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Posted on Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 1:35 p.m.

Top 5: Lessons I learned from the Dexter tornado

By Paula Gardner

When I left Ann Arbor late Thursday afternoon after hearing a report of a tornado in Dexter, I didn’t know what to expect.


The house at the entrance to Huron Farms. This is the first damage I saw when I drove into the subdivision last Thursday.

Paula Gardner |

The hail that pummeled my car as I drove along Dexter-Ann Arbor Road was the largest I’d seen, prompting me to pull over and even videotape it.

The first house that I stopped at had a damaged roof and a family of five that spent part of the storm on the front porch and the rest in the basement as the storm’s intensity accelerated. Moments later, we stood on their porch, marveling at the canoe that had blown across the yard and the fact that they were all safe.

Then I saw a parade of emergency vehicles from multiple departments heading west, indicating that the damage - and possibly injury - total could be far worse that what I’d found at my first stop.

Moments later, I was pulling into Huron Farms and found myself speechless.

My experiences as a journalist that night were just part of’s coverage, which continued through the weekend and today as the community still tries to mitigate the damage and restore as much normalcy as possible.

We’ve all seen natural disasters, at least from a distance. What happened in Dexter brings it so much closer to home.

What’s stunning to me, days later, is that no one died during the storm, or even its aftermath as trees covered roads and power lines fell.

I went home early Friday morning, tired, wet and chilled. And I marveled at what I saw and experienced.

Over past several days, I’ve wondered if my first impressions would change.

Since they haven’t - and, in fact, I believe them to be more true after watching the community’s reponse - I’m sharing them now.

Here are my Top 5 lessons that I’m taking away from the Dexter tornado:

1. A tornado’s path is uncomfortably random: There’s simply no way to describe standing in the middle of a subdivision street and realizing that every single home you can see is damaged, if not destroyed. That night, I could see devastation - but I didn’t know what else had been damaged, where that might have happened or who might have been hurt. Our focus that night was on buildings and the people in them, but then learned about the path of the tornado and how it randomly took out massive trees north of Dexter, businesses in the village - but not the landmark cider mill - and the homes. There was no real logic or predictability for much of the storm. The lucky person who can still live in their home may be just a few feet away from the person sifting through rubble for keepsakes.

2. But safety precautions pay off: No one can control a tornado’s path, but we can control our response to it. The lack of serious injury in Dexter is miraculous. I will never again hear an alert and cavalierly ignore the recommendation to go to the basement. (And will proudly harangue my husband to get off of the porch, where the “view” of the storm is better.) People in Dexter who were in their homes - or even caught in commercial buildings - on Thursday did everything right.

3. First responders work tirelessly: I’ve seen police and firefighters doing their jobs in some of the worst circumstances imaginable over the last few decades, and know that it can be hard to stay in control during the most challenging rescue scenes. But the sense of teamwork that night from those first responders - even as some of them drove for miles to assist - was exceptional. Every police officer and firefighter that I talked to or witnessed in the field was calm, professional and helpful, even during the hours that they didn’t know what they’d find as they knocked on doors or drove the streets of Dexter.

4. ‘How can I help?’ We may doubt human nature at times, but my faith in people was revived on Thursday when I heard, over and over, people trying to figure out what was needed, and took any step they could to accomplish it. This was visible to me in my first moments in Huron Farms, as I talked to a woman who weathered the tornado with her children in their basement and emerged to find their windows blown out and deck blown across the yard. Moments later, she was walking along Noble Street, asking whether anyone needed anything. People who could make a difference - those with heavy equipment or knowledge of gas lines - just showed up, knowing they could do something. And the volunteering hasn't ended.

