Metro Detroiters come together to clean up from summer's latest storm

Alex Harring Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

Armada — The tornado that tore through Armada spared Marisa Ambrosiewicz's home, but she wasn't feeling much relief Monday.

Two days after huddling under her kitchen table, Ambrosiewicz faced a big job: clearing away the remains of a storage trailer in her backyard that the EF-1 twister crushed.

"At first, I was in shock," she said, surveying the wreckage. "Now, it's worse. I'm emotional thinking about cleaning all of that up."

The twister that damaged homes and downed trees in Armada was one of four to hit lower Michigan on Saturday night: tornadoes also struck White Lake Township in Oakland County, Clayton Township in Genesee County and Port Austin in the Thumb region. The storms left more than 125,000 without power across Metro Detroit — and weather-weary residents wondering what's next.

It's been a rough summer in lower Michigan, and climate experts say such severe storms could become more frequent.

"Climate change is affecting these events, it's increasing the severity of them and we're only at the beginning of that," said Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.

Extreme weather is even more likely to take place when conditions go from dry to moist, which is what happened in Michigan in mid-June, he said.

Heavy rain came first, flooding the basements of homes and businesses in cities from Grosse Pointe to Dearborn in June. Rainfall has been a constant over the last month, highlighting previously brushed away questions about the region's infrastructure as freeways have been repeatedly closed by standing water.

Alex Manion, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake, said Saturday's tornado tally nearly matched Metro Detroit's yearly average of five twisters.

"It is unusual to have four tornadoes in a day across southeast Michigan; however, it is not unheard of," Marion said. "If the environment is ripe for tornadoes, which it was two days ago, then oftentimes you can have what happened where you have four small, short-lived tornadoes spun in the mainline of thunderstorms."

In Armada and elsewhere in Metro Detroit, residents gathered themselves Monday and tackled cleanup jobs.

Kyle MacMichael, who works for tree removal company A Cut Above, was busy again in White Lake Township, where 100-mph winds cut a swath 1.8 miles long and 400 yards wide. 

"It’s been bad everywhere: house damage, car damage, line damage everywhere," he said.

"Last week, out in the Farmington area got hit pretty hard," MacMichael said. "This is probably the most I’ve gone out this year for storm damage." 

Joe Laflamme, 83, who lives on Meadlane Court in White Lake, said the storm was the worst he's seen in 53 years there. He and his son spent Saturday night and all day Sunday clearing tree limbs in and around their property.

Joe Laflamme walks past the roots of a huge downed tree in White Lake Township, Michigan, on July 26, 2021. The tree , toppled by a tornado Saturday, fell on the property next to his and branches landed on his fencing and some of his out buildings.

Laflamme said he was thankful his house wasn't damaged, aside from a broken floodlight bulb, but concerned about what the storm did to his tool shed.

"That could be 15, 20 thousand dollars," he said. "And the worst thing is, I don’t think they can match the siding. 

In Armada, community leaders took heart from how people pulled together in the face of adversity.

The Rev. Steve Mateja of St. Mary Mystical Rose talks about how his parishioners have been volunteering since the storm hit Armada. A mix of volunteers and work crews clean up the area after Saturday's tornado in Armada, Michigan, on July 26, 2021.

"Small towns stick together," said the Rev. Steve Mateja, pastor of St. Mary's Mystical Rose Parish in town. "This shows the beauty of the community."

Sunday was about checking in on community members to make sure they were OK, he said. On Monday, with everyone accounted for, Mateja said the focus shifted to cleaning and rebuilding.

Mateja's parishioners kicked into gear Sunday, going door to door to check on parish members and others who needed help.

Monday, a group set up shop at Village Park, which lost many of its trees to the tornado, providing hamburgers and drinks for residents and volunteers.

Behind the makeshift hamburger tent, Ambrosiewicz was one of a dozen at work cleaning up the park. Volunteers pushed wheelbarrows, picking up branches and leaves in hopes of getting the park clean enough to continue a summer concert series there. 

Volunteer Alex Abraham of Armada, left, cooks up food donated by Armade in MI and Burgher Family Farm for volunteers and crews involved in the cleanup.  A mix of volunteers and work crews clean up the area after Saturday's tornado in Armada, Mich. on July 26, 2021.

Armada Township Supervisor John Paterek said officials are surveying the damage and may seek state or federal support. He said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reached out to let local officials know the state is there to help if needed.

On Main Street, which acts as the village's downtown area, most businesses remained closed Monday without power. Some sustained damage to windows and roofing.

The Creamery on Main Street was one of the few with power, thanks to a generator. But mother-and-daughter owners Emily Sawitzky and Kris Pierson decided to remain closed to customers, heeding the advice of local officials for nonresidents to stay clear of the area as the cleanup process played out.

Tree debris is moved from around this home on North Fulton Street. A mix of volunteers and work crews clean up the area after Saturday's tornado in Armada, Michigan, on July 26, 2021.

The pair instead decided to open to community members as a cool-down station. The air conditioning blasted — a welcomed change for those still without power in their homes — as they made free Slurpies for crew members at work.

"In the 24 hours, they got most of our town back up," Pierson said about the DTE Energy and tree removal teams working to restore power. "They've been amazing."

As of Tuesday morning, DTE reported about 30,000 customers were without power in Metro Detroit.

Outside The Creamery, a Kona Ice truck was parked in the street, with free cones for residents and cleanup workers. A group of residents sat under a tent on the sidewalk, offering water, Gatorade and food for anyone who needed it. 

Kristin and Frank Rakos said the tent was a grassroots effort from residents who wanted to centralize a place for resources. The couple took off work on Monday to help organize and man the station through the day, with people from Armada and elsewhere bringing cookies and other refreshments.

"It's people just doing because they want to, which is fantastic," Frank Rakos said.

Local businesses pooled resources: One Main Street business that lost power still had good vegetables, another had lettuce — they planned to combine then to make salads for dinner.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Kristin Rakos said. "I'm so glad I have the opportunity to be here and do this and help."