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7 Michigan tornadoes confirmed, 2 dead

Sep 21, 2023Sep 21, 2023

A powerful late-night storm Thursday night produced seven confirmed tornadoes in five counties across Michigan's Lower Peninsula, causing two deaths, flipping over vehicles on Interstate 96, destroying property and leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power.

The storms and flooding prompted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency in Wayne and Monroe counties to help with response and recovery efforts — just one day after parts of Wayne County were doused with seven inches of rain that wreaked havoc on air travel at Detroit Metro Airport.

The path of destruction of Thursday night's storm started around 8:15 p.m. north of Grand Rapids with the first tornado and ended about two-and-a-half hours later about 200 miles away with a sixth twister that dissipated near the mouth of the Detroit River.

Along the way, two deaths were blamed on the violent storm system. In Lansing, a tree fell on a house during the storm, killing an 84-year-old woman inside, authorities said.

On I-96 near Webberville, a confirmed EF2 tornado packing wind speeds of up to 125 miles per hour flipped vehicles and was blamed for a second fatality as one motorist was hit directly by the swirling wind storm, said Rob Dale, deputy emergency manager for Ingham County.

"It's not clear if they were driving or had pulled over," Dale told The Detroit News. "We're not sure of the circumstances, but this tornado was likely not visible because of the rain coming down."

More:Where 7 tornadoes touched down across Michigan

The National Weather Service said the Ingham County twister ripped along I-96 for 1.5 miles, causing so much damage that the highway was shut down in both directions for much of Friday as tow trucks removed wrecked vehicles. The tornado cut through 12 miles of mostly farmland in Ingham and Livingston counties, causing three injuries, the National Weather Service said.

The tornado lasted 10 minutes, weakening to an EF1 in Livingston County, the weather service said.

Showerman Farms along M-52 south of I-96 near Webberville was in the pathway of the tornado after it cut south of the highway. The farm sustained substantial damage, including toppled trees, pulverized barns and caved-in structures.

"We get those tornado alerts all the time, and nothing ever happened — this time, it did,” said farmer Gary Showerman, who has lived on the farm for all but five of his 84 years. “I thought, ‘Holy hell, now what?’ when me and my wife came outside. It was over before I knew what the hell happened.”

Showerman said he was shocked that the twister didn’t scathe their home, especially since two barns flanked on either side of the residence were destroyed.

Since 2012, more than 100 tornadoes have moved through Michigan. Even tornadoes considered to be weaker, like the one on Thursday night, can be dangerous to life and property.

For one Lansing family, the storm brought tragedy.

Harvey Edwards of Lansing said he was working Thursday night when he received calls from neighbors around 10 p.m. about his mother’s home, which was plunged by a nearby tree in the 1600 block of Martin Street on the city's southeast side.

Edwards, 60, said he knew while navigating to get home, he was expecting bad news.

"When I got home and turned that corner, my dog ran out (of the collapsed house) and I said, 'Oh, my God, I know my mom didn't make it,'" Edwards told The News early Friday. "I have so many mixed emotions; last night, I thought this was a dream because I couldn't even sleep. I'm just trying to stay strong for my sisters and my family."

Officials with the Lansing Police Department said crews from the city's fire department arrived around 10:20 p.m. and extricated the woman from the home. She was transported to Sparrow Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Edwards said his mother, Vernita Payne, 84, lived in the home since 1969. She was the mother of eight children.

Thursday night's first confirmed tornado touched down north of Grand Rapids, the weather service said.

Kent County experienced a tornado with EF1-force winds of up to 110 mph, the weather service said. It was on the ground for 8.7 miles, ended west of Rockford High School and damaged buildings in a residential subdivision, according to the weather service.

Kent County Sheriff’s Office said as of Friday afternoon, it had no reported injuries or deaths due to storm-related structural damage, though the damage to several homes and structures was "significant."

