GAYLORD, Mich. – A rare tornado barreled through a small Michigan community Friday, killing at least two people, injuring dozens and leaving wreckage in its wake.
At least 44 people were treated at nearby hospitals for their injuries after a tornado touched down in Gaylord and tore through the northern Michigan town of 3,600 residents about 230 miles northwest of Detroit. Two people were killed by the storm, according to Michigan State Police.
It is unclear how many people are missing.
Vic Ouellette, a city councilman in Gaylord, said his wife, Connie, was among dozens injured.
When the couple took shelter in the basement of the family home where Vic was born, he was knocked in the head, and his wife’s vertebrae was cracked by debris flying through the air.
“I watched her literally get slammed with debris and particles from the flooring,” Vic said. “The wall slapped her on the back and knocked her down with stuff going on top of her.”
A neighbor helped the couple out of the basement, and Vic hopes his wife will be able to leave the hospital Saturday.
The tornado left the small town devastated with collapsed commercial and residential buildings, downed power lines and crushed vehicles in its wake.
The roof of a Hobby Lobby was ripped off. Traffic lights stopped working. Photos showed damage to an Aldi Grocery Store, with debris crowding a crushed entranceway.
The town was inundated with downed power lines and trees. Authorities have warned residents to stay at least 25 feet away from downed power lines.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Mayor Todd Sharrard said. “I’m numb.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency Friday in Otsego County, making available all state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery efforts in the area. A shelter for displaced residents was set up at a local church, police said.
“To the entire Gaylord community — Michigan is with you,” Whitmer said in a tweet. “We will do what it takes to rebuild.”
Residents of Gaylord surveyed the destruction Saturday morning, beginning the grueling clean-up process.
Laurie Noa hauled broken tree branches from her yard to the street Saturday morning near her house close to Gaylord’s central business corridor. She said she first saw warnings about the storm on television. The tornado came through quickly.
“It was loud, like a train roaring,” she said. “It was very stressful … I’ve never been through one.”
Eddie Thrasher, 55, ran into an auto parts store when he noticed the twister seemed to appear above his car. He said he saw roofs ripped off businesses and RVs flipped over.
“My adrenaline was going like crazy,” Thrasher said. “In less than five minutes it was over.”
Mike Klepadlo, owner of Alter-Start North, a car repair shop, took cover in a bathroom with his employees. The tornado tore off the back of the building and the roof.
“I’m lucky I’m alive,” he said.
The tornado resulted from several weather variables coming together at once in a rare event for northern Michigan, according to the National Weather Service. The agency reported wind gusts as high as 76 mph.
A low pressure system west of Lake Michigan helped create conditions ripe for severe weather Friday evening and afternoon, according to the weather service.
As the weather system moved across the Midwest, the storm turned into what’s called a supercell thunderstorm, a type of storm that can produce conditions for damage, including high winds and the kind of tornado that ripped through Gaylord.
Jim Keysor, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Gaylord, said extreme winds are uncommon in the area because the Great Lakes suck energy out of storms, especially early in spring when the lakes are very cold.
“Many kids and young adults would have never experienced any direct severe weather if they had lived in Gaylord their entire lives,” he said.
Posen, a small village in northern Michigan, received baseball-sized hail during the storm, according to NWS.
Contributing: Emma Stein and Paul Welitzkin, Detroit Free Press; Christine Fernando, USA TODAY; The Associated Press