5. Leadership is vital. What really seemed to define the aftermath of the tornado is how it’s not just people showing a willingness to help: It’s also about the larger community and how it’s setting a tone for mobilizing volunteers, donations and cleanup. One example is the Dexter Community Schools. My first stop after leaving Huron Farms on Thursday night was Mill Creek Middle School, where the building was open, buses were ready and volunteers greeted me. The schools were open all weekend, providing a destination and community focal point for children’s activities, counseling, donations and even a lost & found. No one in Dexter needed to wonder what to do or where to go, whether on the volunteering or seeking help side of the tornado. It felt extraordinary on Thursday. It seems more so today.

Paula Gardner is News Director of She can be reached by email or followed on Twitter.



Wed, Mar 21, 2012 : 8:54 p.m.

what about the rest of the county with no sirens? I've spoken to both Scio twp and Washtenaw county officials and they said there isnt money to install. Why weren't they installed when we had money? If the storm happened in the middle of the night I wouldnt have known it was a tornado until it hit. Citizens safety first then spend the tax payers money on other things. Just imagine what would have happened to Dexter if there wasnt a warning system? 1955 Flint had a massive tornado that took out a whole neighborhood. Men came home to no home and no family. Go to the Flint cemeteries and look at mothers and children buried next to each other....


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 2:41 p.m.

It's obvious that the leadership of the community and the schools is noteworthy. Coupled with the outpouring of care and concern by so many people and agencies makes Dexter a proud community.

Elaine F. Owsley

Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 12:58 p.m.

A tornado touched down near Mt. Pleasant when I was a student at Central Michigan in the mid 50's. There wasn't much damage, but huge barn was picked up and turned completely around on it's foundation. The ramp into the barn ended in a blank wall and the huge barn opening hung over some animal pens. It was quite an attraction. I never found out how they solved the problem. Probably cut a new door and boarded up the other opening.


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 4:19 a.m.

St. Joe's has been designated a drop-off site also, at the request of the Sheriff's Dept. We have a large selection of clothing for men, women & children, both casual and business attire. In addition, we have baby items (clothing, toys, diapers, etc.) as well as some non-perishable foods, bottled water, bedding, toiletries, some household goods, and one recliner!

Steve Bourne

Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 3:04 a.m.

We don't get earthquake damage in Michigan so you may be involved in a house fire or tornado once in a lifetime, if that. Very unlikely but possible. When the fire department fights a fire, a lot of water can end up in your basement - assume a few feet. A tornado can blow away your house from the foundation up. So here are a few useful lessons: a. When looking for protection from a tornado in the basement, get under the stairs. If it falls in, the stair framing to the floor may offer some additional protection. b. Keep a back up computer drive attached to your modem in a protected, secure place in the basement. If not, at least remember to grab it on the way down if a tornado is in the neighborhood. c. Keep your photo albums and other family documents that can't be replaced in the basement in a fire/water tight enclosure. d. Pay your homeowners insurance. e. If your children are aware of the tornado damage, explain how insurance works so they know that if the worst happened, you have a clue. Tell them you'd go to a hotel with a pool, order a pizza and get some videos. Don't let them try to figure it out for themselves or ask their friends. If everyone is healthy and the stuff that's lost can be replaced, you're good.

Deb Anderson

Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 1:08 a.m.

And no news of looting. Always a good sign of humanity. :-) Glad everyone is okay. We can rebuild homes but we can't rebuild lives nor can we rebuild upon greed which is usually an aftermath of most disasters. Nice to see communities pulling together for the common good of all, very inspirational.


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 12:11 a.m.

what did you expect doughnuts,coffee,and milky ways. typical way small towns respond to tragedy.

Ann English

Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 12:11 a.m.

jns131, If you know what storm chasers do, are they the same people who put down "tornado probes" in front of approaching tornadoes? Once on TV I saw two men putting a red tornado probe down beside a road within sight of a tornado in South Dakota.


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

Tornado probes? I am not sure what you are talking about. I have seen storm chasers and they have radios and cell phones to call into police and other to get those sirens going. Unless you never seen one and then you will be on your back porch video taping it. As for the red probe? It might be to classify the tornado speed. Not sure.


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 12:06 a.m.

