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Two dead, 44 injured in unusual northern Michigan tornado

Tornado damage at a church in Gaylord, Mich., on Friday, May 20. (John Flesher/AP)

A strong tornado tore through Gaylord, a Michigan city about 2½ hours north of Lansing, on Friday afternoon, causing widespread damage, two deaths and 44 injuries, according to Michigan State Police.

The tornado touched down shortly before 4 p.m., about 10 minutes after residents were notified by cellphone of the impending storm, said Lt. Derrick Carroll, a spokesman with Michigan State Police’s Seventh District, on Saturday.

It tore through a mobile home park, where two residents in their 70s were later found dead, Carroll said. Drone video posted to social media showed mobile units toppled and pushed together, with some reduced to a pile of debris.

The tornado then moved through Gaylord’s business district, turning cars upside down, sheering off roofs, and scattering wood from damaged buildings into the streets. An ABC/NBC affiliate in Traverse City showed video of the tornado moving over Interstate 75 in the busiest part of the city. A photo showed homes knocked off their foundations.

“We have a lot of debris to clear,” Carroll said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) declared a state of emergency for Otsego County, writing on Twitter that “Michiganders are tough. We are resilient. We will do what it takes to rebuild.”

Tornadoes in northern Michigan are relatively unusual; while about 15 typically strike the state each year, most happen farther south, said John Boris, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He said the twister was the worst strong-wind event in Gaylord in recent decades.

“It is pretty unusual for up here,” he said.

In a tweet on Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service said the tornado “has been rated an EF3 with max winds of 140 mph.” Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes about extreme weather, tweeted that only “[o]nly four other Michigan EF3 tornadoes have been documented to occur farther north.”

The twister ripped through Gaylord around 3:48 p.m. The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for the area at 3:38 p.m., when the twister was nine miles away. As it moved into Gaylord, the Weather Service warned of a “a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado.” It urged residents to take cover. “This is a PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION,” the warning stated.

Ahead of the storm, the Weather Service had placed much of the northern part of the lower Michigan under a severe thunderstorm watch that cautioned “a tornado or two” was possible.

Boris said initial reports indicate the storm was on the ground for 26 minutes — which he described as a “fairly long” period.

The tornadic storm erupted along a strong cold front sweeping across the country. The same front caused temperatures in Denver to crash more than 50 degrees in 24 hours. On Thursday afternoon, it was 86 degrees there; Friday afternoon, it was 33 degrees and snowing.

Exceptionally warm air swelled ahead of the front, which is poised to break scores of records along the East Coast on Saturday, where temperatures could soar to nearly 100 degrees.