A rare northern Michigan tornado tore through a small community on Friday, killing at least one person and injuring more than 40 others as it flipped vehicles, tore roofs off buildings and downed trees and power lines.
The tornado hit Gaylord, a town of about 4,200 people about 230 miles (370 kilometers) northwest of Detroit, around 3:45 p.m.
Mike Klepadlo, owner of the Alter-Start North auto repair shop, said he and his employees hid in a bathroom.
“I’m lucky to be alive. He blew up the back of the building,” he said. “Twenty feet (6 meters) of the back wall is gone. The whole roof is missing. At least half of the building is still there. It’s bad.”
Emma Goddard, 15, said she was working at the Tropical Smoothie Cafe when she received a phone alert about the tornado. Thinking the weather outside looked “stormy, but not scary”, she dismissed it and went back to what she was doing. Her mother then called and she assured her mother that she was fine.
Two minutes later, she was pouring a customer’s smoothie when her colleague’s mother rushed in, yelling at them to get to the back of the building, Goddard told The Associated Press via text message. They took shelter in the cold room, where they could hear the windows breaking.
“I was crammed side by side with my seven co-workers, the parents of two of my co-workers and a lady from Door Dash picking up her smoothies.”
When they left the cooler about 15 minutes later and came out, they saw “some of our cars in pieces and isolated all over the ground,” Goddard said. Three nearby businesses were destroyed, she said.
Brian Lawson, a spokesman for Munson Healthcare, said Otsego Memorial Hospital was treating 23 people injured by the tornado and one person was killed. He did not know the condition of the injured or the name of the deceased.
Michigan State Police confirmed one person was killed, saying in a tweet that more than 40 other people were injured and treated at area hospitals. State police have planned to hold a briefing on Saturday morning.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Mayor Todd Sharrard said. “I’m numb.”
Video posted online showed a dark funnel cloud materializing from a cloud as nervous drivers watched or slowly drove away, unsure of its path.
Another video showed extensive damage along the town’s main street. A building appeared to be largely collapsed and a Goodwill store was badly damaged. A collapsed utility pole lay on the side of the road and debris, including what appeared to be electrical wires and parts of a Marathon gas station, was strewn all along the street.
The Red Cross set up a shelter in a church.
Brandie Slough, 42, said she and a teenage daughter sought safety in a Culver’s toilet. The fast food outlet’s windows were blown out as they exited and his van was flipped onto its roof in the parking lot.
“We shook our heads in disbelief, but thankful to be safe. At this point, who cares about the truck,” Slough said.
Eddie Thrasher, 55, said he was sitting in his car outside an auto parts store when the tornado appeared above him.
“There are roofs ripped off businesses, a row of industrial-type warehouses,” Thrasher said. “Motorhomes were overturned and destroyed. There were a lot of emergency vehicles coming from the east end of town.
He said he ran into the store to get out.
“My adrenaline was going crazy,” Thrasher said. “In less than five minutes, it was over.”
Extreme winds are rare in this part of Michigan because the Great Lakes suck up storm energy, especially in early spring when the lakes are very cold, said Jim Keysor, a Gaylord-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“Many children and young adults would never have experienced direct severe weather if they had lived in Gaylord all their lives,” he said.
The last time Gaylord had a severe windstorm was in 1998, when straight-line winds reached 100 mph, Keysor said. He said the conditions that spawned Friday’s tornado included a cold front coming from Wisconsin and hitting warm, moist air over Gaylord, with the added ingredient of turning winds into the lower part of the atmosphere.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Otsego County, making more state resources available to the county.
Gaylord, known as the ‘Alpine Village’, is due to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, with a centenary celebration that will include a parade and an open day at Town Hall later this summer.
The community also hosts the annual Alpenfest in July, an Alpine-inspired celebration honoring the city’s heritage and partnering with a sister city in Switzerland.