A little more than one week ago, on Friday, May 20, 2022, an EF3 category tornado touched down in Gaylord, Michigan. It caused two fatalities, numerous injuries and widespread destruction due to the 150 mph wind speed it reached.
It’s extremely rare that such a natural disaster would strike in northern Michigan. Tornadic activity has taken place, but it’s extremely seldom.
The Day of the Storm
On the day of the storm, Friday, I was working outside at a house on Lake Michigan, so there was a front-row weather seat all around. Midges had hatched so they were a constant presence. Thankfully they don’t bite, not painfully at least, but the small, black insects with tiny fern-like antenna were numerous, to say the least. Choking on them during regular breathing would be, and was, their greatest form of attack. The presence of midges near water isn’t unusual though.
Once the afternoon arrived, my coworkers and I were checking in with each other as we watched some precipitation moving our way. Weather changes fast but this weather change was exceptional. The cold, damp air and soft diffused light made way for dark skies and humid heat—it took place fast, too.
The decision was made to move all tools inside in an effort to leave a little early. Once the tools were moved and the job site was cleaned, our effort was successful and our weekends were about to begin early.
True to our instincts—our phones were also warning us—heavy rains and fairly strong winds had made their way to shore. Car-damaging hail was predicted, but thankfully it didn’t happen where we were.
As soon as I arrived home, news that a tornado had hit the small Bavarian-themed town of Gaylord, Michigan was being transmitted from seemingly all media outlets.
The Day After the Storm
On Saturday morning, May 21, 2022, I’d woken up and was prepared to start the day like most others. It was impossible to shake the thought of this tornado that had hit Gaylord, though.
My dad had lived there for a number of years, so I was very familiar with the area. The population is under 3,700, there’s an ordinance requiring businesses to have a Swiss alpine-themed aesthetic and there’s even an event there each summer called Alpenfest. To say it’s a quintessential northern Michigan town is accurate.
I’d made the decision to travel the 61 miles to Gaylord and see the town for myself. I have a personal connection to the community, and, the need to do photojournalism is in my blood.
Arriving and Documenting Gaylord
There’s a straight section of road that heads east and west, in and out of Gaylord, called M-32. At least, that’s the route I usually take. Before entering Gaylord, there are a lot of trees and then, just like that, businesses. As I was making my way toward Gaylord, the first sign that something significant was taking place was literally that, a sign. There was a blinking orange road sign signaling that a curfew order was in effect.
After that, the local cinema came into view. What was noticeably different though was that the parking lot was filled with power company trucks. While traveling farther westward is when the damage of the tornado began to become more visible. A mobile home community was one of, if not the, hardest hit location. It was destroyed. Past that was a series of businesses that were now turned into a gigantic game of pick-up-sticks.
Vehicles were seemingly frozen in time, as so many remained in the spots that either their owners had to leave them, or where the tornado deposited them. Many of the vehicles shared common characteristics: blown out windows and flat tires. Some of them had wood and debris impaled into them.
The power was out, so each intersection where stop lights once directed traffic was now directed by weighted stop signs, with the expectation that travelers would abide by them—most I saw did not. It was the most apocalyptic journey into a town I’d ever experienced.
What struck me immediately—which says a lot because so much of this trip struck me—is that the distance between destroyed buildings and perfectly preserved buildings was just a matter of feet (meters).
A small parking lot near a historic church seemed like a good place to park, so I did.
One lesson I’ve learned after doing photojournalism is that there’s a lot to be said for parking a good distance away from something, then walking in. This proved to be the case here. The parking lot I arrived in was manageable and only occupied by two other vehicles. The parking lot was also across the street from one of the hardest hit neighborhoods of Gaylord.
I placed my transmission in ‘Park’, turned off the key to my vehicle and listened, then sort of tried to mentally prepare myself for what I may or may not see.
As soon as I exited my vehicle, what immediately struck me was the collective sound of many chainsaws and the smell of fresh-cut wood.
Walking Through the Neighborhoods
As I was getting a sense of what was taking place around me, it was immediately clear where the concentration of activity was. Behind me, everything was fine. Across the street though, and beyond, I could see emergency vehicles, trees down, roofs blown off and community members helping one another.
Michigan State Police patrol vehicles were stationed at some of the entrances to neighborhoods. I chose a street in front of me, where there was a lot of activity, as my point of entry.
Seeing so many houses without roofs was surreal. My initial observation was that it looked like an area of the south or Tornado Alley. Yet, it was in northern Michigan. Debris was everywhere. Items that should’ve been inside houses were now in yards. Magazines and childrens’ toys, for example, were lying on street curbs next to tree branches.
A car was flipped upside down in one front yard. It was such a strange and dramatic sight, it looked like an Avant-Garde art installation.
What became quickly apparent while walking from street to street, was the amount of people and the effort that was being placed on cleanup. The tornado had only struck the day before, but community members and volunteers were clearing yards and helping others like I’d never witnessed before. One group was helping move debris and going from yard to yard, with rakes, chainsaws and whatever else they could use.
Trucks with trailers were hauling away anything they could to help. Streets that would’ve been quiet only 48 hours earlier were now dense with people and trucks and all that the tornado left behind.
Heading Back Home
Photographing this assignment left me with an extremely heavy and emotional heart. I’ve photographed a lot of situations and events but this one was challenging. The combination of having it be so close to home, while not being able to comprehend the speed and ferocity this tornado struck with and the thought of how frightened the people, children, pets, wild animals and all else must’ve felt during the storm, weighed mightily.
As I was traveling toward home, I was contacted by the Detroit Free Press to document the town the next day.
It was difficult documenting Gaylord, knowing the tornado caused loss of life and numerous injuries, as well as the loss of peoples’ homes and possessions.
Seeing the community and volunteers come together for one another was powerful, and offered a shining light in the amazing town of Gaylord.