Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Clean Up

This is the third and last installment of the memories of a teenager as a tornado went through Alpine Township on Palm Sunday, April 11, 1965.
Looking back I think that we were all in a daze, and may have thought everything that had happened to us had been a bad dream. But before the day was over, we began to realize that it was real. There was an immediate response from the neighboring community as the National Guard and neighboring law enforcement agencies showed up to assist. In addition to looking for injuries, they sealed off the area and would no longer permit anyone to enter an area stretching from 3 Mile to 7 Mile, and from Baumhoff to Alpine. We too, were asked to secure our area, but how exactly would you do that in the rubble? That night, my family slept at Norma’s house. I still remember laying in Norma’s bedroom, with no power and no heat. The temperature had dropped dramatically that evening, I recall seeing the flashlights of looters as the appeared across the field behind the damaged homes. It had not taken long for the word to spread. It frightened and saddened me to see that there were greedy people in the world, while we had lost everything. Then my mind would drift and think about our protectors, the emergency teams, the many volunteers who stood guard over our torn and scattered property that night, and many nights to come.

Monday, the very next day after the tornado, the weather had turned cold and the skies were now filled with wintery clouds, hinting that snow was on the way. Gone were the thoughts of summer fun that had teased us so bad the day before. Our mind now became occupied with the results of the damage, how everything was going to get cleaned up, if we would ever recover our most valuable possessions, and if we could ever rebuild all that we had. The clean up started that day. First we searched our own property, looking for anything salvageable. Mud, dirt and insulation were plastered to everything. There was hardly anything that had gone unscathed. The very Saturday after the tornado, the day before Easter, hundreds of volunteers came out to help search and pick up debris on our neighboring farms. Even with good intentions, they were hampered by a blanket of snow that had covered the fields. Clean up continued throughout the summer. Every object, every piece of paper that we ran across was carefully examined, to make sure it was not something of value, sentimental or otherwise, that belonged to a neighbor. It was almost a ritual, one we wanted to do to remove all evidence, to deny that a disaster had struck our community.

Despite all the destruction, there had only been one death reported in our community, a salesman who had rented a room at the Swan Inn, less than half a mile from our home. Somehow our thoughts were not as much with him and his family as with our own.

I returned to school on Monday after Easter. We lived in a trailer park that summer. Tornado alerts caused fear and angst that summer, and saw us seek shelter in the Fire barn across Alpine Avenue many times. The Red Cross brought food and clothing. The Sunday after Easter our streets were opened again but when so many gawkers began to show up that we could not even get out of our own vehicles in and out of the street, they were closed once again.

These are some of my immediate recollections of the Palm Sunday Tornado. It is one of many stories.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Aftermath

This is the second installment of the recollections of a teenager as a tornado swept through Alpine Township on Palm Sunday, April 11 1965

Norma and I wanted to go and make sure our own families were okay but Kathy’s parents would not allow us to leave. They were right because no one knew what it was like out there, or what we would find. There could be broken gas lines, downed power lines, and worse, injured people. The thought of my own family being injured horrified me.

Shortly, Cathy’s older brother, who had not been home at the time of the storm, arrived. He was overjoyed to see his family free of injuries. When I asked if he thought it was safe for me to go home, he hesitated, and then told me that I best not go because my house too had been severely damaged. Norma asked about her home, and she learned that her home had been saved, and that it would be OK for her to leave, As we were being helped out of the basement, I told Cathy’s family that I was leaving and going with Norma to her house, which was just past my own house. Of course I had no intention of going with Norma; I wanted to go home and prayed my family was safe and uninjured.

The destruction we met as we left the basement was overwhelming. Kathy’s house was gone except for one brick wall. My sister’s car? It was totaled and buried in bricks. It was the least of my worries.

