Michigan city of Livonia copes with aftermath of deadly tornado that struck without a warning

George Hunter, Marnie Muñoz and Charles E. Ramirez, The Detroit News on

Published in Weather News

LIVONIA, Mich. — A deadly tornado powered by winds of up 95 mph touched down near Livonia's western border Wednesday so quickly there wasn't time to deploy the city's emergency notification system before the twister cut a 5.5-mile path through the city, officials said Thursday.

The tornado that landed on Livonia's western border was one of two that touched down Wednesday in Lower Michigan, with the other in Crawford County near Roscommon, according to the National Weather Service.

The Livonia tornado toppled a tree onto a house, killing a 2-year-old and severely injuring his mother and injuring his 2-week-old sibling. Trinity Health Michigan spokesman Bobby Maldonado said Thursday the mother remained in critical condition. Crews continued removing debris from roadways Thursday while assessing the tornado's damage.

The tornado appeared without warning, said Kristin Houchins, Livonia's director of communications.

“At the time the storm was coming through, the National Weather Service had issued a special weather statement — not even an advisory,” Houchins said. “There were no warnings. Our sirens are based on notifications from the National Weather Service’s Weather Spotters.

The weather service’s SKYWARN program deploys between 350,000 to 400,000 trained weather spotters nationwide.

"The storms apparently didn’t become severe until they hit Schoolcraft and 96, basically, right when they hit the Livonia border," Houchins said. "The tornado continued for five miles until it dissipated at Seven Mile and Middle Belt.”

The weather service said it didn't issue a warning because the tornado developed rapidly and did not allow the agency time to alert residents.

"We had a special weather statement out for the thunderstorm, which produced 40 mph winds, (but) we had a rapid development of the tornado right over Livonia, and it developed and dissipated very quickly, so that it was difficult to put out a warning on such a quick spin-up of a tornado," said Steve Considine, a meteorologist with the service in White Lake Township.

City officials have fielded questions from residents demanding to know why no sirens were sounded to help prepare for the tornado, Houchins said.

“We have had some comments,” she said. “Fortunately, we have supporters in the community who are helping us get the correct information out. In a situation like this, people are sad, they’re upset, and angry, and it’s natural for them to look for someone to blame. I understand it. Unfortunately, you can’t blame Mother Nature.”

The storm rapidly swept through Summer Street before barreling toward other homes near Houghton and Mason Street but didn't damage the home of Dave Okopny, 68. He said he was more concerned that he hadn’t heard or seen any warnings before the storm hit.

“I don’t want to point the finger, but I don’t know how it works,” Okopny said.

In a statement posted to Livonia's Facebook page Wednesday, city officials said, "The City of Livonia extends its heartfelt sympathies to the family after the death of their 2-year son, who was killed after a tree fell on the family house when a quick-developing tornado struck several Livonia neighborhoods at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday."

A GoFundMe campaign was launched Thursday on behalf of the family. A message on the fundraiser listed the boy's mother only as Corinne.

"The family is devastated at the loss of their beautiful young son," the post read. "Their home has been destroyed and their needs are many."

The campaign's organizer, described as a co-worker of the mother, did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Through Thursday evening, the effort had raised more than $200,000, dwarfing its initial $12,000 goal.

Jack Cavenaugh, a neighbor, said he rushed to the house where the toddler and mother were trapped beneath the downed tree.

“Devastating,” Cavenaugh said. “I saw the father outside, and he was crying, of course.“

National Weather Service officials classified the Livonia tornado as an EF1 with winds of up to 95 mph in its preliminary report. They said the tornado was 450 yards wide and cut a 5.5-mile path.

The twister touched down at about 3:30 p.m. just east of Schoolcraft and Eckles roads and then moved northeast onto Mason Road just north of Interstate 96, according to the weather service. The tornado continued to the intersection of Nola and Lyndon roads, uprooting large trees, snapping off large tree limbs, and damaging homes, the agency said.

Officials said the tornado traveled across Newburgh Road and onto Levan Road near its intersection with Five Mile, causing tree damage. It then moved northeast to the area of Farmington and Six Mile roads, where trees were uprooted. It arrived in Rotary Park and sheared off tree limbs before heading into Beverly Park where the tornado downed more tree limbs. The tornado lifted off southwest of Seven Mile and Middle Belt, the weather service said.

Crews removed debris from roadways and tried to determine how much damage the tornado left in its wake, while Livonia officials weighed whether to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency, the first step toward requesting federal aid, Houchins said.

"We’re not at that point yet," Houchins said. "I’m not saying that it won’t happen, but we aren’t at that point. If and when it does happen, we would put that out to residents as soon as possible."

Employees from Livonia’s Department of Public Works Chipper and Branch Service will start removing storm debris from residents’ property on Monday, she said.

