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'I'm so grateful they got out of there alive'

Gail and Jim Seeling are feeling grateful that despite the tornado that damaged their home and destroyed the home next door, they and their neighbors are unhurt. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
May 29, 2013 - Atlas Twp.- Vickie Kennedy gazed over a scene of destruction in the 7400 block of Gale Road early Wednesday morning, after a tornado tore through Tuesday night.

"This is my daughter's house," she said, crying. "We were there all day Saturday."

The two-story home where Ashlee Mahaffy lived with her husband, Tom, and their three children, Grace, 4, J.J., 2, and 8-month-old baby Olivia, is now a pile of rubble, with only half a staircase still standing, the remnants of a wall and a doorwall to a walk-out basement.

It was in that basement that Ashlee put couch cushions over her children and threw herself on top of them to shelter what was most precious in her life.

"They were praying to God the whole time," said Kennedy, who noted her son-in-law had been at work when the tornado struck and was racing home to his family.

Next door, Jim and Gail Seeling were watching television around 9 p.m. when they heard the tornado sirens. Jim switched the station to a local news channel and said when the weatherman told him to go to the basement, he listened.

"I'm 67 and I never have before (during tornado warnings) but this time I did," he said. "I used to go out and watch."

Heeding the warning was in their best interest as it turned out, and he and Gail took books to the basement and read until the lights went out. They listened as the wind roared and the rain pounded. Suddenly, it became very quiet.

"I said, 'Here it comes,' and it was like a freight train," said Jim of the tornado.

According to a report from the National Weather Service, White Lake, six tornadoes touched down in southeast Michigan May 28, with the one that touched down in Atlas rated an F2, with winds of 130 mph. The tornado's path was 300 yards wide, with a total length of 4.6 miles, from Vassar Road and Pointe North Drive to State Road near Perry Road. The most damage was done at the intersection of Gale and Hegel roads, where the Mahaffy home was located.The approximate time of the tornado touch down was 9:54 p.m. Tornadoes also occurred in Fenton, Flint, and three in Shiawassee County, in the approximately 90 minutes leading up to the Atlas Township tornado.

Once the Seelings knew the storm was over, they ventured up their stairs and found glass windows in their home had blown out. The storm also threw their deck furniture, and damaged their roof and shed. A decorative heron on their weathervane has "flown the coop," Jim noted.

In the pitch black, he looked out his kitchen window and saw the Mahaffy home was gone. Shortly after, he said Ashlee Mahaffy walked out of the rubble, barefoot, yelling, "We're OK!" This was to the great relief of Jim Seeling, who had assumed that besides his neighbor's house being gone, five people were gone with it.

"I'm so grateful they got out of there alive," said Gail in the gray light of Wednesday morning. "The police were there as soon as she came out. I'm just so shaken up, I can't believe it... I've got nine lives. I survived two liver transplants and now a tornado. After something like this happens, you're just overwhelmed. I can't comprehend. Yesterday, that was a house, people were living there, and now it's just a pile of trash."

Township Fire Chief Fred Forys arrived at the Mahaffy's home on Gale Road area shortly after the tornado struck Tuesday night.

"There were powerlines down everywhere when I arrived," he said. "Grand Blanc Police, along with Genesee County Sheriff deputies were on the scene. Our first report was an entrapment in Mahaffy's home—but we were notified the mother and three children walked out of the house on their own."

"If this disaster could send a message to people, please pay attention to the warnings from the National Weather Service and the news," he said. "When they say take cover—do it."

Among the insulation, wood and materials that once made up the frame of the Mahaffy house, there are few recognizable objects— a toy truck, a curling iron, a ceiling light fixture, a lawn tractor, a sink that hangs from what was the first floor.

Kennedy wanders through the debris, picking up a few photos she finds, including a framed one of her daughter with a child. The Mahaffys moved back to Michigan about a month ago from Kansas City, Mo., after living there three years.

