Essay Project 2021: A Sense of Community
By Evelyn Rockey
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” ( Margaret J. Wheatley) On June 22nd a little after 2:30 pm an EF one tornado descended upon Portland without warning, a small mid- Michigan town I have considered home. The way that I would view Portland after that day would change forever, not because of the devastation or the shock that I saw but instead because of the unity, the coming together, and the sense of community that I became aware of. This was always present throughout the town though it was just reignited because you could visually see people’s reaction to the storm and how they interacted with others throughout the community.
Most likely, my age and circumstance at the time are why the 2015 tornado had such a profound influence upon me. I was eleven and enrolled in the Portland Civic Players (PCP) summer youth program. As in most stories, the day started out like every other. Kids such as myself got to the theater early that morning. Anticipating a long day we’d packed snacks and lunch. During a break, I noticed the sun shining in a bright blue sky with just a few white fluffy clouds. The air felt warm like your typical Michigan summer day. While eating my snack for the day, this kid came over to me and said “ did you see the news this morning there is like a 95% chance of a tornado striking either here or around here.” My first and only thought at the moment after hearing that was, he was just saying this to get attention. All of my life I was told that the chances of a tornado actually striking Portland were slim to none. I then proceeded to tell him that there was a super small chance because the two rivers protect us. Coming home later that day I could see storm clouds rolling in, at this moment I told my mom that someone at summer theater said there was a high chance of a tornado today. As soon as I told her that she started driving faster, I didn’t know it at the time but she could see a greenish color in the sky, and something felt off. Its common right before a tornado for the sky to take on a murky green color that's because “ The green comes from sunlight reflecting off hailstones which typically accompany tornadoes.” (Warning Signs a Tornado May Develop) After the tornado had passed and the danger was over my mom, siblings, and I all went to town so that I could drop money off at the bank. The first area of damage we encountered was north of Ionia Rd and west of Keefer Hwy. There we saw evidence of severe straight-line winds at the home of Gene and Charlotte Mauer. As we progressed in an easterly direction along Grand River we came upon Father Flohe Field. The roof from a nearby home was ripped off and the athletic barn for St. Patrick School was flattened. We all began to worry. The extent of the devastation seemed surreal. How could this be the same town? Debris across the road stopped us. I gazed upon Father Flohe Field and was struck by the activity taking place. It hadn’t even been an hour and already people were gathering. They came to see what needed to be done and to offer help. The next day I was at my Aunt’s house helping her clean up the tree that had fallen right on her apartment. While cleaning I saw some girls passing out waters to the volunteers who needed them, at that moment things just kind of struck me of what had just taken place in the last twenty- four hours or so.
Recently I interviewed Portland mayor Jim Barnes- Mayor at the time of the 2015 tornado, Mrs. Merry Hass- the owner of the downtown establishment ,The Port; and Jim and Jeannie Klein- twice impacted by tornadoes at the same Portland address. On June 22nd, Mayor Barnes was working at his day job in Ann Arbor when he got a call from his wife that something had just gone through their hometown. Driving home from Ann Arbor, near the Kent St. exit 77 he could see tree branches and debris on the expressway, at this point he knew something definitely came through Portland.When I asked if he had any comments or thoughts regarding the sense of community cohesion in the immediate aftermath of the tornado he responded simply, We helped each other, supported each other, and if it was less like Portland in terms of the close-knit community it may have happened differently such as citizens making it worse by taking advantage of each other in a time vulnerability.
After the Tornado I remember there was an influx in people and families moving to Portland. One of those families that moved to Portland was the Hass family. They had already planned on moving and they ended up in Portland while moving into their new house, people they didn’t even know were showing up to help unload their stuff and some were dropping off meals to them. While moving and setting things up in their new home she could see the type of community we are. A community that comes together. In September of 2019, she along with her husband opened the Port on Main Street. Whenever customers inquire about where to dine or shop, Merry always mentions locally-owned establishments knowing others in the area do likewise.
Finally, I had the privilege of interviewing Jim and Jeannie Klein, lifelong Portland residents impacted by two tornados that swept through the same geographic area nearly 50 years apart: first in 1967 and again in 2015. Luckily, the Kleins paid attention to natural indicators for impending doom during the 1967 storm. Water bubbled in their toilets, the atmosphere turned still, and a sound like a freight-train descended upon their trailer. The 2015 tornado came upon them swiftly and without warning. Jeannie got up from a quick snooze on the couch and noticed near white-out conditions in the sky. As she attempted to close the storm door, Jim noticed a distinct change in air pressure. Worried about a tornado, he grabbed Jeannie by the shirt and escorted her to the basement. Within 30 seconds their whole world changed. The roof of their 1,500 square foot home was ripped away. Strewn across their property was insulation, glass, and twisted metal. Personal belongings, from their home and their barns, were scattered for miles. A large, uprooted tree blocked access to their driveway and home. It was a total loss. And yet, as Jim and Jeannie emerged they took note of two things. First, the mess that greeted them and second, the people already pitching in. Neighbors held their hands as they assessed the damage. The tree was being assaulted by a chainsaw. Food,water, and ice was dispensed courtesy of the local grocery store, firefighters, and good samaritans. Jeannie swears at least one hundred people were pitching in at some point. Jim attests that within two days of the tornado the yard was so clean he could have!
There is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street and being the noise.” A few days after the tornado struck a phrase came out about Portland which is “ Portland Strong” when Amy Khan, the creator of the phrase was interviewed she said this “ No to be Portland strong you serve. You help your neighbors. You volunteer. You donate your time. You’re selfless. Its automatic, its instinct. You just do what needs to be done.” (After the storm one year later) As a community we come together to celebrate, to mourn to help out, to look back, and all things in between. When the one year anniversary of the tornado approached we came together to look back on that day and to celebrate our community. And when we had the 150th anniversary of our founding, we held a weekend-long of events to celebrate our town and thank the people that started it. It is said that the two rivers define our city, but let me say this we as a community defines the rivers. We come together just like the rivers do in Portland.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.