PORTLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A tornado punched through Portland Monday afternoon, ripping roofs from businesses and churches, causing one building to collapse and causing five minor injuries.
The National Weather Service confirmed the EF-1 tornado Monday evening, saying it touched down around 2:30 p.m. about two miles northwest of Portland and traveled about four miles with a maximum width of between 50 and 100 yards. Peak winds were estimated at around 100 mph. The tornado lifted about 10 minutes after it touched down.
A dozen businesses, four churches and more than 70 homes in the eastern Ionia County town were damaged, Portland City Manager S. Tutt Gorman said at late evening press conference, mostly in the Grand River Avenue corridor and downtown.
Five people sustained minor injuries. None of them were hospitalized.
Gorman said the city was fortunate.
“It could have been much worse,” he said.
Emergency crews from as many as 10 different departments responded to the city. Portland Fire Chief John Baker said one structure fire was put out and numerous gas leaks were reported. Crews from the Lansing area handled search and rescue efforts, Baker said. Michigan State Police sent K-9s to make sure no one was trapped in any of the damaged structures.
Monday night, Portland Police Chief Jim Knobelsdorf said that authorities had determined no one remained trapped and that no one had been reported missing.
>>Below, listen to 911 calls after the tornado ripped through Portland.
It wasn’t long before cleanup efforts were underway. During a press conference Tuesday morning, Portland City Manager S. Tutt Gorman said city officials will be doing a more thorough walk through with state and local officials to access the damage.
Volunteers flocked to the city on Monday to help with the cleanup. Tuesday, Gorman said that while the outpouring of support was appreciated, they did not need any more volunteers.
Roads in the area, including Grand River Avenue, were reopened by Tuesday, but Gorman asked people who don’t live in the area to avoid stopping by.
GOODWILL STORE COLLAPSES
Jenni Reed and her two sons — Jackson, age 1, and Jay, 2 — had to be rescued by an off-duty fireman and the Portland police after they became trapped inside a Goodwill store that collapsed as the twister swept through. None of the three were hurt.
Reed and her husband moved to Portland — his hometown — about a year ago from Oklahoma. She told 24 Hour News 8 after Monday’s ordeal that she had been shopping in the Goodwill for about an hour when she noticed the front door flapping back and forth. She said something to an employee, who came out of an office.
“The rain was coming sideways and we saw the big bay windows on the building shatter out,” Reed said.
She put one of her sons under her cart and shielded the other with her body. Within about five seconds of the windows blowing, she said, the roof came down.
“I definitely had the instinct to cover the kids, and knowing that the roof was likely going to cave after those windows blow. I know that’s from pressure, so a number of things could happen, so I knew I had to protect them,” Reed said.
She said she didn’t hear anything before the windows blew — not sirens and not the tell-tale freight train sound tornadoes are known for.
“I do vividly remember the sound of the air going out after the windows were blown,” she said. “I don’t remember a crash or anything specifically. It just all came down.”
She said her boys didn’t seem to understand what they had just survived. Her oldest had a toy he had been walking around the store with that had kept him calm.
“My oldest, he kept saying, ‘It’s raining’ because we were standing in midst of all weather after it came down, and he said ‘go home?’ and I said ‘Yes, we’re going to go home, buddy,'” said Reed.
Reed said that later, the Goodwill employee she has signaled when she noticed the door flapping thanked her for saving her life.
“It was scary. Absolutely scary. You just never know what could have happened in that situation,” Reed said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
DAMAGE TO CHURCHES
Among the damaged buildings are three churches within a block of one another: First Baptist, United Methodist and First Congregational.
The 175-year-old First Baptist Church lost much of its roof, and there were fears that a second round of storms Monday night could exacerbate a crack it the steeple and cause it to come toppling down.
Next door, the United Methodist Church sustained significant damage, too. Much of its roof was lying on the front steps following the storm.
Across the street, the new steeple of First Congregational was ripped away. It landed on a neighbor’s house.
