Too Close to Home - Reflections on the Dexter Tornado

It’s unusual for me to be home from work early on weekday evenings. Typically around 5:30, my husband Jeff is picking up our two-year old son Gus from day care and taking a familiar one mile drive home to the Huron Farms subdivision in Dexter, Michigan.

Thursday March 15th was different – I was off work preparing for the Certified Financial Planner exam. The test was scheduled to start the next day. Jeff was working late. My mom Betty, a teacher who lives in Texas, was spending an unseasonably warm spring break in Michigan. This gave Gus a spring break of his own at home with Grandma.

I spent the afternoon studying for my exam. As my computer batteries ran low around 3:30, I unexpectedly headed home to plug in for one last practice test. My mom decided to distract Gus with a trip to Meijer and a petting zoo, spoiling her grandson as all good grandmothers do. We agreed that Mom and Gus would arrive home at 6 p.m.

We didn’t know that another game plan was already in motion, one that brought a destructive tornado to our quiet, tight-knit community. When I learned of a tornado warning, I called my mom to ask her to cut her trip short. When she pulled into our driveway, tornado sirens were already in full gear and the radar indicated that a tornado might be on the ground north of town. We abruptly headed into the basement – it was 5:30 p.m. The storm grew violent and I called Jeff to check on him and get word of what was happening. He was taking cover at work, too, and could tell me nothing but that a tornado was on the ground in Dexter.

About 45 minutes later, we emerged from our unfinished basement with little knowledge of what had happened outside. We had listened to a violent storm with hail, wind, and torrential rain for what felt like forever, but we could see very little through one tiny window within our view. For us, the house was thankfully intact and when we did peek outside, our neighbors were starting to emerge safely from their own hiding spots.

Everyone seemed to be ok and the damage on our cul-de-sac was more surface wound than outright destruction. The metal gazebo which had been nailed to our back deck was crumpled in a neighbor’s driveway. Branches littered yards. There was about a foot of water standing on the street.

After a few minutes we started to learn that our few houses were an exception. The first clues were small. Looking between neighbors’ houses at the street behind us, we saw the entire side wall of one home, which had enclosed a garage, was no longer there. That was about 150 yards away. Word started to spread from Noble Street just one street over about severe damage. I waited anxiously for Jeff to get home. When he did, he brought word that much of our neighborhood looked like a war zone.

All in all, Dexter’s tornado left more than 200 homes damaged. Many of them were in Huron Farms. Some solid buildings were so badly damaged that they will need to rebuild from the ground up. Families lost belongings, memories, and a sense of safety and normalcy that night and are just starting to pick up the pieces. There is personal pain when people experience such deep loss, but also incredible stories of thankfulness, hope, and survival. Again and again we’ve repeated disbelief that there were no serious injuries or deaths. Given the destruction and damage, this is truly miraculous.

In the tornado’s aftermath, the strength of Dexter pulling together and the outpouring of charity and support from around Michigan, the Midwest, even as far away as Japan have truly been special. The extraordinary power of relationships and community has never been more on display for me than in the moments just after the storm as neighbors rushed to check on neighbors and families were joyfully reunited. After 45 minutes in our basement on an unusual evening when I happened to be home, my priorities were clearly challenged and shifting.

The lessons of the tornado reach beyond my own little world and make me think of our daily mission here at Center for Financial Planning. Building personal relationships based upon trust, care, and service is why I love the work that we do. Helping people makes it easy come into work each day. Preparation for our clients’ life turns, both planned and unexpected, is our primary measure of success. The storm’s wrath carries reminders of the power of this planning, whether you consider emergency plans which ensured that people increased their odds of survival by getting safely to basements or carrying insurance which will help families and our community rebuild.

During the tornado, with my mother and son huddled close and my husband on the phone, my only thoughts were of these most important people in my life and the CFP exam, which had monopolized my attention for months, was a distant memory. I did make it to the test the next day and am anxious to know the results. But as I sat in a chair for ten hours over the next two days, my heart was back with our community in Dexter. Our family knew from the start that we made the right choice to live in Huron Farms. Even after the tornado’s strike, I don’t question it. We were lucky to have fared so well when things could have been so much worse, and luckier still to witness the amazing resilience and compassion the community has fostered in the aftermath of weather’s fury.