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Mobile home community ‘hardest hit’ by Gaylord tornado grieves, starts to rebuild

A mobile home is destroyed
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
An American flag hangs on one of the mobile homes set to be demolished after a tornado came through a trailer park in Gaylord on May 20, 2022.

Chris Chorpenning's office is a big lost and found, piled high with boxes of belongings.

She placed the more personal items on the countertop: some photographs, unopened letters.

“These are American flags folded,” she said pointing to a stack of red, white and blue fabric. “So we’re assuming they belong to somebody who has passed and they got lost in the rubble.”

Chorpenning is supervising the rebuilding of Nottingham Forest, a mobile home park that had 74 trailers before the tornado.

Only 23 are habitable in its aftermath.

New trailers have been ordered, but they can’t be installed until the grounds are cleared of debris — a job that could take months.

“Every time we drive through here it’s the same feeling,” Chorpenning said. “It’s empty. It’s sad. You just hope you’re going to do the right thing and [residents] want to come back.”

Chorpenning's work changed a lot in the aftermath of the tornado. She coordinated repairs and chased off looters.

“Several times we’ve had to call the police and say, ‘Yeah we don’t think they belong here,” she said. “Because the last thing we wanted was for people to come and steal something that people have already lost. They’ve lost everything.”

But most neighbors have been kind. Some brought food over for residents while they searched for their things. A mobile home community near Bay City donated dozens of items, like diapers and cleaning supplies. Chorpenning said she’s putting them together in gift baskets for residents for when they return. That is, if they return.

She spoke with a former resident earlier that day.

“[It’s] very traumatic for them. She just can’t bring herself to come back. She wants to come back later and see what it looks like when we have it all rebuilt.”

Other residents are also questioning whether they’ll come back. Nancy Spencer understands.

She was working maintenance at the park when the winds picked up, and took refuge in a bathtub.

Nancy Spencer
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Nancy Spencer stands by the office where she she took cover from a tornado. She rescued a resident from the wreckage, who later died.

When it was over, she dug out one of the park’s residents from beneath three trailers that were piled on each other. The woman later died at the hospital.

Even though Spencer struggles with the trauma of that day, it’s also what motivates her to rebuild the community.

“I’m not going to leave them behind,” she said. “These are my people, my friends, and I’m not leaving them behind.”

LEGAL ISSUES

But plenty of people aren’t happy with Nottingham Forest. The park’s owner hired contractors who began bulldozing lots, before some injured residents even had a chance to look for their things.

Nottingham Forest employees said they needed to reconnect the water and sewer for the 23 homes that had people living in them.

“It might sound heartless, but we have to rebuild to bring people back who want to come back,” Spencer said.

She said they waited two weeks before clearing the wreckage. By then, she said there wasn’t much else to find.

“I mean it’s everywhere,” Spencer said. “Where are you going to know where your stuff is when it’s not in your lot? It could be across town.”

Residents raised their concerns at a free legal clinic.

One of the attorneys who volunteered, Gary Kozma, said the park should have worked with residents better.

“If you own the trailer, and some of the people did, there would be no right for the trailer park owner to bulldoze his home,” he said.

Kozma told people to put up a no trespassing sign on their homes that hadn’t been cleared yet.

He said another lawyer may be filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of the people who believe they lost their personal property from the park’s bulldozing.

That may be the only way for some people to get compensated for their loss. Kozma most of the residents he talked to didn’t have insurance.

“A lot of [the residents] didn’t know that you could get insurance on the contents separately like a renter’s insurance policy,” he said. “It’s just an absolutely horrible situation.”

Oven in children's park
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
An oven flung outside of its trailer by the tornado lies next to a children's park in the Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park.

Angela Laslett had one of the uninsured trailers at Nottingham Forest that was destroyed.

She’s now staying at a Holiday Inn about a mile down the road.

She moved to Gaylord ten years ago because she wanted to live in the mobile home community.

“I had a really nice lot, I was right across from the mailboxes,” Laslett said. “There were no trailers on the one side of me and beautiful sunsets there.”

When the tornado hit, her 1970s double wide slid a couple inches off its base, her windows splintered and her fireplace came apart.

When Laslett bought the place, insurance companies told her they wouldn’t cover the building because it was too old. After the tornado, the roughly $15,000 she had invested in her home was gone.

She left behind most of her furniture, including her tweed couch, which was filled with shards of glass from her windows.

Laslett said the park moved too quickly to clear away the wreckage. She had another complaint; she believed her trailer had structural damage because it wasn’t properly secured to the ground.

Trailers are required to be secured by tie downs, which hold the building in place in case of extreme weather.

“I started hearing people talk about tie downs,” Laslett said. “When I started talking to [my brother] about it, he got pretty upset. He’s like, ‘yeah they’re supposed to be there.’”

She said the mobile home park should have warned her the building was unsecured, since she bought the trailer at the park and leases her spot.

Chorpenning said the park can’t inspect the resident’s privately owned homes.

“That’s her home,” Chorpenning said of one trailer owner at the park. “She keeps it her own and she’s had it for a very long time. I don’t know what’s under her home. But I do know the homes we put in, [we install] tie downs, 100 percent.”

Laslett said she might consult an attorney, but right now she’s busy with other things. Her boss let her stay with her, but it didn’t work out.

WHAT NEXT?

The Otsego County United Way paid for a few nights at the Holiday Inn. They also found Laslett an apartment, and are helping with the security deposit and the first few months’ rent.

Angela Laslett
Taylor Wizner
/
Interlochen Public Radio
A former resident of the trailer park, Angela Laslett is staying in a Holiday Inn until she can move into her new apartment.

But it’s not perfect. Laslett’s new apartment doesn’t allow pets. She got her dog, a pug mix named Nugget, for her son after his father died. She’s hopeful she’ll be able to get the dog certified as an emotional support pet.

“He’s going to be my emotional support animal too,” Laslett said. “I lost everything else. So hopefully that works out.”

She’s looking ahead to her new life, but has a lot to do first — including filling out an unemployment application on her cell phone, which has been glitching, and buying furniture with Salvation Army vouchers that can fit in her new, smaller apartment.

Along with the many of the residents in the mobile home park who thought they’d settled into their long-term homes, Laslett is now starting over.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.