By Lonnie Huhman,
March 15, 2012, will always be a day that stands out in the memories of many in the Dexter community.
The tornado that hit that day has taken its place in Dexter’s history as one of the scariest events to happen in the community. It caused damage to over 100 homes and left parts of neighborhoods, such as in Huron Farms, looking devastated.
However, it wasn’t all bad because the aftermath demonstrated the resiliency, strength and sense of community in Dexter.
Also, even with the damage and strength of the storm, there were no serious injuries or deaths reported.
Time has moved on since then, but the memories will always stay with many in the community.
In its historical account of that day, the National Weather Service said it confirmed that an EF-3 tornado touched down near Dexter with maximum wind speeds of 135-140 mph. The path length was 7.6 miles with an average width of 400 yards and a maximum width of 800 yards.
NWS said the tornado touched down at 5:18 p.m. just northeast of the intersection of North Territorial Road and Dexter Townhall Road. It moved southeast and produced EF-1 damage with winds estimated at 100 mph. Damage was limited to uprooted and snapped trees as well as minor roof damage, but as it went on it strengthened as it hit the Horseshoe Bend subdivision, the NWS said, with winds estimated at 120 mph and structural damage to the outside of homes.
Dexter Township Supervisor Harley Rider recalls that day clearly.
“I was in bed with the flu that afternoon, but it was hot, so I had a bedroom window open,” Rider said. “I recall hearing what sounded like a freight train to the north of me, though there are no railroad tracks to the north. I tried to get info on the Weather Channel, but cable was out, so I went to the radar app on my iPad. That’s when I learned of the tornado that went through about a half mile north of my house, with literally no damage to my house or property.”
As it moved, the outcome was different for others.
The NWS said the tornado continued to track southeast alongside Dexter-Pinckney Road and produced EF-3 damage at 5:31p.m. Its winds at that point were estimated at 135-140 mph and damaged homes northwest of Dexter.
“The tornado was nearly stationary and wobbled around for nearly 5 minutes just northwest of the village of Dexter before turning left, paralleling the Huron River and the producing EF-2 damage on the north side of Dexter,” the NWS said in its historical account. “The tornado then produced EF-3 damage again at 5:49 p.m. in the Huron Farms subdivision with winds estimated at 135-140 mph.”
Classic Pizza owner Ralph Schlaff said he was in Stockbridge with his family that day when his manager called and told him they were struck by a tornado. He said Wes Shinault, the manager, took all the employees and customers that were in the carry out into the walk in while dropped his family off at home before going to Classic, which is in town near the Huron River.
“We had our roof and sign ripped off the building,” he recalled.
He said they had some work in front of them after that; starting with cleaning up the pizza shop.
“We lost power, so we lost all the food in the walk in,” he said. “That day a construction crew came and trapped the hole in the roof. We got power back and the whole crew came in we got the store cleaned up and the health department gave us the OK to open. Gordon foods made a special delivery for us. We were back up and running in four days.”
Kelli Peters, who was a homeowner in Huron Farms at the time, remembered the day being unseasonably muggy, but she didn’t know storms were in the forecast as she drove her son to the high school late that afternoon. When they arrived she said they heard the warning sirens, which led her to check the radio to hear a threatening storm was in the area but probably wasn’t heading toward them.
However, she said she thought it would be better if they were cautious and head home to her two other kids. Back on Noble Drive, she and her children decided to head downstairs to play pool. The level of worry went up after a warning phone call and then turning on the television to see the weather news tracking a tornado in their neighborhood, which led them to seek shelter in a closet space under the stairs with the three dogs.
“We rode it out in there,” she said and described the situation as getting very tense as the ground seemed to shake and as she had her back to the door a-suction-like feeling was coming from it like it might rip off.
But it didn’t and when she opened the door the full extent of what happened was in their face as the smoke alarms were going off and a flood of water was pouring through a hole in the ceiling. She said a quick look of the yard revealed that things that had been in the garage were now out back. They eventually sought shelter with the kids going to their father’s home.
Their home, among various things, had its windows blown out and garage and roof severely damaged, which led to it basically being rebuilt back up from the studs.
Rider said the day after, he walked Dexter-Pinckney Road and the streets of Carriage Hills to survey the damage and talk with residents. He was township clerk at the time and said township supervisor Pat Kelly called a special Township Board meeting and authorized up to $200,000 to assist with cleanup efforts.
“We opened the Township Hall as a staging area for volunteer coordination,” Rider said.
Peters said in the aftermath she saw a community come together to help those in need. She said there were many things that demonstrated this, such as Busch’s handing out water and food, the Dexter Lions Club lending a hand and Red Cross being on the scene. She said a community clean up day saw a huge turnout and a lot of hard work.
“I always look back and remember those things,” she said. “A community working together for each other.”
Rider said the event “was the impetus for our Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) to research the feasibility of a township-wide Outdoor Warning System (OWS).”
“They studied the issue, interviewed vendors, researched systems, and authored a report that the Township Board used to approve a state-of-the-art OWS to blanket the entire Township,” Rider said. “At the time of the tornado, there was only one OWS unit in the Township, located just south of Portage Lake.”
He said the township board entered into a contract for around $373,000 to install 16 units (solar powered) to give theoretical 100 percent warning coverage (outdoors). He said that system was up and running by spring of 2013, one year after the tornado.
From his perspective, Rider said, “Any lasting impact would be the Township-wide OWS, as well as the operational experience by the public safety first responders, including the Dexter Area Fire Department. Also, those of us who traveled Dexter-Pinckney Road in the vicinity of the Hudson Mills Golf Course on a daily basis may still notice the missing trees, as well as the re-roofed and re-sided houses.”
“The lessons from it are difficult to quantify, though the idea that a tornado can strike the area in March is now a reality,” Rider said. “Prior to the March 15, 2012 tornado, the County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) only tested the county OWS April through September. Since the tornado, they now test county-wide March through October.”
The township tests the Dexter Township system independent of the county system November through February.
Peters said she and her children have grown and she now lives in Pinckney, but one lasting impact for them is that day gave them more understanding and empathy for others who have or are going through a similar situation.
“We look at others who have been hit differently,” she said.