Tornado that hit Gaylord was EF3 with 150 mph winds, had nearly 17-mile path

Gaylord — The deadly tornado that touched down in Gaylord on Friday was an EF3 with winds reaching 150 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

A map displays the route of a May 20, 2022, EF3 tornado that ripped into the northern Michigan town of Gaylord.

It was the first EF3 or greater in Michigan since 2012, when a twister ripped through the Dexter area. Gaylord's tornado had a path of 16.6 miles, was active for 20 minutes and had a width at one point of 200 yards, according to the weather service's Gaylord office on Saturday.

Officials updated the death toll to two and the reported injured to 44 on Saturday. The twister now ranks 16th in injuries and 21st in fatalities in Michigan since 1950, according to the weather service.

The last tornado to cause more injuries than Friday’s tornado in Gaylord was on July 2, 1997, in Highland Park when an F2 tornado injured 90 people, said Jim Keysor, a meteorologist with the weather service in Gaylord.

There have been seven total deaths in Michigan due to a tornado since 1990, Keysor said.

“Among those seven, this is only the second time in the last 32 years there have been multiple deaths from one tornado,” he said. “This is pretty rare.”

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Gilchrist surveys damage

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist flew into Gaylord on Saturday afternoon and was able to survey some of the damage in town before visiting the emergency command center set up by local authorities.

At a press conference at about 4:30 p.m., Gilchrist expressed his appreciation for all the work done by first responders in Gaylord over the last 24 hours, and said he and Gov. Whitmer were “praying for every single soul that has been impacted.”

“Two Michiganders that we’re aware of that have lost their lives as a result of this tornado. We want them to know that everyone in Michigan is going to wrap their arms around those families,” he said, from a lectern at Kirtland Community college, wearing dark jeans and a blue button-down shirt. 

The Goodwill store was heavily damaged from a tornado Friday, May 20, 2022.

Gilchrist noted that the Friday storm covered a lot of ground and caused widespread damage to both residential and commercial areas, saying it was important for everyone to try and wrap their heads around the scale of the devastation.

The lieutenant governor reiterated the state’s commitment to ensuring that everyone in the area gets all the resources they need. He said officials were working hard to get power and internet back on, and he also reminded impacted residents to call 911 in case of emergencies.

Some areas have started seeing their power return, according to Michigan State Police Spt. Lt. Derrick Carroll, who was on hand at the press conference as well. He said outages for the area were originally at about 34%, but had been knocked down to 21% by Saturday evening. Many streetlights along the main thoroughfare in Gaylord were back on by Saturday afternoon.

Michigan State Police Spl. Lt. Derrick Carroll speaks at a press conference Saturday, May 21, 2022, in Gaylord, Michigan. A tornado Friday injured at least 44 people and killed two residents of a mobile home park.

According to Carroll, the death toll from Friday’s storm remains at two people. He said they were not going to provide a count of missing persons because that number has been constantly in flux.

“What’s been happening is… we’ll find a person, but then we’ll get another phone call from loved ones, and another one, and another one,” he explained.

Carroll said the Red Cross had received an immense amount of donations, and encouraged anyone in need of food, water, and other supplies like baby diapers, to go to the E-Free Church in Gaylord where a shelter has been established.

Statistical 'randomness'

Keysor said deaths and injuries are a rare occurrence during tornadoes in Michigan.

“The state of Michigan, we don't get that many tornadoes in general compared to other parts of the country,” Keysor said. “And then statistically to get injuries and or deaths normally, these tornadoes have to go through populated areas.

"So the tornado that happened to hit the western parts of Gaylord — a mile further west, for example, it probably doesn't hardly impact anybody. So some of it is sort of statistically just sort of randomness that it happen to hit a populated center. And that just doesn't happen that often.”

Jack Elliott stands beside his van that was struck by a tree during a tornado in Gaylord, Mich., Friday, May 20, 2022. Elliott was inside his house during the storm and was uninjured.

The last tornado to cause more injuries than Friday’s tornado in Gaylord was on July 2, 1997, in Highland Park when an F2 tornado injured 90 people, Keysor said.

There have been seven total deaths in Michigan due to a tornado since 1990, Keysor said.

“Among those seven this is only the second time in the last 32 years there have been multiple deaths from one tornado,” he said. “This is pretty rare.”

The state averages about 15 tornadoes annually, according to the National Weather Service.

“The majority of tornadoes don't produce any deaths at all,” Keysor said. “If you look at the historical database we go through many, many years, sometimes decades without seeing a death from a tornado. Two would put it in the top 25 grouping of tornado events in the last 70-plus years in the state as far as deaths. So that's still a bit of impressively rare number given the number of tornadoes that occur.”

The occurrence is even rarer for Otsego County, Keysor said looking at tornado data the weather service has tracked since 1950.

“This is the fifth tornado to ever be recorded in the county since 1950, but the other previous four none of them actually impacted Gaylord,” he said. “There have been five that have at least touched somewhere in the county or in the last 70 years, but the first one to actually directly impact the most population center which is Gaylord.”

A tornado Friday, May 20, 2022, caused two deaths in the Nottingham trailer park.

The two people in their 70s were reported dead in the Nottingham Forest Mobile Home Park. One was found dead, the other later died, police said.

“The two fatalities, for example, with this event in Gaylord occurred in that trailer park, and that's just a function of those structures just not being very good at withstanding strong winds,” Keysor said. “They’re just not very good and so they tend to get thrown around a lot and unfortunately, we tend to see more fatalities in those kinds of situations when tornadoes hit areas like that.”

Residents had little warning

According to Accuweather, meteorologists first noticed the impending severe weather event before noon Friday. The AccuWeather forecasters pinpointed between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. to be the most likely time for a tornado.

AccuWeather said it began sending urgent alerts at 3:28 p.m. to local businesses and through its mobile app to warn that a tornado was imminent.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 3:38 p.m. Friday for Antrim and Otsego counties, which included Gaylord.

Residents were warned of the imminent tornado through Code Red alerts to their cellular devices. Gaylord does not have tornado sirens.

Vehicles are marked as checked for any persons at the Goodwill in Gaylord on May 21, 2022.

Tornado sirens are too expensive to operate, Otsego Emergency Manager Jon Deming said Saturday. Deming said he did not immediately have a figure for how much sirens would cost.

“That’s why we use Code Red and the state uses Code Red,” Deming said. “And it's so much faster and it goes to your phones. It hits TVs and everything. Sirens are nice, but a lot of communities just can't afford to put that much money out for sirens.”

As far as property damage, Deming said they may be able to estimate on Tuesday the financial impact of the tornado.

“There are a lot of automobiles damaged,” he said. “That will jack the price up really fast. And we have a lot of homes."