Two killed, dozens injured in rare Northern Michigan tornado
By Luke Vander Ploeg
A tornado that killed at least two people and injured dozens of others dropped out of the sky in far northern Michigan Friday and onto a mobile home park before tearing a three-block hole through the small city of Gaylord.
“It all just flashed before my eyes,” said Logan Clayton, 18, who was at home in the Nottingham Forest mobile home park, where the deaths were reported, when the winds became so intense that one window shattered. He recalled seeing “someone getting picked up, trailers getting picked up. It all just happened within 10 seconds and then it was gone.”
As cleanup began Saturday, and as more than 40 people were treated for injuries, officials struggled to make sense of the damage in a region where tornadoes are rare. One person remained unaccounted for, and crews were searching through wreckage from the EF3 tornado, which the National Weather Service said had maximum winds of 140 mph.
“We were calling them out by name, trying to see if they were still in their damaged homes,” said Chief Frank Claeys of the Gaylord Police Department. “And when you see that, it’s a lot more personal when our officers know the names of people who live in those homes.”
Forecasters had warned of the potential for severe weather Friday, but the tornado that hit Gaylord, population 4,300, still came suddenly. A severe thunderstorm warning issued in the afternoon was quickly upgraded to a tornado warning. The city, roughly 230 miles northwest of Detroit, has no tornado sirens, officials said, but people in the area were alerted to the storm by emergency notifications on their cellphones.
Within minutes, a tornado was on the ground, tearing apart the mobile homes and then charging across city limits from west to east. Cars were tossed on top of one another in a Hobby Lobby parking lot. A truck was upended next to a sign for a Culver’s restaurant. The roofs of several businesses had collapsed.
“This storm went a lot of places and did a lot of damages — hit a lot of homes, the commercial corridor,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Democrat who visited Gaylord on Saturday.
Clayton said he had heard about the coming storm only because of a call from his older brother, Declan, who was at a Meijer gas station just down the street and saw swirling winds and circling birds in the sky. By the time the elder Clayton made it back to the mobile home park, debris was blocking the roads into the complex.
“I had to run a block down to our trailer, hopping over trees and rubble, helping people where I could,” said Declan Clayton, 20. “Because there was people crawling out of rubble with injuries. There were people confused. They didn’t know what happened.”
More than 40 people were treated at hospitals for their injuries, and officials said it was possible that others were hurt but had not sought medical attention. So many people needed care that patients were diverted to other hospitals in the region as one in Gaylord filled up.
On Saturday, strip mall parking lots in parts of Gaylord remained fields of debris. A Goodwill store was missing part of its front wall. Smashed bricks and shattered plywood were strewed outside the entrance of a Tropical Smoothie Cafe.
Athena and Steve Sherbert, who were dropping off their daughter for a shift at the smoothie cafe when the storm hit, ended up riding out the tornado in the restaurant’s cooler.
“Right when we were running back to the cooler, that’s when the windows shattered,” Steve Sherbert said. “I could feel the glass hit the back of my legs.”
Tornadoes are far less common in Michigan than in many other Midwestern states. John Boris, of the National Weather Service office in Gaylord, said the state averaged about 15 tornadoes a year. Most of those occur well to the south of Gaylord, which is about 60 miles from the northern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula.
“Up here, stuff like this doesn’t happen,” said Joshua Comoford, 22, who was handing out drinks to firefighters and volunteers Saturday at the mobile home park. “You have rainstorms or severe winds. But a tornado actually ripping through our town? Nothing like that’s ever happened in my lifetime.”
Lt. Derrick Carroll, a spokesperson for the Michigan State Police, said that power outages continued in parts of Gaylord on Saturday and that a curfew would remain in place that night. Both people known to have died were in their 70s, he said. One of them was found overnight Friday during a search of the mobile home park with a cadaver dog. Crews continued to look Saturday for a person who was reported missing.
For those like Jasmine Vandenbrook, whose mobile home was smothered by other trailers and destroyed, the challenge was how to move forward now. Vandenbrook, 31, who shared the home with five family members, said she had no renters insurance. They had only been able to salvage a few items.
“It’s very hard seeing that you have nothing,” said Vandenbrook, who picked up some donated supplies — blankets, clothes, food — at a local church. “All your belongings, everything just ripped out of your house.”
Her family is now living in a friend’s camper until they can find a place to rent.