Online rosary

2 people were killed in a rare tornado that hit northern Michigan

Updated May 21, 2022 10:13 PM ET

The roofs and walls of a busy commercial stretch have been turned into tangled rubble. The mobile homes were destroyed. Tornadoes are so rare in northern Michigan that Gaylord doesn’t have a siren system to warn people of dangerous weather conditions.

The town of 4,200 turned to cleanup on Saturday, a day after a tornado with 140mph winds hit Gaylord, killing two people, injuring more than 40 residents and shocking residents who know storms better snow than spring windstorms.

One utility reported great progress in restoring power, even though thousands of people still lacked power. Some roads remained clogged with downed poles and other debris.

“We have a lot of debris to clean up,” said State Police Lt. Derrick Carroll.

Two people in their 60s who lived in the Nottingham Forest mobile home park have died, state police said. It was one of the first sites hit by the tornado, which was rated EF3 by the National Weather Service on a scale of 0 to 5.

“There were trailers picked up and flipped on top of each other. Just a really big debris field,” said Otsego County Fire Chief Chris Martin. Martin said crews used heavy equipment to conduct a secondary search in the area.

He said there was “probably 95% destruction in there”.

Gaylord, about 230 miles northwest of Detroit, is a popular destination for skiers and snowmobilers in the winter and golfers in the summer. There are no tornado sirens, although anyone with a cellphone received a “code red” warning from the weather service about 10 minutes before the tornado hit, Carroll said.

Video posted online showed a dark funnel cloud approaching as anxious drivers watched or slowly drove away on roads in the area.

“Everyone in Michigan is going to stick together for these families and everyone working together to recover here,” Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said during a visit.

Betty Wisniewski, 87, avoided injury even though the tornado caused significant damage to her home, said her son Steve Wisniewski, who lives next door.

“Luckily she was fine – a rosary in hand,” he said from a ladder as he affixed plastic to his windows. “She was praying. Pretty amazing.”

Gaylord Police Chief Frank Claeys said the moments after the tornado were difficult for first responders.

“We were looking in 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.”

John Boris of the Gaylord Weather Service Station said the tornado moved through the community in about three minutes, but remained on the ground in the area for 26 minutes – a “fairly long” period.

“We don’t get a lot of tornadoes,” said Boris, a science and operations officer. “In the state of Michigan, in general, we average about 15 (a year) and more of them are downstate than they are upstate. That’s pretty unusual.”

Indeed, the last notable windstorm was in 1998 when straight-line winds of 100 mph swept through Gaylord.

Boris said 80-degree warm air earlier Friday and strong winds moving east over Lake Michigan were key conditions producing the tornado.

A link to climate change probably doesn’t fit, he said.

“It’s very difficult to attribute something very specific like this to a large-scale signal like that,” Boris said. “If we had them more frequently, that could be a signal.”

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