‘Thought we were gonna die’: Tornado destroys homes, businesses in Portage area (2024)

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — A tornado tore through the Portage area Tuesday, destroying homes and businesses, causing some gas leaks and displacing families. There were some injuries, but the region escaped the powerful storms without any deaths.

The National Weather Service confirmed an EF2 tornado touched down in the Portage area Tuesday as strong storms swept through Southwest Michigan. Packing winds of up to 135 mph, the twister was on the ground for 22 minutes and 11 miles from around Texas Corners and Morrow Lake.

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“We have mass destruction. And I have to keep reminding everybody that thankfully, there is no loss of life and that the injuries that we did see yesterday ultimately turned out pretty minor considering that many of these people were inside these homes that are demolished or inside some of these homes that were flipped up and upside down,” Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said.

His department said 16 to 20 people were injured; none of those injuries were considered life-threatening. The Portage mayor said eight people were hospitalized with minor injuries.

Fuller attributed the limited casualties, in part, to the many options people have to alert them to danger.

“Forty-four years ago, we had a much more tragic event come through and caused five lives to go. Last night, because our community is working hard together all the time and because they were paying attention last night and hearing the alerts, lives were saved,” the sheriff told reporters during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “We heard more than one story where the people said, ‘We just got out of there,’ or, ‘We were taking cover in the bathroom because the house was taken off the foundation,’ and they are safe because of their actions.”

Portage Mayor Patricia Randall told reporters that more than 100 families were displaced. People are urged to call 211 for shelter and other resources.

MOBILE HOMES DESTROYED

The sheriff’s office said around 15 to 17 homes at Pavilion Estates, a mobile home park east of Portage, were destroyed.

“We got really lucky being here,” Alan Heath, who lives at Pavilion Estates, said. “I’m pretty sure it was by the chance of God that it missed my trailer. If you look, the trailer is right here across the street from me are just demolished. Just gone. And now these people have lost their homes.”

Some of the mobile homes were pulled off their foundations. One went airborne and landed on two cars.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was told that the use of hurricane straps is believed to have kept other mobile homes on their foundations.

“(The storm) just got really worse. I was watching my flagpole here just lean over over more as the seconds gone by,” Heath recalled. “The thunder and the rain and the lightning was just awful and I was peaking out my window and I seen stuff flying in the air and at that point, I grabbed my dog and ran across the house to the bathroom and that’s where we took shelter.”

He never saw a funnel cloud, but he did see debris and “sideways rain.”

“The noises I heard coming from this was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before,” he said.

‘EVERYTHING STARTED RATTLING’

At Timbercreek Townhouses off Schuring Road between Oakland Drive and Westnedge Avenue in Portage, the storm brought trees down on cars and homes and ripped apart roofs. Some upstairs rooms were exposed to the outdoors.

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Nicholas Streit, who rents a duplex on Timbercreek Court, said he and his girlfriend heard sirens from nearby fire stations, grabbed their pets and rushed to the basem*nt.

“Everything started rattling,” he recalled. “The lights completely went out. We didn’t have time to grab a lantern. We were looking at each other through a phone light, just trying to keep each other comfortable.”

“We heard loud winds everywhere, just immediately a huge thump, the ground shaking, and I could hear car alarms outside and just knew it’s right over our head,” he continued. “And I just had to look at her for a moment ’cause we thought we were gonna die.”

A tree landed on the duplex, crashing through the ceiling and into the master bedroom of the other unit. There was a mess of insulation everywhere. The duplex will need a new roof.

— Byron Tollefson (@byron_tollefson) May 8, 2024

A tree also landed on Streit’s car. It’s totaled.

“It’s all hands on deck for the city right now,” Portage Deputy Fire Marshal Bill Graham told News 8.

He said when he arrived to Timbercreek Tuesday, his first question to neighbors was about any injuries.

“I said, ‘Who’s immediately hurt and needs to go to the hospital?'” Graham recalled. “I had a gentleman say, ‘This lady’s in labor.'”

He drove her out to Schuring, where he loaded her into a firefighter’s pickup truck and got her to a main road to meet an ambulance.

Graham said 12 of the townhomes were deemed unsafe; each contained four units.

“We had city buses come down pick them up on Schuring Road. They walked out to Schuring. The buses had counted what I was told 47 people just from this cul-de-sac and these 12 structures,” Graham said.

