DEXTER, Mich. (AP) — The twister that took aim at this Michigan village unleashed winds of 135 mph and lingered on the ground for a full half–hour, plowing a path of destruction that stretched for 10 miles.
But after the tornado melted back into the clouds, townspeople emerged to a remarkable surprise: Not a single person was seriously hurt. Authorities credited storm sirens that provided more than 20 minutes of warning.
The twister damaged more than 100 homes and destroyed 13. Yet everyone emerged unscathed.
"When you look at the path and you look at the physical destruction ... it's amazing," Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton said Friday.
Sometime after Thursday evening's tornado, Deputy Ray Yee was surveying the rubble when a solitary hand rose from debris. He reached for it and pulled out an elderly man who was shaken but able to walk.
"That's the best part," Yee said. "Every place I went to, I would have thought I would have found somebody laying there — deceased or whatever. But, knock on wood, everybody was OK."
By midday Friday, authorities had accounted for the entire population of nearly 4,000.
"We're confident that we're not missing anybody," Fire Chief Loren Yates said.
The tornado was part of a slow–moving system that also brought large hail, heavy rain and high winds. Gusts downed power lines, sparking fires.
Two sirens went off at 5:09 p.m. Thursday. The twister touched down at 5:33 p.m., giving many families enough time to get to safety.
Jack Davidson was watching TV when he heard the sirens. He and his wife dashed to the basement.
When they emerged, they didn't see much damage at first and thought the storm had spared the area. But one glance across the street revealed a different reality: a self–serve car wash had been flattened.
"It's bad," Davidson said. "The pizza shop's bad. But the worst damage is to the car wash."
Two blocks away, the twister didn't even touch down.
"I guess we were just lucky we were in the right spot," Davidson said.
Perry Samson, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan, said it's "relatively rare" to have such a powerful tornado in the state at this time of year. In January 2008, with temperatures in the 60s, tornadoes developed in southeastern Wisconsin. Temperatures topped 70 on Thursday in Michigan.
"Extra moisture and extra heat certainly contributed to the instability that we had. ... We didn't see this coming," Samson said Friday from the Ann Arbor campus, 10 miles from Dexter. "We're still scratching our heads."
Two weaker tornadoes were reported in Monroe County's Ida Township and in Lapeer County, near Columbiaville, where authorities found damage across a three–mile area. The storm ripped a two–story home from its foundation and damaged barns and vehicles.
On Friday, the buzz of chainsaws and the groan of heavy machinery filled the air in the community northwest of Ann Arbor. Families spent the day sorting through the remains of houses that had been turned into splinters.
Saundra Psujek was using a rake to clean up debris from trees that had been toppled onto her family home. At one point, she looked up to see two dozen Dexter High School football players standing in her yard.
The teens had been rallied the night before by their coach, and they soon formed a line that began passing large chunks of broken trees to a wood chipper offered by a landscaping company.
After the storm, coach Brian Baird had sent a simple text message to players: "The village needs you."
Someone else left five dozen bagels and two cases of bottled water on Psujek's doorstep.
"I'm completely overwhelmed," she said.
Associated Press (News - Alert) writers Ed White, Corey Williams, David Runk, Jeff Karoub and David Aguilar contributed to this report from Detroit. Tom Krisher reported from Dexter.