However, the department handled a fatal crash that killed three individuals shortly before the tornado warning was issued near Grand Rapids. Since there was water on roadways, investigators believe weather was a contributing factor, but they are also assessing the role, if any, speed or alcohol had in the collision, said Sgt. Eric Brunner, public information office for the department.

After the Ingham County twister dissipated in Livingston County, the storm system spun out two weaker tornadoes in Canton Township and Van Buren Township, where a twister uprooted trees and peeled siding off homes.

The storm continued southeast into Monroe County, where a fifth tornado struck south of Newport with peak winds of 100 miles per hour. The EF1 tornado hit the Frenchtown Villa Mobile Home Park, according to the storm report, tearing off roofs and large tree limbs.

The turbulence alarmed residents such as Dustin McClure, 39, who was at work when a friend sent word a tornado had blitzed through his neighborhood at the Frenchtown Villa Mobile Home Community in Newport in Monroe County.

“He sent me a picture of one of the home nearby flipped over,” he said on his porch before noon Friday. “I told my boss I had to leave early and check on my mom, my house and my dog.”

McClure said he got home about 11:30 p.m. Thursday after navigating through standing water that reached the top of the tires on his Ford Escape.

His neighbors were busy grappling with the aftermath of Thursday’s storm. Buzzsaws droned as they made work of downed limbs and trees that had been ripped in half. Crews carried severed branches and tossed them into a trailer to be hauled away later. Green maple leaves were left strewn about the pavement and homes’ lawns alike. Many homes had roofs with shingles missing, while others were worse.

Some houses had exterior trim that was bent and twisted, while others were missing the thin metal skirts that covered the space and wheels underneath them. Hammering could be heard as a resident worked to repair the roof on the shed next to his home.

McClure said he doesn’t have power or gas in his home, but he feels fortunate because his house was left unscathed by the tornado. “The only thing that happened to my house is the front skirting was a little buckled, but it didn’t come off," he said.

It could have been worse, he said, pointing to a trailer about 50 yards from his that had part of its roof missing and a hole in its wall. “It was that close,” McClure said.

Across the street, Rob and Melissa Compton were busy raking up leaves in their yard.

Melissa Compton, 31, said they were home when the storm struck. “The sky was this weird green color,” she said.

Her husband, Rob, was watching it develop through the security cameras on the house. She immediately rounded up her dog and two cats, and the couple got into the bathroom to hunker down. “We heard it all right,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

Rob Compton said he saw the walls in his house bow and buckle. And then it passed. Like McClure, they said they were lucky.

“It didn’t do anything all at to my house,” Rob Compton said. “You look next door, and it ripped part of the house’s skirting off. I don’t know how you can explain it.”

His wife added: “Someone up there was looking out for us. We’ve got a guardian angel.”

After hitting the Frenchtown mobile home park, the storm kicked up another tornado to the north in Gibraltar in Wayne County. That EF1 touched down at Gibraltar Road and West Jefferson Avenue and moved east to the north end of Edmond Island, snapping limbs and uprooting trees before dissipating over Horse Island near the mouth of the Detroit River, the National Weather Service said.

In Livingston County, the storm toppled dozens of trees along Fowlerville Road south of I-96 and Fowlerville.

At one farm owned by MBH Trucking in Webberville, a 10,000-gallon brine tank used for mixing road dust-controlling calcium chloride came unmoored from the ground during the storm and rolled about 150 yards across a field and Fowlerville Road. The large black plastic tank crashed into a cherry tree in a neighbor's yard.

On Friday morning, an employee for MBH Trucking who declined to be identified was cutting up the tank with a chain saw because it was punctured as it rolled away, he said.

The worker said there weren't any nearby tow trucks available because they were dispatched to I-96 between the Webberville and Williamston exits to remove vehicles that turned over during the storm.

Next door, 71-year-old Ken Reece was picking up branches strewn across his lawn after the storm snapped in half a 40-foot blue spruce in his front yard and a 50-foot Austrian pine in his backyard that landed on his pool deck.

The storm also toppled Reece's string of concord grapes that he said he grows for birds on his two-acre country property.