Graham said crews were performing secondary checks along Timbercreek Wednesday to confirm no one was injured or trapped. Inspectors were assessing the structures. The road remained shut down because of gas leaks caused by the destruction. He said the gas repair crews’ response was slowed by the damage.

“All these people that are volunteering helping clearing out trees, it’s nice, but just remind them to be safe,” Graham said. “Follow Consumers (Energy’s) warnings. Power lines could still be energized, gas leaks could be in place. It’s not safe, so just be extremely cautious.”

Streit spent Wednesday seeing what he could do to help his neighbors, some of whose homes were leveled.

“There’s nothing else you can do for yourselves if you can’t help other people. It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Colin Beam said he and his wife were at work when the tornado hit their apartment at Timbercreek.

“The roof is completely gone. A lot of stuff is caved in,” he said.

Though no people were inside the apartment, Beam’s 5-week-old kitten Chico was there — and, to Beam’s surprise, Chico survived.

“I walked up inside the apartment and he was meowing,” Beam told News 8. “I thought he was a goner.”

For now, Beam and his wife — along with Chico — are staying at a shelter until they figure out what to do next.

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A couple who has lived in Portage for most of their 51-year marriage said they had never experienced a storm that came through so quickly.

“We just hoped that we were not going to be the next ones, but it happened so fast that you did not have time to think,” said Debbie Kuras.

Kuras said while their home was spared, they are waiting for a damage assessment from their insurance.

‘IT WAS CHAOS OUT THERE’

A strip mall on West Centre Avenue in Portage was torn apart by the storm.

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Video taken by someone in Great Wall Express in the strip mall shows driving rain and the wind pick up, pulling the door out of the hands of the man trying to keep it closed.

“…I look out the front window and I see some rotation going on,” recalled Stephen Chase, the general manager at Great Wall, said. “Then it got really crazy, lots of wind. Couldn’t really see anything — lots of rain, lots of debris just flying around.”

He said he saw some customers sitting in their van outside and told them to come inside as the weather worsened. He, his employees and the customers — including a mother with her three young children — took shelter in a walk-in cooler.

“It was just really overwhelming. You just act in the moment at that point. You don’t really think about what you’re doing. You just do it,” he said.

“It was chaos out there. Absolutely. You saw that video; it was insane,” Chase added.

He and the others were stunned to see the damage to the rest of the strip mall when they emerged after the danger was over.

The restaurant’s roof has a hole in it, but the walls and equipment remained intact. Still, Chase estimated it would be closed for at least a month. He expected insurance to cover most of the repair costs.

The FedEx facility on Portage Road was heavily damaged. No one inside the facility was seriously injured, according to Portage Chief Nick Armold. FedEx said customers who have questions about their shipments can check its website for updates.

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“We are grateful there were no serious injuries as our team members sheltered in place inside the facility on Portage Road during the storm. We are implementing contingency plans, including diverting incoming shipments to lessen the impacts on service,” David Westerick, a FedEx spokesperson, said in a statement.

Further south, more damage was reported in the Sherwood area in Branch County. There, homes were torn from their basem*nts or flipped onto their sides as the storm ripped through.

RESOURCES AND CLEANUP

“We’re just gonna try and rebuild and hope our power comes back on shortly. It’s gonna take some time to rebuild this community,” Heath, the Pavilion Estates neighbor, said.

On Tuesday night, Gov. Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Branch and Cass counties. The declaration frees up state resources to help local authorities with clean-up and rebuilding efforts. Exactly what that will look like remains to be seen as the damage is assessed.

Whitmer was in the Portage area Wednesday to survey the damage, expressing relief that no one had been killed.

“But the devastation’s real. There’s a lot of displaced families, a lot of businesses that are going to struggle because of the wake of this,” Whitmer said. “That’s why it was important that we declared the emergency last night so that we can expedite support.”

She said state agencies were on the ground to help with the recovery and she promised to work with the Legislature to get the area what it needs.

Whitmer said the sheriff had told her about families who were in their homes when they were moved off their foundations and shared their stories of survival.

“The most inspiring thing is seeing fellow neighbors help one another,” the governor said. “Sheriff Fuller and (state) Sen. (Sean) McCann and I were chatting a little bit about how people just started showing up. As soon as the tornado was going, people whose homes were intact came out to help those whose weren’t. It started within minutes of the tornado leaving.”

