midwest due to a long period of low air pressure. The storm developed into what is called a supercell thunderstorm, a type of storm that can produce conditions conducive to damage, including high winds and the type of tornado that tore through Gaylord.

Posen, a small village in northern Michigan, received baseball-sized hail during the storm, according to NWS.

The state of Michigan records an average of 15 tornadoes in any given year. But those are usually concentrated in the downstate and events of this magnitude are very rare in northern Michigan, Boris said Saturday at a news conference. at Kirkland Community College in Gaylord.

Vic Ouellette, a Gaylord councilman, took refuge in the basement of the house he shares with his wife, Connie.

The storm came in violently, he said.

Ouellette took a hit to the head from the debris swirling around them. Connie’s vertebrate was cracked under her husband’s horrified gaze.

“I saw her literally getting crushed by debris and particles from the ground,” he said. “The wall slapped her in the back and knocked her down with stuff on her.”

Gaylord Councilman Vic Ouellette stands in front of what remains of his childhood home on Otsego Street.  Residents of Gaylord assess the damage after a tornado hit part of town on Saturday, May 21, 2022.

Afterwards, a neighbor pulled the couple out of their basement. On Saturday, Connie was being treated at a local hospital. Ouellette said he hoped she would be released on Saturday afternoon.

The aftermath of the storm

Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency Friday in Otsego County after the storm passed through.

Declaring a state of emergency makes all state resources available in cooperation with local response and recovery efforts in the area. It authorizes Michigan State Police, Emergency Management and the Division of Homeland Security to coordinate state efforts beyond what has already been done in conjunction with local agencies.

Some residents of Gaylord were left homeless on Friday. They found refuge with friends, family and a local church.

Eleven people are staying at E-Free Church on M-32, with the help of the local Red Cross. Chuck Percha fled to E-Free because he lost power at home and needs power for his oxygen machine and nebulizer.

“They’re not kidding, these guys, I’m glad we have them,” he said.

Bob Hathaway, a Red Cross volunteer, was at his home in Lewiston when he heard about the tornado and came to help set up the shelter.

“We had people who didn’t even know the shelter was open last night, they slept in their cars,” Hathaway said. “So when they found out this morning that we had a shelter, they came here. Besides, we make meals for people who don’t have power.”

This crisis will hit low-income residents hard and long, with the destruction of mobile home parks and a leveled Goodwill thrift store, said Erin Mann, executive director of Otsego County United Way.

“It will be a marathon, not a sprint,” Mann said. “We’re going to answer this for a long time.”

Damaged cars along West Main Street in Gaylord on Saturday May 21, 2022. A tornado severely damaged the store taking away widows and the roof.

Those who want to donate can bring items, such as gas cards, toiletries and snacks, to the E-Free Church in Gaylord on East M-32. Mann said there was no need for clothing donations. And those who would like to volunteer in the future can sign up on the United Way website, Mann said.

Others helped on Saturday by preparing meals for first responders and anyone else who needed food. David Ward’s wife works at Mary’s Tavern in Gaylord, where meals were served free to everyone. On Saturday, Ward was alerting people to meals.

“Come in, we’ll take care of it,” he said. “No questions asked.”

Ward said the storm damage brought the community together.

“But it’s hard, it’s sad,” he said.

A 100th anniversary celebration scheduled for next Saturday, May 28, is still underway, in an effort to maintain a “sense of normality” for residents, said city manager Kim Awrey.

But last Saturday, residents got down to the difficult job of cleaning up. Several large businesses, including the Goodwill store and an Aldi grocery store, appear to have suffered significant damage. A Quaker State Oil had completely collapsed into a pile of debris. Many cars in town had blown windows.

Jason Stickney cuts down a century-old tree in front of the family home of Martin and Mary Aborski on Saturday, May 21, 2022. A tornado touched down destroying several homes and severely damaging others.

Taylor Peterson was working in another city when the tornado hit. When she checked her phone after work, she said she had numerous missed calls and texts, alerting her to the chaos in Gaylord. The property she rents from her grandfather is a mess of debris and fallen trees. There is a hole in the roof of the house. But the damage is not as severe as in other areas of the city, she said.

“I’m glad it’s happening here rather than with someone who isn’t able to clean up this stuff,” she said. “I have a lot of resources to make things disappear.”

On Saturday, her brother and some friends helped her clean up, as they threw insulation aside.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” she said. “Northern Michigan, especially a town like Gaylord, getting hit like this is madness.”

Saturday morning, Ouellette waited for her nephew to come and help save their family bible. The house, a tangle of debris, is particularly special for Ouellette. He was born in the house.

Now he doesn’t know whether he will rebuild or sell the property.

“I didn’t lose a house, I lost a house,” he said.

Noa hauled broken tree branches from her yard to the street Saturday morning near her house near Gaylord’s central business corridor.

On the verge of tears, she said she was overwhelmed by the response from the Gaylord community afterwards.

“You might cry,” she said. “People have just been wonderful.”

Contact Lily Altavena: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

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