“A state Community Response Team is helping our Department of Public Works assess the damage,” Houchins said. “It looks like it was limited to a 5-mile swath the tornado traveled through. We’re prioritizing removing downed trees from roadways to make sure the roads are passible and trying to help residents clean up.”

Residents picked their way through debris across the city on Thursday as road cleanups continued in areas affected by the twister.


City roads were mostly cleared as of Thursday afternoon, with some small debris scattered across Plymouth Road. Tree removal crews were busier near Rotary Park, and along Houghton, where neighbors nearby were still grappling with fallout from the storm.

Mary Falk, 64, was at a doctor’s appointment when her neighbor called to tell her the storm destroyed the awning behind her house on Houghton. No one was home at the time, but Falk, her husband and her grandson returned later to a chaotic scene, she said.

“It was raining so hard, and the wind was whipping, you couldn’t see out the windows,” Falk said of her drive home.

One tree uprooted and fell on her trailer, while all of the awning planks flew from the back of her house into her front yard, she said. Police and first responders shut down several roads as crews worked to clear the area and attend to the wounded family, she said.

Motorists, including local photographer Brooke Brzoska of Warren, stopped their vehicles as the wind picked up and a massive cloud crossed I-94 east of Detroit Metro Airport around 3:45 p.m. Wednesday. The torrential rain was coming down sideways, Brzoska said.

"It felt like a spin cycle in the washing machine,” Brzoska said.

Julia Creech, a 25-year-old resident on Houghton, said she checked her outdoor cameras as soon as her neighbor alerted her about the storm. She and her partner, Jack Cavenaugh, 27, were at work when the storm first hit, concerned about their dog at home alone.

“From the time I checked the cameras to the 15 minutes when we got home, all hell broke loose,” Creech said. “It was like, ‘Our subdivision looks like a war zone. It’s bad, we need to come home now.‘“

Creech and Cavenaugh spent the night checking in on neighbors and assessing the damage on their street.

“A catastrophe’s a catastrophe,” Richard Rickets, a 65-year-old resident. said while sitting outside his home with no power Thursday afternoon. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, the storm collapsed the canopy of a Farmington Hills Citgo gas station near 10 Mile and Middle Belt with vehicles beneath it. Officials said a portion of the covering and a gas pump burst into flames at about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday. One person had minor injuries.

"Gas station employees were quick to initiate the station’s emergency shut-off," officials said.

The severe weather also led to a falling tree striking a vehicle in Highland Township, injuring two people, the Oakland County Sheriff's Office said. The incident occurred around 3 p.m. on South Duck Lake Road, south of Livingston Road.

A 35-year-old Columbus, Ohio, man was driving a 2015 Hino box truck subcontracted to the U.S. Postal Service south on South Duck "when the storm caused a large tree on the west side of the road to break off and land on the cab of the vehicle," officials said. "The truck then ran off the west side of the road and into some trees."

After striking the Hino truck, the falling tree also hit the roof of a 2018 Ford F150 pickup truck driven by a 23-year-old Highland Township man, according to the sheriff's office. Both men were hospitalized in critical condition.

Wednesday's second tornado touched down at about 1:19 p.m. at the Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon in southeast Crawford County.

National Weather Service officials classified the tornado as an EF0, meaning its winds were between 65 mph to 85 mph.

They said the twister was 90 yards wide, was on the ground for one minute and moved 0.3 of a mile. Officials also said the tornado uprooted a couple of dozen trees, including three that fell onto a home's roof.

Crews from Michigan's largest power companies are working to restore service following the storms and tornadoes Wednesday.

DTE Energy reported about 8,500 of its customers across Metro Detroit were without electricity power on Thursday afternoon.

"As of 4 p.m. today, 80% of customers who lost power due to the storms have had their service restored," DTE said on its website at 5 p.m. Thursday. "We are on target to restore 95% of customers by the end of the day today and to restore all storm-related customers by the end of the day tomorrow."

Meanwhile, Consumers Energy reported late Thursday afternoon that almost 6,300 customers were without power.

The weather's reach stretched as far as Port Huron in the Thumb region. City Manager James Freed said the storm affected areas in the southern portion of the city the most. Numerous roads are closed because of downed trees and powerlines there, he said. There are also significant fields of debris in the area, according to Freed.

"Our emergency crews continue to clear roadways and assist residents," Freed said in a statement Thursday. "We are working with the National Weather Services as they determine whether or not a tornado was what our community experienced last night. In the meantime, we are focused on recovery and are grateful that we suffered no loss of life in our community."

Freed said he urges residents to wait until areas where powerlines were downed Wednesday are safe to begin cleanup. "We want residents to take their time and be safe about this," he said.

In the meantime, he said the city is offering free brush pickup throughout the community and has partnered with DTE Energy to distribute free ice and water to those impacted by power outages.

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