I pulled myself together gingerly, stepping over power lines and the debris that was scatted all over. As I reached the street I was met by a man who asked me what happened, and then continued to say that no one knew. I remembered seeing the clock at Cathy’s. It had stopped at 7:05 PM, twenty five minutes ago, if I went with the time the man had given me. I started to run down the street, all the homes were damaged, some pushed off their foundation. Others missing their roof, or entire walls. The house next to my home had been flattened as if blocks of dominoes. Where was Mrs. McDonald, the elderly lady who lived there?
Seeing my home standing gave me a little hope, although walls were blown out and a part of the roof was gone. I saw no family so I ran into the house shouting for them. My mother’s shaky voice came from a room in the basement located under the stairs. Rushing towards that area, I found my mother, my sisters, and my four nephews all under the age of 6, and all apparently uninjured. They had never made it into the basement, and had found safety under my parents bed. But where was my Dad? My Dad was a volunteer fireman, and had already begun rescue efforts. He had first checked on Mrs. McDonald next door and had found her covered with debris and with lacerations to her legs. My dad brought the neighbor to our house, and rushed to the fire station, to get help and set off the siren. My sister ran out to get someone to help and a man in a station wagon, a good Samaritan offered to take our neighbor to the hospital. As my sister and I began sharing stories about what happened, someone advised us to leave the house immediately, gas was escaping.

My sister grabbed two of the nephews, I grabbed another one, and my mom, injured by a dresser mirror that had fallen on her, grabbed the youngest nephew and we started up the stairs. My mother was in front of me and having trouble opening the broken door, and I dropped my nephew to the ground to help my mom with the door, we were met by a camera man who was shooting pictures. I thanked them sarcastically for his help and I doubt if he cared. My mom and nephew made the national news, so I guess the man got what he wanted.

After my family settled in at Norma’s house for the night, I went back out looking for my Dad. He was still out help organize clear paths for emergency vehicles. running up to him I was crying, and I asked him why he had not come over to Cathy’s house to see if I was OK, or come and got me? He looked at me through fatherly eyes, and then he just grabbed and hugged me. Later he told me that as he saw me in front of him that night; a cold chill had come over his heart. He had been so busy organizing help that he had forgotten all about the daughter who had not been home that evening. The adrenalin had kicked in and all that training for emergencies had taken over his thoughts.

This was not the end of the trials we were to face.


Thursday, April 9, 2009


Can you take 20 minutes to participate in the Kent County Senior Millage Needs Assessment?

The Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan (AAAWM) has administered the Kent County Senior Millage since its inception in 1998. The senior millage (property tax) is dedicated to providing an array of services to residents of Kent County who are 60 years of age and older.

NEEDED: Older adults (age 60+) to complete an online survey that explores current and future needs of older adults in Kent County. The compiled results will be a guidepost for our funding process for the services that will begin in 2010.

WHEN: The survey takes approximately 20 minutes to complete and will be available March 16 – April 30, 2009.

HOW: Go to AAAWM’s website at and click on Kent County Senior Millage Needs Assessment Survey.

Thank you for taking the time to make a difference in the lives of older adults (age 60+) in our community.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Palm Sunday Tornado, 1965 Alpine Township

With the telephone lines down, emergency services in Elkhart County, Indiana, could not warn Michigan residents that the tornadoes were headed their way. In Michigan, tornadoes hit as far north as Allendale, in Ottawa County, Michigan, just west of Grand Rapids. Out of the southernmost counties of Michigan, all but three (Berrien, Cass, and St. Joseph counties) were hit. Two F4 tornadoes struck Hillsdale County and destroyed about 200 cottages along Baw Beese Lake. It was said many people were saved as they were in church instead of out by the lake. Later, the Manitou Beach-Devils Lake area in Lenawee County was hit by two tornadoes (one an F4) in a span of a little more than 30 minutes, causing numerous fatalities (including a family of six). One of the buildings leveled was the local dance pavilion on Devils Lake, which had just recently been rebuilt after having been destroyed by a fire on Labor Day of 1963. One of the twisters went on to damage parts of Onsted; in the nearby village of Tipton, which suffered a direct hit, 94% of the town's buildings were damaged or destroyed. Here is just one of many stories about that day, this one as remembered by then seventeen year old Marilyn Homrich.

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, the day my family attended church to receive palms and prepare for Holy Week. It was a beautiful spring morning and after church me and my good friends Norma and Kathy were going to hang out. I asked my older sister Irene if we could borrow her white Ford Comet to go cruising, which in those days was one of the most popular things for seventeen year old kids to do. Around 3:00 PM, with dear Irene’s consent, I picked up Norma and Kathy, who both lived a few houses away on each side of me on Alpine Church Road. By this time the sky had turned from blue to gray, the humidity was rising, and the temperature spiked to over 70 degrees F. This had us donning pedal pushers and short-sleeved blouses, as if summer had already arrived.