A portion of the proceeds from St. Patrick Catholic Church’s Summerfest on Saturday and Sunday will go to the three churches damaged in the tornado. The church will also be taking a special offering this weekend for their parishioners who suffered storm damage. On Sunday, July 5, they will take a special offering for the other churches who were damaged, according to Ross Schneider, a church member.
Gorman said a state of emergency had been declared locally, which would make more aid resources available. He said damage assessment would begin Tuesday.
Private property owners who had questions about property damage were advised to contact Ionia County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Doug Devries at firstname.lastname@example.org. Devries will also be coordinating volunteers for the cleanup effort.
Residents who need financial assistance may be able to get help from the Portland community fund.
Tuesday morning, Gorman warned residents of scam artists trying to take advantage of those affected by the tornado. He said they have already caught a few scam artists and made them leave the city.
Monday, Chief Knoblesdorf said emergency responders were working to board up insecure homes and businesses, and that there would be a large police presence — including Michigan State Police and Ionia County sheriff’s deputies — in the damage zone over the next few days.
Crews will be setting up Dumpsters around the city and there will also be drop-off sites for debris and brush.
The Red Cross opened a shelter in Portland Middle School, located at 745 Storz Ave., for anyone displaced by the storm. Mike Mitchell, the executive director for the Red Cross in West Michigan, said the current shelter has capacity for 30 people, but that it can be expanded.
There was no one there yet as of 9 p.m., but the shelter had only been open for half an hour. Mitchell said that in his experience, people can typically find places to stay with friends and family after a disaster, but that the Red Cross wanted to make sure a shelter was available to anyone who may need it.
He said the Red Cross’ goal was to make sure everyone had a “place to stay, food to eat and clothes to wear.”
City officials are also assessing the need to see if the shelter needs to stay open Tuesday night.
Anyone with questions for the Red Cross can call 616.456.8661.
In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, people were asked to stay away from the damage area, which includes Portland and the area slightly west of the town.
“You need to stay out of the area,” Baker said Monday afternoon. “This area, the entire city right now, is unsecure. We’ve got structures that are not secure, we’ve got gas leaks. Stay out of the area, please. I implore you.”
“We need the public’s assistance on this,” Ionia County Sheriff Dale Miller said. “Stay out of the area, let us do our job, and hopefully we’ll be able to find that everybody’s OK.”
>>PHOTOS: Tornado in Portland
SIGNS OF A TORNADO
Storm Team 8 Meteorologist Ellen Bacca, who toured the city Monday afternoon, suspected the tornado was at least an EF-1 before it was confirmed by the NWS based on the damage she saw at churches, businesses and homes, in addition to broken trees.
A red flag, she said, was the swath of damage rather than a bullseye formation, which is what you would see caused by straight-line winds. She also said twisted debris, debris thrown around and shoved into structures — including a 2-by-4 beam embedded in a roof — and shattered windows caused by strong wind pressure were all signs of a tornado.
A problem that could have been much worse: Downed power lines. The city buried most of its power lines in the early 1980s, so they were protected from the tornado. Mayor Jim Barnes said a few power sources had been disrupted but that for the most part, the infrastructure remained undamaged.
“We’re in good shape,” he said regarding power infrastructure.
The tornado was only on the ground for about 10 minutes Monday afternoon which the National Weather Service said was too quick to signal a warning.
“We get a low level scan every 2 to 3 minutes, but with this storm only being on the ground for about 10 minutes it was probably 2 to 3 minutes before it picked up anything that would’ve carried it high enough for our radar beam to detect. At the same time, it looks like the width of this tornado was probably about 50 yards or less,” said an official with the National Weather Service.
The tornado sirens were sounded in Portland Monday night in an abundance of caution after an untrained spotter told authorities they may have spotted a funnel cloud. It was a scary moment for the town that had already been dealt such destruction.
But Storm Team 8 and the National Weather Service say that despite the sirens, there did not seem to be any worry of a second tornado as there was no rotation in the storm over Portland.