Gaylord residents grapple with the aftermath of violent, rare tornado that left two dead

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

The scene around Kennedy and Haisley was grim: an SUV with blown-out windows. A tangle of unrecognizable metal. Insulation strewn around the dusty ground. Kennedy's mother, Ashley Chipman, 39, cleared debris with her daughter in front of a destroyed Little Caesars Pizza shop.

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

Because, Chipman said, "It's our town."

Chipman's home was not damaged in the violent twister, but parts of the small northern Michigan town, located roughly 3½ hours northwest of Detroit, were decimated, including buildings along Gaylord's central business corridor. Two people died and 44 were injured, according to Michigan State Police. The National Weather Service has rated the storm EF-3, with maximum winds at 140 mph.

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

It is the first tornado to touch down in Gaylord, celebrating its 100th anniversary as a city this year, since 1950, according to John Boris of the National Weather Service.

Frank Claeys, Gaylord's chief of police, said the tornado decimated about a three-block stretch of his small city. The community has pulled together to help one another, but the wreckage is devastating.

More: Gaylord tornado kills 2, injures 44: What we know

More: Gaylord councilman watched wife get 'slammed' with tornado debris

"You have seen people that it's more than just a house, it's more than just where they're gonna live for a couple years," he said. "They lost their homes yesterday. So, it's rough."

On Saturday, stunned residents of Gaylord and their neighbors worked together to clean up, as they processed the horror they witnessed Friday.

Terrifying moments

Tornados in Gaylord are rare.

The city has no tornado sirens, but residents do receive alerts through their cellphones. It's unclear how people without cellphones are alerted.

Laurie Noa, of Gaylord, said she first saw warnings about the storm on television. The tornado came through quick, it felt like just a minute had gone by, she said.

"It was loud, like a train roaring," she said. "It was very stressful. ... I've never been through one."

Residents of Gaylord assess damage after a tornado hit a section of the town Saturday, May 21, 2022.  Jerry Speckman sits in front of his destroyed home he rode the tornado out in his basemen.
Residents of Gaylord assess damage after a tornado hit a section of the town Saturday, May 21, 2022. Jerry Speckman sits in front of his destroyed home he rode the tornado out in his basemen.

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 wind began to roll through the Midwest due to a long stretch of low atmospheric pressure. The storm turned into what's called a supercell thunderstorm, a type of storm that can produce conditions ripe for damage, including high winds and the kind of tornado that ripped through Gaylord.

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

The state of Michigan averages about 15 tornadoes within a given year. But those are typically concentrated 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 city councilman, took shelter in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, Connie.

The storm came in violently, he said.

Ouellette took a blow to the head because of debris swirling around them. Connie's vertebrate was cracked as her husband watched in horror.

"I watched her literally get slammed with debris and particles from the flooring," he said. "The wall slapped her on the back and knocked her down with stuff going on top of her."

Gaylord city councilman Vic Ouellette stands in front of what's left of his childhood home on Otsego street. Residents of Gaylord assess damage after a tornado hit a section of the town Saturday, May 21, 2022.
Gaylord city councilman Vic Ouellette stands in front of what's left of his childhood home on Otsego street. Residents of Gaylord assess damage after a tornado hit a section of the town Saturday, May 21, 2022.

After, a neighbor pulled the couple from their basement. On Saturday, Connie was being treated at a local hospital. Ouellette said he hoped she'd be released on Saturday afternoon.

The storm's aftermath

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency Friday in Otsego County after the storm touched down.

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 Homeland Security Division to coordinate state efforts beyond what has already been done in conjunction with local agencies.

Some Gaylord residents were left without a home on Friday. They've found shelter with friends, family and in a local church.

Eleven people are sheltering 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 to his home and needs power for his oxygen machine and nebulizer.

"They're not fooling around, these guys, I'm glad we got 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 that didn't even know the shelter was open last night, they slept in their car," Hathaway said. "So when they found out this morning that we had a shelter, they came here. Plus, we're doing meals for people that don't have the power."

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

“This is going to be a marathon not a sprint,” Mann said. “We are going to be responding to this for a long time.”

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

Those who want to donate can take items, such as gas cards, toiletries and snacks, to the E-Free Church in Gaylord on East M-32. Mann said there is no need for clothes donations. And those who would like to volunteer in the future can register on the United Way’s website, Mann said.

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

"Just come on in, we got it covered," he said. "No questions asked."

Ward said the storm's damage has brought the community together.

"But it's tough, it's sad," he said.

A 100th anniversary celebration planned for next Saturday, May 28, is still on, in an effort to maintain a "sense of normalcy" for residents, said Kim Awrey, city manager.

But on this past Saturday, residents turned to the difficult work of cleaning up. Several big businesses, including the Goodwill store and an Aldi grocery, appeared to sustain significant damage. A Quaker State Oil had completely collapsed into a pile of debris. Many cars around town had blown-out windows.

Jason Stickney cuts down a 100-year-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.
Jason Stickney cuts down a 100-year-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 at work in a different town when the tornado ripped through. When she checked her phone after work she said she had numerous missed calls and text messages, alerting her to the chaos back in Gaylord. The property she rents from her grandfather is a mess of debris and fallen trees. There is a hole in the home's roof. But the damage is not as bad as in other areas of town, she said.

"I'm glad it would rather happen here instead of someone who's not capable of cleaning this stuff up," she said. "I've got a lot of resources to get stuff gone."

On Saturday, her brother and a few friends helped her clean up, as they tossed insulation to the side.

"It's absolutely crazy," she said. "Northern Michigan, especially a town like Gaylord, getting hit like this is insane."

On Saturday morning, Ouellette waited for his nephew to come help him salvage their family bible. The house, a tangled mess of debris, is particularly special to Ouellette. He was born in the house.

Now, he's unsure whether he will rebuild or sell the property.

"I didn't lose a house, I lost a home," he said.

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

Near tears, she said she is overwhelmed by the response from Gaylord's community in the aftermath.

"You could cry," she said. "People just have been wonderful."

Contact Lily Altavena: laltavena@freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Gaylord cleans up after violent, rare tornado leaves two dead