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Six months after tornado: Gaylord still recovering, morale improves

Resident Stephanie Kerwin, center, holds her baby Octavius in one arm and dog Pixie in the other as she and her family carry what they could salvage from her home in Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park on Saturday in Gaylord, Mich., following a tornado the day before.
Jake May
MLive.com/The Flint Journal via AP
Resident Stephanie Kerwin, center, holds her baby Octavius in one arm and dog Pixie in the other as she and her family carry what they could salvage from her home in Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park on Saturday in Gaylord, Mich., following a tornado the day before.

It’s been half a year since a rare EF-3 tornado tore through the City of Gaylord.

Two people died. Dozens more were injured. And more than 200 structures were damaged.

When driving around town, you can still see some of that destruction. The Little Caesars on West Main Street is boarded up, the Goodwill next door is torn down to its foundation, and a handful of homes across town are still covered with blue tarp, awaiting much-needed repairs.

Some people are still struggling, but many more have found recovery.

Mary Backlund lives on what she calls “the cutest little street in town,” just off Gaylord’s main drag. She moved there a couple years ago but has been a part of the community for over 30 years.

She remembers talking on the phone with her son on May 20 — the day the tornado hit. She vividly remembers the few minutes she had to take shelter.

“I was at the foot of my bed when it happened,” Backlund said. “It was like hearing a train whistle. And then I heard ‘CRACK.’ The trees were breaking and all I could smell was pine. The smell of pine will never be the same.”

When the tornado moved on, it left behind holes in the ceiling and walls. Every tree in her yard had been ripped up. She said she couldn’t recognize the beautiful street she called home.

But, as traumatic as those horrible few moments were, Backlund said the days and weeks to follow were far more memorable.

“There was a beauty to what came after,” she said. “People just showed up, they world all night. I had power within 36 hours and my yard was cleaned by the next night. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Six months later, Backlund said the help hasn’t stopped even though the problems got more complex. Whether it’s dealing with insurance agencies or looking for contractors, she said she’s been able to rely on the community.

The community raised about $1.8 million. The Otsego Community Foundation has distributed over $900,000 so far to aid families and businesses.

The local United Way helped around 552 clients and provided 880 connections to services.

Erin Mann was director of the local United Way when the tornado hit. Now, she’s the Disaster Recovery Coordinator at the Otsego Community Foundation.

She said she’s proud at how fast Gaylord bounced back but she emphasized there’s still plenty of work to do.

“We have a population of individuals that are finding that they're underinsured, and they're having complications with their adjusters. We have individuals still trying to get their home repaired, with a shortage of contractors," she said. "And then, 44 people were injured by this tornado and are still dealing with that."

The May 20 tornado truly was a “perfect storm,” Mann said. The greater Gaylord area was already dealing with high-profile issues when it came to housing, labor and economic recovery from the pandemic.

Mann said she remembers gas prices were high, baby food was in short supply and eviction moratoriums left over from the pandemic were being lifted – all of which added to the strain felt by residents.

Gaylord was also denied assistance that would’ve come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because it didn’t meet a threshold of uninsured property damages, although low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Association and more than $500,000 in state funding helped relieve some pressure.

Nottingham Forest, a mobile home park off of West Main Street and a hub for low-income housing was devastated by the harsh winds and flying debris. Only 23 of the 74 homes in the community were habitable in the aftermath.

Mann said the destruction helped the community be more creative about the housing crisis in the aftermath.

“The county put a variance in place to allow older trailers to go into that space. Community Financial Credit Union is hopeful to do some special financing for individuals that want to move into new manufactured homes in that community,” she said. “But just like anything else, there's some legwork that has to be done for that to happen.”

That legwork will need to be done for a long time moving forward. Case managers are still meeting with impacted families, homes are still on waiting lists for repairs and the lingering trauma of May 20 is still there.

At a community event last month, Mann told a crowd of residents and officials they could be hearing from her for another 18 months about long term recovery.

In the half a year since the natural disaster morale has definitely improved, said Gaylord Mayor Tom Sharrard.

“This is a very, very resilient community,” Sharrard said. “We appreciate anything anybody has done behind the scenes whether it be from the bigger government or the community itself.”

The Otsego Community Foundation is still accepting donations for tornado relief that will be distributed to local nonprofits and organizations such as United Way and the local Habitat for Humanity.

Corrected: November 21, 2022 at 6:30 PM EST
An earlier version of this story said the Little Caesars on West Main Street is boarded up "for good." The owner tells IPR it's not permanent.
Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.