Yah, that's great, except in Tecumseh, they blow the siren if it's dark clouds and rain! It makes people not want to take cover, because they don't blow siren ONLY if they know a Tornado is coming. That's the way it used to be. Now for some reason they blow it every time it gets stormy out. Talk about crying wolf! Perhaps someone can straighten the City of Tecumseh out and blow the WARNING siren only if a tornado is KNOWN to be coming. Too many people have become accustomed to disregarding due to fact that it only represents a WATCH!!!!

Ann English

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 11:38 p.m.

I think Paula sent a tornado article after 11 P.M. Thursday.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 10:31 p.m.

Let's hear it for local government workers. Too often I only hear complaining about paying taxes. I hope people realize that paying taxes supports our local families in many ways.

Kai Petainen

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 9:51 p.m.

i love this article. it's down to earth, honest and it's quite reflective. it can force one to be thankful and appreciative of what we have.... well done. this is easily one of my favorite articles this year and i'll need to bookmark it.

George Houchens

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:56 p.m.

One of the big reasons that Dexter (and surrounding area) residents volunteered their assistance so quickly and willingly is because the people who live in this area still have the work ethic; still feel responsible for their own welfare, and don't look to the government to provide all their needs. Compare this response to New Orleans, where after several years, residents are still looking for handouts.


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 12:49 a.m.

Uh, Dexter was not under water like New Orleans. And is the fire dept. a private corporation?

Ann English

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 11:49 p.m.

Some of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina accepted the offer of Mormon humanitarians to relocate in Utah. They left New Orleans for good. Sometimes I wonder which city in Louisiana today has the most people. After Drew Brees left the San Diego Chargers for the New Orleans Saints, he bought a house in New Orleans. The city has a different mayor today.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 9:14 p.m.

to make any comparisons between a city the size of New Orleans and the massive destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the small town of Dexter and a rather isolated tornado whose damage while significant to a few homes was limited in scope overall is absurd.

Paula Gardner

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:21 p.m.

I just changed the name of the school district. Thanks, Moms Kitchen, for pointing that out. And one thing I need to point out: I mention police and firefighters among the first responders, but there were a lot of other people I was thinking of when I wrote that - like Huron Valley Ambulance & Washtenaw County Road Commission, both of which were out in force, too. Also, Craig, everyone I talked to said they ended up in the basement, or phoned their friends or children to tell them to get into the basement. They mentioned the time between the warning and the tornado's arrival, which was long enough to give them time to get downstairs. A few people I talked to weren't home from work yet, which also help on the non-injury front. Yet at the same time, there were people in cars or in places without basements that survived, too. Still amazed and thankful for that.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 10:50 p.m.

There is another agency that is always forgotten about. The American Red Cross of Washtenaw-Lenawee Counties. They were on scene shortly after it was safe to respond and is still providing assistance in one form or another. Initially shelters (they also dealt with the Ann Arbor apartment that flooded because of the storm) and food as well as clean-up kits, disaster mental health workers, health workers and many other trained volunteers. They work in conjunction with the other agencies in the county to make sure their residents are taken care of when a disaster occurs. They also responded to a house fire at 2:30am. These are mainly volunteers who are there to assist at a moments notice, but are sometimes overlooked. No tax dollars at work, just the donations from the generous community.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 9:23 p.m.

There is one other set you forget. The storm chasers. Those who are out there getting the first alarms out. Especially down in Monroe area. I would love to be a storm chaser. Get the word out fast.

Julie Stetten

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:17 p.m.

So proud of my 12 and 14 year old children, Claire and Clark, and their neighbors, the Voellers, and friends, the Scherdts, who mobilized a bottle and can drive to make over $500 for the Dexter Relief Fund via United Way-- The Dexter Community Schools and various sports programs taught them valuable lessons of community service--they didn't know what to do, so they did what they already knew how--raise money a simple way--so thanks Arbor Pointe and Kirkway Subdivisions for all your Ann Arbor contributions! We appreciate your willingness to give! and to Meijer on Zeeb Road and Plum Market who took all those bottles, even when they were from the smallest micro-brew! We appreciated your patience with our kids! Signed, a proud parent!