"They moved back and this happens," said Kennedy, who added that her daughter lost her wedding ring during the tornado, the one object she is worried about.

"She's safe and sounds strong, but she's afraid to come here and see (what is left)."

The tornado moved on a line going northeast, missing Kathy Tanner's home directly across from the Mahaffy's Gale Road residence.

"We were watching the warnings on television and then the power went out—it was very dark and still," she said. "We went downstairs to the basement, but we did not see anything or hear anything. Trees came up around us, but we just never knew it was a tornado until we came upstairs. It just skipped over our home and hit the Mahaffy's house."

The storm twisted soccer goals near Goodrich Middle School, ripped up a few apple trees and twisted sheet metal from the nearby Genesee County Road Commission building around power lines. However, only a few branches were in the yard of the Tanner's home.

Atlas Township Supervisor Shirley Kautman-Jones went to the Mahaffy's home on Tuesday evening and returned Wednesday morning to help organize a relief plan.

"God bless the township fire department and police that first arrived," she said. "It was pitch black last night, power lines were down and sparking—there were fires burning and large sections of steel were up in the wires 20 feet in the air."

Kautman-Jones, along with other local officials, were holding an emergency meeting later in the day to determine what assistance was needed for residents.

"The toilets from the home are in the backyard and debris is scattered for miles," she added.

On Wednesday morning, about a mile-and-a-half northeast of the scene of destruction, neighbors on Dutch Road were picking up personal items in the nearby woods.

"We found a pair of jeans, some family photos, insulation from a house and a few other items—we are going to return them," said Jack Frost, who lives in the 7000 block of Dutch Road. "I'm only assuming it's from the family who lost their house last night," he said. "On Tuesday evening we were watching the news as the storm was coming from the west. We headed downstairs when the news reports said it was time to take cover. It was real quiet outside all of a sudden—then it sounded like a train coming, a really load roar. We had many trees uprooted and branches down, but we were lucky compared to the Mahaffy's."

Dutch Road resident Jim Cummings, 83, and his wife ran down to the basement when the storm passed over their home.

The neighbor to the north of the Mahaffy's is Sue Hegel. The tornado struck as she was halfway down the stairs to her basement.

"I thought, 'What's that incredible noise?'" said Hegel, who had been watching the storm. "It was getting louder."

While the tornado mostly missed her house, with signs of damage to the siding, it annihilated her garage, where she runs a dog grooming business. No animals were in the garage at the time.

Across Gale Road, southwest of the Mahaffy and Hegel homes, the tornado also took out the Genesee County Road Commission's salt barn. The adjacent GCRC garage suffered damage only to two overhead doors, said Randy Dellaposta, GCRC facilities and stock room supervisor.

The barn was empty at the time the storm struck, as once winter is over, the salt is taken back to Flint. No road commission equipment was damaged.

ABC12 Meteorologist John McMurray said a basic pressure pattern across much of the United States lends itself to instability bringing about intense thunderstorms and tornadoes. Hardest hit are often the lower plain states, such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. In Michigan, tornado season lasts from spring into early fall and on average, 12-15 tornados will touch down annually in the lower part of the state.

"Weather radios are an excellent investment," said McMurray on what citizens can do to protect themselves. "They go off when a tornado watch or warning is issued. Also, know what the basic safety rules are— get down below ground level in a small room or storm shelter if you have no basement. Don't try to outrun a tornado, just get down below ground level."

Mark McCallum, director of maintenance for Goodrich School District, said there were three custodians in the high school, middle school and Oaktree Elementary when the storm passed over. The Goodrich Schools were closed on Wednesday morning due to the power outage.

"We had no damage to the buildings only the steel from the Genesee County Road Commission salt barn damaged a pavilion near Oaktree," he said. "The custodians took cover and were not injured. They did report it was very loud as they heard the storm pass over the buildings. Not a single shingle came off the roof—it was nasty where it hit and calm where it didn't."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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