The city of Portage set up a shelter for those who were displaced by the tornadoes at the First Assembly of God at 555 Oakland Drive.

According to the American Red Cross, 22 people were registered to stay Wednesday night.

“What the Red Cross and what the emergency people are doing right now is just trying to get to everyone who needs to be in the shelter,” Kathy Fretz, American Red Cross mass care lead and shelter manager, said. “Once we get that figured out and know the extent of the damage, at that point, we determine how long the shelter will be open and how people will get help moving forward.”

Anyone who needs assistance can call 1.800.RED.CROSS.

The Salvation Army said it was handing out food and helping people at Pavilion Estates, and also providing meals for emergency responders.

Kalamazoo Public Library locations and some local businesses, like One Well Brewing or Latitude 42 Brewing Company on Portage Road, have opened their doors to anyone without power who needs to recharge their devices.

“If we were in a similar situation, other awesome Kalamazoo businesses would be doing the same thing,” said Bryan O’Neill, owner of One Well Brewing. “We love our community and want to do everything that we can to support. If that helps out even a couple of people, we are here for that.”

Those affected by the storm and outages who need a shower can stop by Southwest Michigan Planet Fitness locations:

  • Portage: 6420 S Westnedge Ave.
  • Kalamazoo: 4408 Stadium Dr.
  • Battle Creek: 294 Highland Ave.
  • Benton Harbor: 1345 Mall Dr.

They can also work out without a membership.

Mayor Randall said the city’s first priority was removing large tree debris.

“We have got them off the roads, but they are piled high in many neighborhoods,” she said.

Residents are asked to place tree branches and brush at the curb, while trees and brush cut down by a professional tree service can be dropped off at the Oakland Drive Compost Facility, located at 10905 Oakland Drive. The facility will be open 24 hours a day until further notice.

“We ask that you separate any building materials that you have from the natural debris because ultimately, they will be ground up and made into wood chips,” Randall said.

Portage’s non-emergency offices were closed Wednesday. However, Portage residents could call 269.329.4444 for city service information, including brush pickup and cleanup assistance.

The Celery Flats Historic Area was closed Wednesday because buildings sustained damage due to falling trees, Randall said.

Portage Public Schools were also closed on Wednesday.

The Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the United Way of South Central Michigan have both established disaster relief funds. Portage leaders also directed people to the Michigan Volunteer Registry to find out how they can help.

The Better Business Bureau is telling homeowners to beware of scammers when looking to hire help to clean up, especially anyone going door-to-door or on social media offering assistance. The BBB notes it has thunderstorm and tornado resources online.

POWER OUTAGES

Consumers Energy said it was sending crews to Branch, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph counties in the wake of the storm to restore gas and electricity as quickly as possible. It expected the majority customers would get service back by midnight, but some in the hardest-hit areas would take until Thursday.

Consumers said 160 electric line crews and another 70 gas crews were at work as of about 4 p.m. Wednesday, and more were on the way from elsewhere in the state.

“…We’ll have 200-plus total electric crews, 75-plus gas crews when it’s all said and done,” Chris Laird, Consumers’ vice president of electric operations, said.

He also noted that downed trees were slowing crews’ travel to affected areas. Sheriff Fuller said thousands of trees were downed in Portage and surrounding areas. Laird stressed that safety was Consumers’ top priority and thanked people for their patience.

Laird said a total of about 30,000 customers were affected by the storms. Two thirds of those had power back as of early Wednesday evening.

The Consumers outage map showed the following West Michigan counties had more than 100 Consumers customers without power as of about 5 a.m. Thursday:

  • Branch County: 408
  • Kalamazoo County: 2,205
  • St. Joseph County: 319

The outages meant many traffic lights in Portage were out Wednesday. The mayor added that five were damaged.

Consumers Energy urges people to stay at least 25 feet away from downed power lines. If you see one, assume it is energized, call 911 and Consumers at 800.477.5050.

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If you’re using a generator, remember you should never run it inside your home or garage. That can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be fatal. If you are using a generator and start to feel ill, get away from the house and call 911.

‘Thought we were gonna die’: Tornado destroys homes, businesses in Portage area (2024)
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