Moms Kitchen

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:03 p.m.

The school district is called "Dexter Community Schools" not "Dexter Area Schools".


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

Good thoughts Paula. We have always felt so safe around Ann Arbor. We always said, "it's a valley." No more. I do remember a tornado touchdown years ago on Packard Road though.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

Craig, if you'd been close enough to be in danger from it, you would have been scared enough to high tail it to the basement. It's one thing to see hail coming down, it's quite another to see the sky turn black, to watch the air rushing upward as though it was in an express elevator, to see debris filling the air in front of you, and to feel the deafening locomotive-like sound of the on-rushing vortex pounding on your chest. That tends to get your attention.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:05 p.m.

I'm sure it would get my attention. Which is to say I would be one of those guys (knuckleheads) who waits till the last second. But the "right thing' would have been to go to the basement as soon as the alarms started rather than wait till the tornado is eminent on my block.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:48 p.m.

If you'd like to help, or need help, one of the means of communication is our Facebook group: There are people offering their help chainsawing, others offering chainsaw discounts, people asking for specific types of children's clothing, others offering to help's been a very helpful resource. The level of support and generosity of the Dexter community has been remarkable. I am so incredibly proud to be associated with it.

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:34 p.m.

And to round out the experience you should have seen the enormous, complete, full color rainbow that arched across the sky from Pinckney to the western side of Dexter on Sunday morning. It heralded that "all is well" and the people are safe.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

How about we build homes that don't fly apart in an EF-3 tornado? Brick, Insulated Concrete Form, etc. Stick-built construction clearly doesn't cut it.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 9:21 p.m.

We need to rephrase that comment. There is not a need to justify? Hello. There may not be a need but take a look at your house. I think there is a need. Trust you me, the houses that got nailed were pre fab and the ones that didn't? Brick and Mortar. The story of the three little pigs keep coming to mind. The big bad wolf did howl. I am still reminded of that one lone house down in south of Texas that survived E 5 hurricane. Build it to withstand it. IMO


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

And what would such a structure be made out of? Poured concrete domes, with the first floor below grade? Unfortunately, costs and mother nature conspire against some solutions.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:36 p.m.

because there aren't enough tornadoes in this part of the country to justify the cost.

Craig Lounsbury

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:13 p.m.

with respect to #2 I have heard various news folks talk over and over about how everyone "did the right thing" but what i haven't heard was news folks directly asking very many people "did you go to your basement when you heard the alarm?" I'm just curious. I'm knucklehead I stood out on the back porch video taping hail in SE Ann Arbor during the tornado warning.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:51 p.m.

Craig, I'm a bigger idiot. I was in my backyard and at the doors videotaping the clouds, rain and hail while the tornado was just over 2000 feet away. I couldn't see it though. Only a big black wall to the north where it was. Huge cumuli nimbus clouds were building overhead and black wisps were being sucked north, presumably into the tornado. No basement.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 7:50 p.m.

The people I have talked to from Huron Farms (including close friends of mine) said that they all went to the basement when the sirens began. I'm going to assume this had a large impact on the lack of injuries and fatalities.

Top Cat

Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 6:57 p.m.

And always keep an extra chain for your chainsaw that is sharp.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 6:33 p.m.

Paula, If you want to learn more about what you saw, if only for your own personal interest, you should sign up for the C.E.R.T. courses provided by both the city and Sheriff. There you will learn not only how YOU can prepare but also make sense of how the community as a whole responds to these critical events.


Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 6:31 p.m.

That's my hometown where people still care about each other and are willing to show it! Very proud to be from dexter!


Tue, Mar 20, 2012 : 5:44 a.m.

Becca, did I graduate a year before you? Do you, or back then did you, hate to be called Rebecca? You are right, our town is AWESOME!