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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Two weeks later: Portage keeps clearing tornado damage. FEMA aid decisions pending.

A tornado damaged buildings in Portage on the evening of May 7.
Courtesy of the Portage City Manager's Office
Portage suffered some of the worst damage during the severe storms that hit southwest Michigan on May 7. Officials say the damage to city property alone is estimated at $3 million with private property damage expected to be tens of millions of dollars. Volunteer teams like this one have been helping with the cleanup.

Two weeks ago, tornadoes and other severe storms ripped through Southwest Michigan, destroying homes and businesses.

The cleanup is still happening in Branch, Cass, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency.

Some of the worst damage happened in the city of Portage in Kalamazoo County.

Pat McGinnis is the Portage city manager and joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou for an update on the recovery work there.

Doug Tribou: How are things in Portage today, two weeks after the tornado hit there?

Pat McGinnis: Well, I think they're, you know, optimistic. It's somewhat of a hellscape in the neighborhoods that were affected. It's an unreal sight when you go through, even two weeks later, where we've cleaned up most of the debris that was blocking the roads and people's driveways. We got that cleared up within a couple days, but still very, very messy. And the crews continue to plug away all day, every day while we have daylight.

Then we'll begin cleaning up the debris from the damaged and destroyed homes and businesses around town starting May 29. But we've got that much brush to clean up between now and then.

"It's somewhat of a hellscape in the neighborhoods that were affected. It's an unreal sight when you go through, even two weeks later."
Portage City Manager Pat McGinnis

DT: Preliminary assessments determined about 60 buildings were destroyed and another 530-plus were damaged in Kalamazoo County. Where do things stand on even thinking about rebuilding or repairing those?

PM: Well, it's a very complex environment out there because many people have up-to-date homeowners insurance that covers natural disasters, and others maybe have some exclusions, or lapses or headaches they might have. And some have no insurance at all. And then we're trying to find out what is the likelihood of public support for those people who have no means, no insurance.

So it seems that of those 60-ish destroyed buildings, a good percentage of them are going to have some need for assistance connecting them with the resources they'll need. It was already a very tight labor and supply market for the construction trades, so this is just going to exacerbate that shortage of supply for getting people out to work on these buildings.

Meanwhile, we've got various housing agencies in the county helping connect people with places where they can at least temporarily stay while they rebuild their past lives.

DT: The Federal Emergency Management Agency was scheduled to finish its damage assessments on Friday. When do you expect to get their estimates of how much federal assistance is needed, and when would those dollars be available?

PM: That is the question on everybody's lips around here. This Wednesday, we're going to have a meeting with FEMA and Michigan State Police Office of Emergency Management to try to get some of those answers. And I believe that the state police is setting this up to be accessible for all of those counties you've mentioned as part of this disaster area.

And ultimately, we'll be seeking a presidential declaration, which is not an easy thing to get. So we're adding things up and being very intentional and deliberate and putting together our data and hope to receive some level of relief. But we're not being told that's going to happen anytime soon.

The city of Portage is tapping into a fund normally reserved for future infrastructure projects to help pay for recovery efforts.

DT: You've worked in city governments in the state — in Grand Haven, West Branch, in addition to Portage — for more than 30 years. Do you have anything in your background that has prepared you for what you're dealing with now?

PM: Probably not to this level, but certainly I've had consistent, ongoing training from the state of Michigan in the different counties and cities I've worked in.

It seems like at least once a year we're having some sort of a hands-on, tabletop training exercise. And then it's just about relationships, knowing the people that work in your community in the different capacities, and having them ready to work with you.

DT: My colleague, Caoilinn Goss, spoke to the mayor of Portage just after the storms hit. Mayor Patricia Randall mentioned the possibility of using the city's rainy day funds to get things going faster. Do you have any update on on how that's factoring into what's happening now in Portage?

PM: We do have funds available that are programmed for future capital projects. We're looking at buildings, and roads, and sewer and water lines, and all kinds of very expensive infrastructure. So to the extent that's a rainy day fund, yes, it's rainy and we're using those resources.

Mayor Patricia Randall, [on the] night of [the storms], said 'If this isn't a good reason to use a rainy day fund, I don't know what is.'

As we speak, we're probably between $1 million and $2 million into the, relief effort.

And our property damage — just a very early estimate, we had our insurance company out with adjusters last week — we're probably looking at around $3 million worth of city property that's been hit. The private properties are going to multiply that ten or twentyfold, I'm sure.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
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