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Tornado tears through Gaylord: 'We never expected something like this'

Gaylord — At least one person was killed and 44 people were hurt after a tornado swept into the Gaylord area Friday afternoon, damaging multiple homes and businesses, state and local officials announced.

Ambulances transported injured people to local hospitals, according to Michigan State Police. Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord, however, was diverting patients to medical centers in nearby cities because it lost electricity and was running on generator power Friday evening.

UPDATE: Gaylord tornado death toll now at two, third person unaccounted for

Otsego Memorial had 23 patients from the tornado Friday evening, Munson Healthcare spokesman Brian Lawson said, a figure later confirmed by State Police. Additionally, there were 12 patients at Grayling Hospital, eight at McLaren Northern Michigan Petoskey and one at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, State Police wrote on Twitter.

Lawson said Friday that he had no details about the person who was killed or the conditions of those who were hurt by the tornado that rushed through Gaylord, a city of about 4,200. Otsego Memorial is part of the Munson Healthcare system.

Lawson said the pace of people being brought to Gaylord-Otsego Memorial Hospital had slowed since the hours right after the storm.

“From what I’m gathering things have stabilized a bit,” he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Otsego County, where Gaylord is located. This action allows for use of state resources in conjunction with local response and recovery efforts.

Whitmer posted a message to Twitter Friday evening, reacting to the devastation: "My heart goes out to the families and small businesses impacted by the tornado and severe weather in Gaylord," Whitmer wrote. "To the entire Gaylord community — Michigan is with you. We will do what it takes to rebuild."

Officials set an overnight curfew and shelter in place order and the Red Cross was working to set up a shelter at E-Free Church in Gaylord, state police said.

"Due to the ongoing emergency in Gaylord, residents are asked to shelter in place," state police tweeted, adding the city imposed a 7 p.m. curfew expected to end at 8 a.m. Saturday.

The agency earlier reported trees and power lines blocked roadways. Officials warned residents to avoid the area as emergency crews responded.

“We had a hell of a tornado and it caused a lot of damage,” Gaylord City Councilman Vic Ouellette said from a local hospital.

Other residents out surveying the damage were shocked to see the condition of their neighborhoods.

"All I have to say is the town is a mess," Gaylord resident Amy Neuvirth said. "Businesses destroyed, cars flipped over, trees are down on several streets. Just devastating."

The National Weather Service confirmed the tornado just before 4 p.m. Friday: "At 354 PM EDT, a confirmed tornado was located over Sparr, or near Gaylord, moving east at 55 mph," the NWS reported in a notice.

Based on witness reports, the twister was believed to have landed "somewhere between the movie theater and Hobby Lobby" in western Gaylord then departed within around 15 minutes, said Jim Keysor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service station there.

A weather service storm team was assessing the damage Friday, he said. "They’re trying to map that all out and determine the maximum amount of damage they observed along that path."

Consumers Energy mobilized nearly 100 crews to respond, spokeswoman RoNeisha Mullen said. "Crews are currently assessing damage and restoring power as it’s safe to do so. As of 7:30 p.m., about 12,000 customers are currently without power," she said Friday evening.

Mullen said the company's mobile command center and materials trailer was heading to the hardest-hit area to give crews more resources.

"Crews have been assigned to restore power, but could experience some delays given the heavy damage and limited access," she said.

Hospital on generator power

Consumers Energy reported 14,000 customers without electricity in northern Michigan Friday related to severe weather.

The Gaylord hospital wasn’t damaged by the tornado but downed power lines and closed roads were making it difficult for patients to reach the medical site, it said.

The hospital is using a generator for power as it continues to care for its existing patients, it said in an alert posted on its Facebook page.

Munson Healthcare called in additional staff and coordinated with first response agencies and Region 7 Emergency Management, it said.

The hospital asked residents to avoid the hospital campus and stay safe in place. If someone was experiencing a life-threatening emergency, they should call 911, it said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation posted on Twitter that the tornado touched down near a Home Depot store on the west end of Gaylord. "Damage has strewn debris onto nearby roads, including M-32. Drivers/pedestrians in that area, please use caution."

MDOT also posted that exits onto M-32 from northbound and southbound Interstate-75, exits 282, were closed due to debris. Gaylord's downtown is just west of the exits.

