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Rare northern Michigan tornado kills 2, injures more than 40

The tornado flipped this car upside down.
Taylor Wizner/IPR
The tornado flipped this car upside down.

Update: Sunday, May 22, 12:02 p.m.

Nearly all of the power lost following a deadly tornado that killed two people and flattened parts of a northern Michigan community has been restored. The state police said Sunday that everyone has been accounted for in Gaylord where Friday afternoon's EF3 tornado also injured more than 40 people.

State police said Sunday that electricity has been restored to 99% of utility customers in Gaylord.

Residents are returning to their homes to clean up debris.

The damage from the tornado is unlike one this community has ever seen. It tore off roofs, flipped over RVs and caved in walls of residential homes.

William McQueen arrived home from his trucking job to find his roof gone.

His adult daughter and granddaughter are at the hospital for their injuries.

“My daughter took out 25 pieces of glass out of the back because of when the window blew out,” he said.

McQueen stayed to salvage some of his belongings.

He said on Saturday he would drive thirty miles south to another town to stay the night since all the hotel rooms in Gaylord are booked.

Neighbors and people from all over Michigan arrived Saturday wearing work gloves, carrying chainsaws and bringing their trailers to help people with damaged homes.

They cut trees fallen on homes, distributed food and water, and helped document damage for insurance claims.

High school student Joseph Kasprzak drove down with two cars of volunteers from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“From Sault Ste. Marie. I’m here with my family just to help out,” he said.

The community expressed shock at the extensive damage caused by the tornado, as touchdowns are rare in Michigan.

The last one to cause significant damage was in Dexter in 2012.

Update: Saturday, May 21: 7:30 p.m.

The National Weather Service gave the tornado that tore through Gaylord on Friday an EF-3 rating, and said wind speeds peaked at 150 miles per hour.

The Michigan State Police said the tornado devastated the Nottingham mobile home park, and said two people in their 70s were killed there.

Chris Martin is the Otsego County fire chief.

“Out of the mobile home park there is probably 95% destruction in there. There have been trailers picked up and turned over on top of each other and just a very large debris field from the trailers,” Martin said. “Crews are in there right now doing a secondary search with heavy equipment and that'll continue throughout the day."

Officials said 44 people were injured by the tornado.

Utica resident Brandon Budde next to his flattened 36 foot RV. He said he was having work done on it at the RV storage and repair shop in Gaylord.
Taylor Wizner/IPR
Utica resident Brandon Budde next to his flattened 36 foot RV. He said he was having work done on it at the RV storage and repair shop in Gaylord.

Michigan State Police Lieutenant Derrick Carroll confirmed there are no tornado sirens in Gaylord.

"What we have is code red. And code red is tied into the National Weather Service so when they issue a warning it goes out to all cellular devices in the area so everybody's getting an alert. When the tornado touched down, another alert went out: there's a tornado on the ground," said Carroll.

Carroll said at 3:38 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Gaylord. At 3:48 p.m., the tornado touched down, hitting the mobile home park and tearing through the business area of Gaylord.

John Boris with the National Weather Service said it’s rare for a tornado to hit northern Michigan.

"We don't get a whole lot of tornadoes in the state of Michigan in general. We typically average about 15 or so in the entire state (per year) and more of those are downstate than they are up to the north. So it is pretty unusual for up here."

Boris said a survey team was examining the damage in Gaylord on Saturday.

Update: Saturday, May 21, 12:10 p.m.

Police say a second person died in a rare tornado that hit Gaylord Friday afternoon.

Lt. Derrick Carroll said the person was in their 70s and lived in a mobile home park. No other details have been released.

More than 40 people were injured.

Frank Claeys is Gaylord's chief of police. He said the experience has been devastating.

"We were searching for places that we knew the occupants. We were calling them out by name trying to see if they were still in their damaged homes," said Claeys. "When you see that, it's a lot more personal when our officers know the people that live in those homes and are trying to check on them."

A mobile home park was among the first sites hit by the tornado. The Otsego County fire chief said there's "probably 95% destruction" at the park, with mobile homes "picked up and turned over."

Original post: Friday, May 20, 11:25 p.m.:

A rare northern Michigan tornado tore through the small community of Gaylord on Friday afternoon, killing at least one person and injuring more than 40 others as it flipped vehicles, tore roofs from buildings and downed trees and power lines.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Otsego County Friday night, making further state resources available to the county.

"I know it’s going to be a tough weekend for families here and for businesses and for the recovery. We’re Michiganders and we’re tough and we’re resilient," Whitmer said. "We have been through a lot of tough stuff together, especially over the last few years, and we’ll get through this."

Eddie Thrasher, 55, said he was sitting in his car outside an auto parts store when the twister seemed to appear above him.

“There are roofs ripped off businesses, a row of industrial-type warehouses,” Thrasher said. “RVs were flipped upside down and destroyed. There were a lot of emergency vehicles heading from the east side of town.”

An RV business in Gaylord is damaged after Friday's tornado.
Chrystal Dutcher
An RV business in Gaylord is damaged after Friday's tornado.

He said he ran into the store to ride it out.

“My adrenaline was going like crazy,” Thrasher said. “In less than five minutes it was over.”

Multiple homes were damaged and trees and powerlines were downed and blocking roads, the State Police said on Twitter.

Mike Klepadlo, owner of Alter-Start North, a car repair shop, said he and his workers took cover in a bathroom.

“I’m lucky I’m alive. It blew the back off the building,” he said. “Twenty feet of the back wall is gone. The whole roof is missing. At least half the building is still here. It’s bad.”

The National Weather Service in Gaylord said the tornado was accompanied by hail the size of ping pong balls up through large eggs.

Jim Fizer with the weather service's local office called it "a pretty devastating situation."

"We know that there was a lot of damage, a lot of businesses, a lot of homes. There's debris that's blocking a number of roads. You can't even get into a lot of areas right now because there's so much debris," Fizer said.

Brian Lawson, a spokesperson for Munson Healthcare, said Gaylord-Otsego Memorial Hospital was treating 23 people who were injured by the tornado and that one person was killed. He didn’t know the conditions of the injured or the name of the person who died.

Lawson said the pace of people being brought to the hospital had slowed by Friday evening.

“From what I’m gathering, things have stabilized a bit,” he said.

The Michigan State Patrol confirmed that one person was killed, saying in a tweet that more than 40 others were hurt and being treated at area hospitals. The patrol planned to hold a briefing Saturday morning.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Gaylord Mayor Todd Sharrard said. “I’m numb.”

Extreme winds are uncommon in this part of Michigan because the Great Lakes suck energy out of storms, especially early in spring when the lakes are very cold, said Jim Keysor, a Gaylord-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“Many kids and young adults would have never experienced any direct severe weather if they had lived in Gaylord their entire lives,” he said.

The last time Gaylord had a severe wind storm was in 1998, when straight-line winds reached 100 mph, Keysor said. He said the conditions that spawned Friday’s twister included a cold front moving in from Wisconsin and hitting hot and humid air over Gaylord, with the added ingredient of turning winds in the lower part of the atmosphere.

IPR's Taylor Wizner is passionate about empowering communities through solid reporting.
Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
Amy began working for WCMU in late-2006. She is the local host of All Things Considered, and WCMU's News Director. She is responsible for leading a team of reporters covering stories throughout WCMU's 44 county coverage area.
The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
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