"I need this like I need a hole in the head," Reece said as he lit a cigarette in his soggy backyard. "But life is what it is."

At Fowlerville and West Sargent roads, Tyler Cole, 26, and her boyfriend Gino Costantini, 25, took shelter in the cobblestone basement of Costantini's century-old farmhouse that's been in his family since 1970s.

"You could hear the whistling," Cole said of a commonly reported sound of tornadoes touching down.

The storm blew a cover off one of the basement windows, causing rain to start pouring in. "It was pretty scary," Cole said.

That's when Cole said she saw an old black walnut tree in the front yard had been toppled, just missing the house.

"It's a miracle it didn't hit anything," she said. "We never heard the tree fall."

"It was definitely a bullet dodged," Costantini added.

In response, Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Wayne and Monroe counties to help with response and recovery efforts to flooding and damage caused by severe storms.  The declaration helps make available all state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery efforts in the designated areas that the Michigan State Police and Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division will coordinate.    “Communities across Michigan were hit hard by torrential downpours and damaging winds,” Whitmer said. “This emergency declaration will ensure state resources are available as quickly as possible to help Michiganders in need.”

More:Flooding strands cars in western Wayne County, makes some streets impassable

In Wayne County, county Executive Warren Evans declared a state of emergency in response to "excessive rain and flooding" at a Canton Township press conference. Parts of western Wayne County got walloped with rain and flooding from Wednesday through Thursday, causing a temporary shutdown of the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport.

"I know that there have been so many disasters in the last six months. We’re almost cliché about disasters. But when you think the power outages, when you think about the flooding, when you think about the downed trees and power lines, when you think about the debris that’s out there … we think the assessment is right to declare a state of the emergency," said Evans, explaining that Canton Township had experienced significant damage, as well as other Wayne County communities, such as Flat Rock and Gibraltar.

Wayne County communities reported significant levels of rainfall, officials reported. Rockwood was hit with 7 inches of rain in just four hours, while Belleville took on 7.3 in that time.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, who was also at the press conference, stressed the importance of documenting any damage or impacts from the storms that residents may have experienced.

“We have to document for FEMA … if you've got a flooded basement, record it. If you’ve got flooded roads, if you've got any damage from the storms, you must document it,” she explained.

Whitmer, on Thursday evening, activated the State Emergency Operations Center in response to flooding. SEOC officials work with local and private partners to ensure that needs are met, Michigan State Police said in a release — that flooded highways are pumped, trees are cleared from roadways, and so on.

Thursday's storms also left hundreds of thousands of Michiganians without electricity after thunderstorms ransacked the region Thursday, prompting three tornado warnings, toppling trees and downing power lines.

As of noon Saturday, DTE Energy reported 117,000 of its electricity customers were without power. Consumers Energy reported about 122,000 of its customers were in the dark. Both utilities said they have crews working to restore service.

DTE estimated that 80% of its customers affected by the storm would have power restored on Saturday. Consumers Energy said it had many crews involved in restoration efforts, including some from Kentucky, Alabama and Pennsylvania slated to arrive in Michigan.

In a press call Friday, Chris Laird, the company’s vice president of electric operations, said Consumers had 3,000 line workers or other personnel dispatched around their service area to support power restoration to the 200,000 homes affected. The utility said it had seen more than 2,600 downed power lines, higher than typical seasonal storms.

“We've restored over 25,000 customers at this point. We expect to restore most of our customers' power by Sunday, the end of day,” Laird said.

Laird also confirmed the damage caused by the storm was more than the utility had forecasted through its meteorologist on Thursday morning. Asked how Michigan outages compared to other states in the region, Greg Salisbury, one of Consumers Energy’s officers in charge for the storm, pointed to numbers showing Ohio utilities recorded a similar amount.

“During circumstances like this, the electric grid is susceptible … universally across the Great Lakes,” he said.

Staff Writers Kayla Ruble, Beth LeBlanc, Hannah Mackay and George Hunter contributed.