Assessing a night of destruction: Meteorologists confirm three tornadoes in Southwest Michigan

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

DOWAGIAC — Pieces of wood, nails and debris laid scattered inside a cabin on the Crystal Springs Camp & Retreat Center’s compound near Dowagiac.

This was what Dan Stuglik, the camp’s director, came back to Tuesday night after getting off from his police shift.

Stuglik makes it a priority to check on the campsite after every storm, no matter how small. When he arrived at 1 a.m., the camper cabin had been split in half by a fallen tree that also managed to take out power lines in the process. The roof and its subsequent framing was sunken in and resting on two bunk beds that had been occupied last summer.

“If there were ever a time for this to happen, this was the best-case scenario,” Stuglik said. “We have policies in place (for where to take the campers) when weather like this comes through. It’s nice to know we didn’t have to do that.”

Three days after tornadoes hit towns in Berrien and Cass counties, the communities are in the process of picking themselves up. Each tornado, rated EF-1 that recorded peak wind speeds of 105 mph, touched down briefly but affected a larger portion than ground zero.

Crystal Springs Camp was a quarter of a mile east of where the Dowagiac tornado hit, but the prevailing winds still uprooted a few street and utility poles.

A portion of the campground lost power. However, Stuglik said AEP workers were on site by midnight to help restore it. Even Cass County officials were out at 8 a.m., taking note of the damage.

“It was nice to see they were out so early,” Stuglik said. “It was encouraging to see them.”

Tornado movements

David Smith, Cass County emergency management and homeland security coordinator, was working on damage assessments for most of Wednesday.

In addition to tornadoes in Dowagiac and Niles, the National Weather Service in the Northern Indiana office confirmed a third tornado in Calvin Township on Tuesday night.

The Calvin Township tornado touched down south of Brownsville Street, west of Calvin Center Road, in a wooded area and then traveled rapidly northeast – just missing the Calvin Center Seventh-day Adventist Church. Several large trees were uprooted along with chain link fence pulled from the ground.In Dowagiac, the tornado touched down in a field southwest of town and caused extensive tree damage as it tracked into the far south side of town.

Two single-wide mobile homes were destroyed, and there was widespread tree and additional minor house damage, before the tornado crossed through the Dowagiac Elks Golf Club. The tornado then dissipated as it crossed Dowagiac Creek.

Another tornado touched down in downtown Niles near the Eastside Elementary School. Extensive tree damage along with minor- to significant-structural damage to homes occurred in about a five-block area of Niles. Many large trees fell down on houses and vehicles, the NWS reported.

All three tornadoes were on the ground for less than a mile and lasted only a few minutes before and after 9 p.m. Tuesday.

In Dowagiac, Smith said there were at least 17 homes with damage. This included everything from missing shingles to caved-in roofs. Two vacant mobile homes outside Dowagiac city limits were destroyed.

Capt. Rockey Adams, coordinator of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department’s Office of Emergency Management and homeland security division, was in Niles on Wednesday to compile damage numbers.

Adams said they counted 32 different structures with varying degrees of damage.

Why now?

Clean-up proved to be harder than Stuglik thought Thursday.

As they were cleaning up after the tornado, Stuglik and his crew were also shoveling snow.

“It was strange enough to get a tornado in February, but getting snow after one?” Stuglik said. “Now that we know it’s being torn down, we began removing some of the beds and other items that could be salvaged. Now all that stuff is covered in snow.”

The tornadoes’ appearances are strange to meteorologists as well. Smith explained that authorities were given little or no warning because it wasn’t seen on the radar.

When weaker tornadoes form, it’s impossible to determine if they were there until the day after by assessing the damage. The difference between an EF-1 tornado and straight-line winds is the damage, Smith said.

“We were getting severe thunderstorm watches. Then it became a thunderstorm warning. That as the extent we got (Tuesday),” Smith said. “When we have a weaker type of tornado, it makes it harder for the National Weather Service to detect those. They are usually brief and not on the ground that long. Nothing pops up on the radar either. Every couple years we seem to get these weaker tornadoes.

“We’ve been very fortunate no one was seriously hurt.”

As for Stuglik and the clean-up process, he called the insurance company.

The building was deemed a compete loss, but is insured for $36,000. While that’s good news for Stuglik, the hurdle of replacing it remains.

“Because it’s a summer camp, it will take longer for everything to get approved,” he said. “We are hoping to have it ready for 2018. That means the cabin won’t be in use this summer.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2017)

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