Port Austin families pick up pieces after tornado with estimated 120 mph winds

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Port Austin — In the time it took Jan and Larry Horetski to make the 17-mile drive from Port Austin to Bad Axe and back for a soft-serve ice cream Saturday night, a tornado tore open their stocked garage and threw its contents like toys across their neighborhood.

The couple returned to their home along Grindston Road east of M-53 to find lawn mowers, snow blowers, compressors, deep freezers, grills, tools, hunting gear and beloved Christmas decorations in shreds or just plain gone. The garage structure itself had disappeared, blown into hundreds of pieces.

The twister in the Thumb was one of five confirmed tornadoes that hit Michigan on Saturday as stormy weather stretched across the state. The National Weather Service also reported tornadoes touching down in central Michigan's Clare County and in west Michigan — two in Ionia County and one in Mecosta County. The Port Austin twister was the strongest, the weather service said.

The Horetskis were among a handful of Port Austin families recovering from the EF-2 tornado, which had peak winds estimated at 120 mph with a 6.9 mile path and maximum width of 400 yards. It hit the southern portion of the village.

"Our garage is completely gone. Everything is all over the place in the neighbors' yards. We can't find some of it. The garage door is all smashed on top on it with sharp pieces right into things," Jan said on Sunday.

Of the 18 to 19 maple trees the couple planted just after they got married 50 years ago on their property, everyone was uprooted, Jan said. Fruit trees, flowering trees and other landscaping have all been ripped from its foundation and roots, adding to the shock of a tornado, which hit several homes along Grindstone Road east of M-53, at the southern portion of Port Austin village.

The National Weather Service on Sunday confirmed the Saturday tornado. The tornado hit about 5:49 p.m., leaving in its wake sheared-off trees, splintered limbs and damage to several homes.

"We've never had a tornado here," Jan said. "We are OK. Everything can be replaced."

Steve Lepeak's home was damaged Saturday by a tornado that touched down on Grindstone Road in Port Austin. He took shelter in his basement and hid beneath a strong table, he said.

The last tornado to hit Huron County was an EF-0 on Nov. 6, 2015, the NWS said.

Officials at the weather service said the tornado touched down 4 miles southwest of Port Austin north of the intersection between Port Crescent Road and Sand Road. It snapped several trees and tree limbs, uprooted trees and damaged barns and buildings.

The tornado moved northeast and crossed M-53 just south of the M-25 intersection. From there it damaged six houses, with three roofs detached and one house with major roof damage. Two garages and one barn were completely destroyed. There is substantial tree damage in the area.

The National Weather Service said an EF-2 tornado with 120 mph winds and a 6.9-mile path uprooted trees and damaged barns and buildings in Port Austin.

A tornado watch had been issued for the Thumb area on Saturday until 10 p.m. but that watch never became a tornado warning, which would have activated a tornado siren, said Trent Fray, a meteorologist with the weather service.

Fray said the service issued a special water spout warning for across Saginaw Bay on Saturday afternoon that included a tornado warning. 

"We watched a cluster of storms come across the bay. The storm moved into the tip of the Thumb here and didn’t present significant evidence a tornado was ongoing, that’s why the watch wasn’t changed to a warning," Fray said.

"We didn’t receive reports until it was over," Fray said.

A silo and barn collapsed on Joseph Baranski's dairy farm on Grindstone Road after the tornado tore across its pastures, damaging sheds, a hen house and the main property, said Sharon Scranton, sister to Joseph Baranski. Baranski was not available for an interview on Sunday.

Crews work on damage from a tornado that touched down Saturday in Port Austin.

Scranton said the cows were outside and not in the barn when it collapsed but one is injured. Windows in her brother's home were blown out and several trees had been ripped out.

"There was no warning. It's kind of a mess. It's like a movie set," Scranton said. "(My brother) was in the house and not the barn. He is OK."

DTE crews were on-site Sunday attempting to repair downed poles and lines as residents picked through the damage.

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, DTE's outage map showed 1,996 customers in Port Austin, Port Austin Township and Huron City have been without power. The utility expected to restore power by 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

DTE said its teams are encountering extensive wind and flood damage across the region, which was delaying access to equipment. The utility asked residents to stay at least 20 feet from power lines and anything they’re in contact with, and to consider them live. 

Utility crews work to restore service after the tornado. "There was no warning. It's kind of a mess. It's like a movie set," said Sharon Scranton. A silo and barn collapsed on the dairy farm of her brother, Joseph Baranski. "(My brother) was in the house and not the barn. He is OK."

"Our field crews have been working around the clock to repair damage and restore electric service for our customers," DTE representative Jill M. Wilmot said. "We expect most to be restored by 11:30 p.m. Monday evening, although there is a possibility for those customers near the downtown Port Austin area to have their electricity back on as soon as 11:30 Sunday night."

Outages and downed lines can be reported online at outage.dteenergy.com, with the DTE Energy Mobile app, or at 1-800-477-4747.

The tornado in Clare County, which touched down in Clare, was about 85 mph, NWS officials said. Damage included a partly caved-in barn and snapped tree limbs, and a house attachment or garage-like structure on cinderblocks was destroyed.

The tornado in Mecosta County reached speeds of 90 mph. There were no injuries, NWS officials said. In Ionia County, one storm produced two tornadoes

one 75 mph and another 90 mph. No further information was available on that storm.