A rare tornado ripped through a small northern Michigan community on Friday, killing at least two people and injuring more than 40 others as it flipped vehicles, tore roofs off buildings and downed trees and power lines.
The tornado hit Gaylord, a town of about 4,200 people about 370 kilometers northwest of Detroit, around 3:45 p.m. local time.
Gaylord Police Chief Frank Claeys said the moments after the tornado were difficult for first responders.
“We were looking for places where we knew the occupants. We were calling them by name,” Claeys said. “It’s much more personal when our agents know the people who live in these homes.”
Mike Klepadlo, owner of Alter-Start North, an auto repair shop, said he and his employees hid in the toilet.
“I’m lucky to be alive. It blew up the back of the building,” he said. “twenty feet [6 metres] from the back wall has disappeared. The whole roof is missing. At least half of the building is still there. It’s bad.”
Emma Goddard, 15, said she was at work making a smoothie for a customer when she received a telephone alert about the tornado. Thinking the weather outside looked “stormy, but not scary”, she dismissed it and went back to what she was doing. Her mother then called and she assured her mother that she was fine.
Two minutes later, she was pouring a customer’s smoothie when her colleague’s mother rushed in, yelling at them to get to the back of the building, Goddard told The Associated Press via text message. . They took shelter in the cold room, where they could hear the windows breaking.
“I was crammed side by side with my seven co-workers, two of my co-workers’ parents and a lady from Door Dash picking up her smoothies,” she said.
After about 15 minutes, they left the cooler and could smell natural gas, Goddard said.
When they left the cooler about 15 minutes later and came out, they saw “some of our cars in pieces and isolated all over the ground”, she said, adding that three nearby businesses had been destroyed.
Brian Lawson, spokesman for Munson Healthcare, said Friday that Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord was treating 23 people injured by the tornado and one person was killed.
Police reported a second death on Saturday. State Police Lt. Derrick Carroll said the victim was 70 years old and lived in a mobile home park. No further details have been released.
The Otsego County Fire Chief said there was ‘probably 95 per cent destruction’ at the Nottingham mobile home park, with everything ‘picked up and put back’.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Gaylord Mayor Todd Sharrard said. “I’m numb.”
Video posted online showed a dark funnel cloud materializing from a cloud as nervous drivers watched or slowly drove away, unsure of its path.
Another video showed extensive damage along the town’s main street. A building appeared to be largely collapsed and a Goodwill store was badly damaged. A collapsed utility pole lay on the side of the road and debris, including what appeared to be electrical wires and parts of a Marathon gas station, was strewn all along the street.
The Red Cross was setting up a shelter in a church.
Eddie Thrasher, 55, said he was sitting in his car outside an auto parts store when the tornado appeared above him.
“There are roofs ripped off businesses, a row of industrial-type warehouses,” Thrasher said. “The motorhomes were overturned and destroyed. There were a lot of emergency vehicles coming from the east of the city.”
He said he ran into the store to get out.
“My adrenaline was going crazy,” Thrasher said. “In less than five minutes, it was over.”
Extreme winds are rare in this part of Michigan because the Great Lakes suck up storm energy, especially in early spring when the lakes are very cold, said Jim Keysor, a Gaylord-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“Many children and young adults would never have experienced direct severe weather if they had lived in Gaylord all their lives,” he said.
The last time Gaylord experienced a severe windstorm was in 1998, when straight-line winds reached 100mph, Keysor said.
Tornado damage today in Gaylord, Michigan…video by Steven Bischer pic.twitter.com/RH5SK7U7yJ
He said the conditions that spawned Friday’s tornado included a cold front coming from Wisconsin and hitting warm, moist air over Gaylord, with the added ingredient of turning winds into the lower part of the atmosphere.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer has declared a state of emergency for Otsego County, making other state resources available.