Damage assessments to begin in Gaylord as tornado recovery continues

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

State and federal teams will arrive in Gaylord in the coming days to begin formally assessing the damage caused by the deadly EF3 tornado that destroyed homes and businesses in the northern Michigan town.

On Wednesday, staff from the Michigan Emergency Management and Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will fan out throughout the affected area to get a scope of the damage and an understanding of the recovery needs in the community.

The efforts getting underway this week will be used to evaluate the extent of the damage wrought by the storm Friday and determine how much of the destruction is covered by insurance policies and how much is not. The assessment process marks the first step in determining whether the state has the capabilities to cover the costs itself, or whether it will need to request federal assistance. 

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“This is part of the process of getting a better picture of how extensive the damage is,” said Michigan emergency management spokesperson Bailey Wilkins. 

“We’ll do the damage assessment and that will determine if we need to request a federal declaration."

Michigan State Police on Monday could not provide a number of residents who have been displaced. The agency said emergency management and FEMA officials would determine that this week during their assessments.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Otsego County on Friday evening, just hours after the tornado touched down and ripped through the center of Gaylord killing two people and injuring dozens more. The declaration activated state emergency response efforts.

According to Wilkins, the state emergency response department will have three different teams on the ground in Gaylord, where they will visit homes and businesses. Those teams will operate alongside FEMA crews and their counterparts at the Small Business Association, which will be tasked with verifying the damage reports collected by the state and local response offices.

As the government mobilizes, residents are being urged to get their recovery efforts started. A FEMA spokesperson said people should not delay in contacting their insurance companies or reaching out to local organizations for assistance.

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An MSP Aviation photo of the devastation in Nottingham Forest mobile home park in Gaylord from a tornado that touched down on Friday, May 20, 2022.

The federal workers will be carrying their agency identification and should be recognizable by their agency-branded apparel. Each group will also be out with uniformed Michigan State Police troopers from the emergency response department and should be easily identifiable. 

Local nonprofits and disaster aid organizations are also continuing to ramp up response efforts. As early as Tuesday, the American Red Cross expects to deploy its teams to assess the immediate needs of residents and provide assistance.

The organization has already been operating in Gaylord and helped to set up a shelter for those in need at the E-Free Church. But the scope of the devastation was so severe that the Red Cross needed to bring in more volunteers before it could get the more granular work of reaching out to residents directly to hand out supplies, provide mental health services, and help residents connect with the right resources.

"No one chapter had enough volunteers to deal with such widespread devastation," said American Red Cross Regional Communications Manager Alicia Dorr. She said more resources will be sent to Gaylord this week.

Dorr said volunteers with the organization will be going door to door speaking directly with residents.

The damage assessment process comes as local organizations continue to provide assistance. Local response efforts have largely been funneled through the Otsego Community Foundation and the Otsego County United Way, which have become overnight clearinghouses for everything from receiving donations to finding housing for displaced residents.

Damage is seen at a home after a tornado came through the area in Gaylord on Friday, May 20, 2022.

Michigan State Police on Monday could not provide a number of residents who have been displaced. The agency said emergency management and FEMA officials would determine that this week during their assessments.

Otsego Community Foundation Executive Director Dana Bensinger said the focus for the organization is on providing immediate relief and beginning the long-term rebuilding process. According to Benzinger, finding housing has become a critical focus. 

"I keep saying to my team this is a marathon not a sprint, and we were at the starting line on Friday," said Benzinger.