What I had failed to tell my sister Irene is that Kathy and I (who were very experienced drivers at age 17) wanted to help 16 year old Norma practice for her upcoming driver’s exam. After three hours of backing up and parking maneuvers, we decided to call it quits for the day. Our job was accomplished and there was no damage to the Comet. We could see the sky changing, warning us that a storm was approaching as we headed for Kathy’s house. As we arrived there, the storm seemed over us and we decided to wait it out in the house.

We entered to find Kathy’s family watching TV in the family room. A weather forecaster interrupted the scheduled program announcing severe weather in the region, but fortunately, Kent County was not included in the warning so we felt safe and relieved. Kathy, who had gone into the kitchen, called me over to take a look at my sister’s Comet parked in the driveway, and clearly visible from the kitchen window. I saw my sister’s two-ton car bouncing up and down and shimmying from side to side.

Despite the force of the wind, and a sky that had now turned a putrid pea-green, we returned to the living room, not overly concerned. After all, the weatherman had said that Kent County was not included in the severe weather area. It wasn’t until much later that we learned that the local radar system was being upgraded and was not in commission, and that a tornado, which had originated from a horribly violent storm in Northern Indiana was heading straight toward us. There would be no alert, no warning.

The living room TV suddenly lost its picture and the screen showed only static. At the same time Kathy’s mom had gone into her bedroom to retrieve a statue of St. Francis. To this day, some of us believe God called her into that room. She picked up the statue and looking through the South window, she saw an advancing funnel dismantling Holy Trinity, our church and school. There were only four houses between us and the swiftly advancing tornado. “Get in the basement!” shrieked Kathy’s mom, clinging to her statue. The words barely left her mouth and everybody was on their feet and rushed downstairs. The staircase windows exploded behind us as we took shelter. I remembered instructions to always go to the southwest corner wall, but being the last one down, there was no more room. There were seven of us, Kathy and her mom and dad, her brother, her sister, Norma and I. I settled for the middle of the room and sought shelter underneath the pool table. As I looked through one of the small basement windows, I could see the garage being scooped away. For only minutes, which seemed like hours, nobody moved or talked. Somewhere in the back of my mind came the thought that tornadoes often come in twos. And so we waited. I heard Kathy’s mom ask in a shaken and weak voice what had happened to her home. Crawling from underneath the pool table, I looked up and saw dark clouds through a gaping hole where there once had been a floor, and where only minutes earlier we had been sitting. In shock myself, I simply responded to her question with: “Your house is gone.” “How do you know?” She asked. “There is a hole above my head” I replied, and I am being rained on.” This comment seemed to bring us all back to life. We gathered ourselves up and checked each other out. One of us got something to stand on so we could look out the window that faced the neighbors west of us. The house was gone, subfloor and all. Nothing was left. Nothing. Our hearts sank. We feared the worst. Then we saw the neighbors emerge from their tombs. Out of their basements. God had been with all of us. But the day wasn’t over yet. My family lived two houses to the east. What had become of them?

To be continued.

Paths of Destruction

Alpine Township
Historical Commission
Open House
Sunday April 19, 2009

Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Herald

Alpine Twp. Historical Commission presents Earnest J. Ostuno on Sunday, April 19, 2009 at the Alpine Community Bldg., 2015 Seven Mi. Rd. NW.
Mr. Ostuno compiled a book titled "PATHS OF DESTRUCTION: THE STORY OF WEST MICHIGAN'S WORST NATURAL DISASTER" in 2008. As a meterologist he knows a lot about tornado facts and history. The 1956 tornados traveled from Saugatuck to Holland and from Hudsonville to Lakeview. The catagory "4" is used at this time because of the depth of destruction seen and analyzed.

The Alpine Open House will begin shortly after 2PM with a video called "CHANGING WINDS" , which is about the 1956 tornado. Later, Earnest Ostuno will give a presentation with more photos on the 1956 tornado and some on the 1965 "Palm Sunday " tornado which tore through Alpine Township 44 years ago this month.

Mr. Ostuno is asking the public to bring personal photos, slides, home movies and news clippings to this event so that they can be scanned and preserved at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Alpine Township hosts forum on Right to Farm,

On April 2, 2009, The Michigan Township Association,in cooperation with the Michigan Farm Bureau and State of Michigan offered a panel discussion on Right to Farm and State Construction Code. The Forum was at the Alpine Township Hall, and focused on the Right to Farm Act in on-farm and local government planning, including educating the public on the act and agriculture's role in the construction code. About 50 area officials and people involved in agriculture attended.