'It’s like the movies'

At first, Nolan Curtis wasn’t impressed by the tornado. He saw its outline and leaves blowing in the air, but it didn’t seem powerful. He even stepped outside the truck repair shop where he works to record the storm with his cellphone.

It was only later when he and his friends drove a half-mile down the road that they realized just how destructive the tornado had been. That’s when they spotted overturned vehicles and roofless buildings.

“I was thinking it was no big deal until I saw the damage,” he said.

What Curtis, 18, had witnessed originally was just the outskirts of the storm.  As he and his friends drove further from their shop, they began to see more debris, first branches, then trash, then major damages.

He said he felt fortunate the storm hadn’t come closer to the shop.

“I’m very thankful it didn’t happen to damage any of our building,” he said.

Celeste Feole was picking up food at an Arby’s drive-thru on Main Street with her three children when she received an emergency notification about the tornado.

“As I was leaving, I started seeing debris flying. It started getting darker and darker. Then the winds just got stronger and stronger,” Feole said. “That’s when I saw the big swirl in my rearview mirror.”

That, and the sparks from what appeared to be a fallen transformer somewhere down the street, spurred Feole to rush home southeast in her Jeep Wrangler as the funnel cloud whirled farther away north.

“It was so scary,” the photographer said. “It’s like the movies.”

Feole and her children safely arrived home, several miles from downtown, but was worried about her husband, David, whom she had been FaceTiming with when the tornado hit. He worked at a business within walking distance of the Hobby Lobby where meteorologists believe the tornado first landed forcefully. Luckily, his building suffered only minimal damage while others nearby were flattened, she said. He couldn’t return home until nearly 8 p.m.

The family is grateful they and their home were spared damage but fear for the community. While residents have been affected by inflation, gas prices and other woes, she said, “we do such a great job helping each other. I just know we’re going to rebuild. There’s going to be a lot of support.”

At nightfall, fire crews were cleaning up debris and monitoring streets strewn with downed power lines. State police had most of the town's main drag blocked off to traffic and the downtown streets were empty after the curfew went into effect.

The sound of chain saws and generators buzzed through the air, and rain fell as lifelong Gaylord resident James Duffield sat on his porch with his black lab, watching the commotion.

Duffield’s house wasn’t damaged, but trees on his street were knocked over and he was without electricity. He said it seemed like the tornado came “all of a sudden.” He said one minute there was a vague alert on his phone warning of a tornado, and within seconds, it seemed like it had arrived, he said.

“They don’t tell you where the tornado’s gonna hit,” the 67-year-old said. Almost as soon as the alert hit his phone, he heard “wind like a freight train.” 

Jaime and Andrew Zuck stood in the dark on their front porch Friday night, both smoking a cigarette and holding glow sticks in front of their home on the east side of Gaylord. 

The pair was inside their home when the storm quickly ravaged their neighborhood. Across the street, a garage was leveled. 

"Basically as soon as it came through, it was over, holy cow," said Andrew, 38. 

They were lucky, their home wasn’t damaged, but they had just gotten news that a person died on the west side of town.

"Unfortunately, we did just learn someone didn't make it," Jaime said. 

The couple moved to Gaylord from the Detroit suburbs 18 months ago in search of a quieter, less busy area.

"We never expected something like this," she said.

Rare tornado

The weather service had issued a tornado warning for northeastern Otsego County and northwestern Montmorency County until 4:30 p.m. Friday, in mainly rural areas, and in Presque Isle Harbor, Posen and Presque Isle until 5 p.m.

An area of strong storms crossed the Grand Traverse Bay as a cold front progressed through the region, the weather service said on Twitter.

Temperatures soared into the mid-80s on Friday afternoon, or nearly 10 degrees above average for the date, NWS records show.

"The air was warm, soupy, somewhat humid," Keysor said. "We had a fairly strong cold front coming in from Wisconsin that had cooler air behind it. The clash of those air masses occurred over Michigan and we had a turning of the winds in the atmosphere, which … gave us everything we needed, ingredient-wise, for the tornado to occur."

Such an event is rare in Gaylord, Keysor said.

"We haven’t had a tornado actually strike Gaylord. You can look back to records going back to 1950," he said. "The last big direct-impact severe weather event was Sept. 1998, when there was significant damage with 100 mph straight-line winds."

Associated Press contributed.