Portland churches, residents to rebuild after tornado

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Portland — Electricians finished installing the exterior lights pointing at First Congregational Church’s new bell tower mid-day Monday, the culmination of a years-long $140,000 project to restore the local landmark.

Less than two hours later, the steeple came tumbling down into the 1850s-era sanctuary as a tornado ripped through this mid-Michigan town along the banks of the Grand River.

On Wednesday, a demolition crew will try to extract the 109-year-old bell that’s believed to be lodged in a pile of roof rubble nearly 20 feet tall inside the sanctuary, said Ron Nelson, chairman of the church’s building and grounds committee.

“One of our priorities is to get that bell out in one piece,” said Nelson, a retired Michigan Farm Bureau lobbyist. “One piece.”

Monday’s confirmed EF-1 tornado with winds of up to 112 mph damaged at least 70 homes, a dozen commercial buildings and two government buildings in Portland. No deaths or injuries were reported.

The fierce storm was part of a line of intense weather that stretched across southern Michigan and resulted in scattered damage, power outages and tornadoes throughout Monday night.

In Portland, some of the more noticeable damage occurred along a two-block stretch of historic Bridge Street where First Congregational and two other churches have sat for more than a century alongside Victorian-era homes that also sustained damage.

Part of the roof of the 101-year-old Portland United Methodist Church was ripped off by the twister as it tore through the residential neighborhood uphill from the town’s riverfront downtown.

“It’s salvageable,” said Todd Ness, a trustee at 350-member United Methodist Church. A roofing crew was preparing Tuesday to build a temporary roof and cover the building with a large tarp to keep water out of the sanctuary, Ness said.

Down the street, First Congregational Church had just finished constructing the new bell tower in November, after a fundraising drive to preserve the bell and erect a replica of the original tower built around 1900, Nelson said.

The twister sheared off the church’s metal roof and parts of it landed across the street in Tom Gustafson’s yard. Storm debris splattered across his 125-year-old yellow house, breaking a few windows, but causing no noticeable structural damage.

“All in all, I feel pretty lucky,” Gustafson said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting things back to the way they were.”

Across Bridge Street, most of the roof of First Baptist Church was torn off. That building’s steeple was still standing Tuesday, though there was a visible crack in the brick portion of the steeple.

“I don’t know if it can be saved — the damage was so bad,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who lives south of Portland in Danby Township and used to attend the Baptist church.

Calley said he was just inside the church a few weeks ago to celebrate the congregation’s 175th anniversary. The cornerstone was laid in 1876, according to the church’s online history.

“It is shocking to see a building like that church have the entire roof removed and the brick walls pushed down,” Calley said. “The force of that wind, it must have been really something.”

All three churches were searching for new spaces to hold weekly worship services.

Calley was among dozens of volunteers who cleaned up the athletic grounds of St. Patrick Catholic Church and School, the site of this weekend’s annual St. Pat’s Parish Days festival.

“There’s a sense of real determination here to get this property in shape for that,” he said. “This community in a lot of ways really revolves around this Catholic church.”

The storm flattened a pair of pole barns next to the Catholic school’s softball and baseball fields. One of the barns was a storage building for the Ionia County Road Commission.

Across the street Tuesday morning, Carrie Maynard surveyed what’s left of the two-story home she and her husband built 13 years ago the morning after the tornado flattened the garage and ripped off most of the roof.

Maynard and her husband, Scott, were both at work when the storm hit Monday afternoon. Their 19-year-old babysitter rushed their 9- and 11-year-old sons and a family friend to the basement as the twister ripped through the town of 3,900 residents, 30 miles west of Lansing.

Her children, the friend and the babysitter were unscathed.

“That’s all that matters,” Maynard said Tuesday morning. “This stuff can be replaced. ... I’m really OK. I’m just grateful that my kids are all right.”

In the driveway, there was evidence of the storm’s fierce winds. The family’s heavy-duty snow blower had been dislodged from the garage and landed on the corner of the babysitter’s car, which was no longer parked straight in the driveway.

The home will likely have to be torn down, Maynard said.

The family has insurance, though. Maynard works for Auto Owners Insurance in Lansing.

Her husband works for the Ryder truck rental company. On Monday evening, Scott Maynard’s co-workers came over and moved out all of the family’s belongings, except for those trapped under the toppled garage attached to the yellow house, Maynard said.

“We’ll definitely rebuild,” Maynard said.


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