Like a war zone: Tornado wreaks havoc in Dowagiac, Niles

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Several homes and buildings were left in disarray Wednesday morning after tornadoes touched down in Dowagiac and Niles, meteorologists say.

The National Weather Service in Northern Indiana sent a survey team to assess damage from Tuesday night’s storms in coordination with emergency management officials in Berrien and Cass counties.

Meteorologist Geoffrey Heidelberger said both Southwest Michigan cities were hit by separate EF1 tornadoes, which equated to 105 mph. The EF rating is determined by the amount of damage and the damage path that is left from a tornado.

Heidelberger said the tornado in Niles was on the ground for half a mile.

“They weren’t down for very long, but they were two separate circulations,” Heidelberger said. “These tornados were associated with a warm front lifting north through the area. As these storms crossed Lake Michigan, a change occurred in the wind direction, which sent the tornadoes east.”

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 numbers in terms of damage.

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

“In addition to the downed trees and power lines, there was evidence of high water along streets,” Adams said. “But none of that appeared to affect any of the structures. Niles was the most impacted (city) in Berrien County from the storm.”

Fire officials and Niles residents spent their Wednesday boarding up broken windows after the tornado tore through the night before.

Niles Fire Capt. Don Wise said the tumultuous weather began about 9 p.m. Tuesday and proceeded into the early morning hours. Officials are unsure when the tornado hit Niles during the storm.

Multiple trees were found fallen on top of houses and a few garages were left demolished from fallen debris, Wise said.

“Numerous power lines and utility poles were down,” Wise said. “We saw a metal shed wrapped around a utility pole as well.”

There were no reports of injuries.

Most of the damage hit the east side of Niles between 12th and 19th streets and between Eagle and Regent streets. Wise described the pattern of property affected as being caught in a line of damage.

“We boarded up the garage doors at the city street department today,” Wise said Wednesday. “All six garage doors were either blown out or blown in. They lost part of their roof along with some other structural damage.”

Wise said crew members and emergency responders wrapped everything up by 2:30 a.m., before getting back to it the next morning.

Niles officials contacted the Red Cross in case people would be in need of shelter.

“The city is working as fast as they can to get the power restored,” Wise said. “There was some extensive damage that will make it a long time to get right. We ask people to stay out of the neighborhoods. It’s harder for street and utility crews when cars are passing by them all the time. They need all the room they can to get their job done.”

Damages in Dowagiac

Dowagiac Public Safety Director Steve Grinnewald said a select portion of their region in Cass County suffered from the hard rain and high winds.

The damage was concentrated to the southeast section of the town, Grinnewald said. In Dowagiac, trees and power lines were found lying upon houses.

Power has been restored to almost everyone in the city, and Grinnewald said there were no injuries to report.

“It’s almost like there is a path of destruction in a six- to eight-block area,” Grinnewald said in reference to the tornado.

The initial dispatch to the fire department came at 9 p.m. for fallen power lines. Grinnewald said that’s when things started to flare up.

“We had crews out until 3 a.m. We made things safe, when it came to clearing the power lines and the roadways,” he said. “We came back later that morning to help cleanup.”

Police made contact with Dowagiac residents who were still in damaged houses to ensure they were OK. Grinnewald said there were maybe three or four houses that were already empty.

“We were surprised by the severity of the storm,” Grinnewald said. “We had heard reports that it could be bad. The thing is, as you’re coming into town, other than that damaged section, everything looks fine. The other section looks like a war zone.”

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

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2017)

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