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Local News

Deadly Tornado Decimates Northern Michigan Area – Businesses and Residents Return to Rebuild

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Parker Willis 

On Friday, May 20th, a tornado ripped through the city of Gaylord with max winds of 140 miles per hour, injuring 44 people, killing two, and leaving thousands in Otsego, Antrim, and Crawford County without power and homes.

According to Gaylord Police Chief Frank Claeys, the tornado destroyed “a three-block stretch of the city” in the span of three minutes. Brian Wheeler, media relations manager for Consumers Energy, reports that 14,000 power outages occurred on Friday from Grayling to Gaylord. 

One of the places hit the hardest was Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park in Gaylord. Otsego County Fire Chief, Chris Martin, reported “95% destruction” in the mobile home park after the tornado passed through. The two deaths recorded due to the tornado were two residents of Nottingham Forest in their 70s. 

Tornadoes in Michigan, especially in the northern part of the state, are uncommon. One reason being that extreme winds have their energy sapped by the chilly waters of the Great Lakes, according to Jim Keysor, a National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist based in Gaylord. This particular tornado was formed when a cold front from Wisconsin met hot, humid air over Northern Michigan.

The last lethal tornado in Michigan was recorded in 2010 in St. Clair County, which borders Canada on the eastern side of the state. Gaylord itself does not even have a tornado siren, having no history of tornadoes since 1950. A code red alert was sent to cell phones in the area to warn of the incoming disaster, first as a thunderstorm warning for Otsego County, then upgraded to a tornado warning less than 20 minutes later. A 10-to-15-minute warning for tornadoes is typical, according to NWS meteorologist John Boris. 

As such, many were caught off-guard by the sudden twister. Fifteen year-old Emma Goddard, who was working at the Tropical Smoothie Cafe when she received the code red, recounts having to stow away in a walk-in cooler to brave the storm. “I was crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with my seven co-workers, two of my co-workers’ parents and a lady from DoorDash coming to pick up her smoothies,” Goddard said. 

For a great number of residents, this was the first time they encountered a natural disaster of this scale. “I’ve been with the National Weather Service for 29 years,” Boris recalled, “and that is the only time I have texted my wife and said, ‘get in the basement and text your friends.’” Keysor adds that “many kids and young adults would have never experienced any direct severe weather if they had lived in Gaylord their entire lives.”

Despite the tragedy and destruction, the community response has been incredible. The day after the tornado, local residents came to help move debris and clean the wreckage. Tom Keyser, for instance, drove 12 miles to Gaylord to help clear branches. 

Within hours of the tornado landing, the American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for residents displaced by the disaster. About a dozen people have registered to stay at the shelter with more expected to come. “We’re kind of assuming potentially with 40 odd people in the hospital whose homes are destroyed,” said Matthew Glenn, an American Red Cross disaster program manager in northern Michigan, “so when they are released from the hospital, they may need a shelter to come to.”

Local businesses and organizations are also pitching in to help those in need. Otsego Community Foundation set up a relief fund, which as of May 21st raised more than $13,500 toward the $100,000 goal. David Pickelhaupt, owner of Hillman Small Engine & Outdoor Power Sports Repair in Hillman, offered the residents of Gaylord free labor and in-field service to generators and other items, and Consumers Energy employees gave out free BBQ meals and beverages to locals. 

Theresa Haske, who has lived in Gaylord with her husband for 27 years, said the following: “Because we live in the north, we get kind of forgotten about up here and devastating things don’t happen, and then when they do, you just have people coming out of the woodwork.”

Derek Carroll of Michigan State Police said, “Everybody coming together has really made Gaylord a shining star of what a community should do in a disaster.”