WCRC Remembers: The Dexter Tornado of 2012

By Emily Kizer, WCRC communications manager

The Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) deals with wet and muddy roads every spring– these things are annoying but predictable. Throughout WCRC’s 100-year history, employees also must be prepared to deal with the unexpected events brought along by Mother Nature.

One of the more recent examples of this was the tornado that hit Dexter in 2012. Given the dicey weather last year, this anniversary is on many people’s minds.

The day had been stormy, and the forecast kept escalating throughout the day. The funnel cloud touched down once and then again in the Dexter area the evening of Thursday, March 15, 2012. Once the storm moved on, it was very clear that the area had been devastated. “When I arrived on scene, shortly after the tornado had touched down, it looked like a bomb had gone off,” recalls Jim Harmon, director of operations, “There were massive trees down everywhere, they were twisted and piled on top of each other.”

It was “go time” for WCRC and other emergency responders. WCRC’s responsibility? Clearing the roadways so emergency responders, like police and firefighters could get to people in need.

The worst hit road? Dexter-Pinckney Road in Dexter Township

WCRC crews mobilized immediately. When they arrived on scene, it was getting dark and already very dangerous. Hundreds of trees had been twisted, uprooted and lay across the road. Crews also had to worry about damaged electrical lines that were twisted along with the trees.

Paul Schneider, who was District 3 group leader at the time, remembers arriving on scene, “It was by far the worst storm damage I had seen in my career in a very concentrated area.”

Tree work on a normal day is very dangerous, on a night like March 15, 2012, the crews had to exercise extreme caution with every tree. “Even the tree fibers were twisted by the storm,” remembers Schneider, “We had to take that into consideration before every cut – ‘What chain reaction will this one cause?’”

Meanwhile other WCRC crews were called to respond to flooding, downed trees and washouts in Lodi and Scio townships. This storm’s reach was wide.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of multiple WCRC crews all the roadways were reopened to emergency vehicles by the next morning. DTE spent the weekend reestablishing electricity and repairing lines. Huron-Clinton Metroparks agreed for the golf course to be a staging location for the operation. It took another month and a half for the road right-of-way to be completely cleaned up. WCRC even hired an emergency contractor, Harry Fox Inc. of Roseville to help speed up the response.

“To this day I’m still incredibly proud of our crews’ response immediately after the storm and for the next month during the clean-up,” reflected Harmon, “Our forces responded immediately and did what was necessary to get the road system open for other emergency responders to get to the damaged properties. It was a team effort, everyone across the organization was ready to help out.”

According to the Detroit Local 4 News, this slow-moving EF-3 tornado damaged nearly 200 homes/businesses and downed 100s of trees. Amazingly, no one was injured. The storm also damaged traffic control signs, ditches, culverts and roadsides.

In total, approximately 6,000 cubic yards of wood chips resulted from the damaged trees. That amount would fill approximately 400 WCRC dump trucks. The storms total cost was just under $10 million, WCRC spent approximately $300,000 during its response.

While this storm was one of the worse in recent memory, WCRC crews have been, and will continue to respond to events like this when the residents of Washtenaw County are in need. Check out other stories from WCRC’s 100 year history by visiting wcroads.org.

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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