Five years after the Dexter Tornado, two students, a teacher, and an administrator reflect on the how the day has changed their lives
By Megan Sarns and Julia Bell
Having formerly lived in Florida, sophomore Kara Young and her family are used to ominous weather conditions.
“We had hurricane after hurricane near our house,” she said.
So, when a storm started rolling into Dexter on March 15, she didn’t think much of it. The family was actually getting ready to go to church for weekly “Thursday night dinners.”
However, as the weather worsened, they chose to stay in their Huron Farms home. Receiving dangerous alerts, they headed to the basement without much thought. As they huddled in the corner of their basement, they began to understand the severity of the situation. “The first time we realized something was happening was when the window right next to us blew out and glass shattered everywhere, Young said. “There was water pouring down into the basement through the upstairs floor.”
As the storm settled, policemen, firefighters, and neighbors came to check on the family. “A fireman came down and told us that he would come get us when it was safe to come out of the house,” Young said.
When he returned, the family was taken upstairs to face the damage of the tornado for the first time. “Finally they were bringing us up,” Young said, “and then we realized that half of our house was gone.”
Kara’s brother, Kieran, is a senior at DHS. “I remember going upstairs and finding most of my stuff in the bathroom,” he said. “The fridge was open and the laundry I had been doing was shoved inside.”
The following hours, days, and weeks, were chaotic for the Young family. “I remember walking out of my house and seeing CNN, Fox News, Channel 7, and people everywhere,” Young said.
Missing an exterior wall, the family was unable to live in their house until it was fixed. “We went to our neighbors house to figure out where we were going that night,” Young said. They lived with their grandparent for several months before moving back to Huron Farms.
For Dexter High School teacher and yearbook advisor, Barry Mergler, the events of the Dexter tornado left a lasting impression. Five years later, he still remembers the night vividly. At the time, Mergler played guitar in the DHS faculty band, Uncommon Assessment, which also included former teachers Matt Martello and Rodney Satterthwaite. They were rehearsing the evening the tornado struck.
“I remember we were rehearsing down in the video lab,” Mergler said. “When we walked outside, you could smell rain like I’ve never smelled it before. I remember Martello saying, “Well, somebody’s gonna get some nasty weather.’”
Mergler, who lives in Pinckney, was driving his then four-year-old son home from daycare when he received a troubling text from his wife; “She was down in the basement and she was like, ‘Where are you? There’s tornado warnings for the Dexter-Pinckney area.’”
At this point in the storm, the rain made it too difficult for Mergler to see, and he ended up pulling over in the open parking lot near St. Mary’s Church. “I thought, I’m gonna get away from any trees… and just wait it out,” he said.
The storm eventually passed, and Mergler returned home. He didn’t know what had happened until he got a text message from student Elle Presley, the yearbook editor in 2012.
“[The text read] ‘Should we cover this?’” Mergler said. “I said, ‘Cover what?’”
Mergler was stunned to learn that an EF-3 tornado had hit Dexter and damaged over 100 homes and businesses. Still, he was grateful to learn that everyone was safe: “It is a miracle that nobody got hurt or worse,” he said.
Mergler credits the following Saturday, March 17th, 2012, as being a “very memorable day” for him personally.
“I was at home, there wasn’t any school, and I was following [the tornado] on MLive and social media,” he said. “The way the whole community was coming together…they had pictures of kids walking around, helping people pick up stuff. I remember sitting there thinking, I’ve never been this close to this solid of a community. In my life. Ever.”
Mergler felt inspired to write a song, which he titled “Welcome Friends.” The song was then recorded with Martello and Satterthwaite, and an accompanying music video was made.
The trio decided to hold a fundraiser at Foggy Bottom. All the money raised went directly to an account for Dexter families who were affected by the tornado. At the event, the song was performed live for the first time.
“[Writing the song] was one of those moments where I didn’t have to think about it.” Mergler said. “It came from watching something unfold that I’ve never experienced before.”
Junior Maddie Wright was in sixth grade when the tornado uprooted her life. Literally. She lives in Horseshoe Bend, one of the neighborhoods most affected by the storm.
“It happened so fast,” Wright said. “Ten minutes earlier, my little brother was outside playing and then he ran inside and said, ‘Oh my God; the sky’s green!’”
Wright and her family rushed downstairs to the basement, where they hid under clothes and their pool table.
“My dad usually stays upstairs when we go downstairs [for a storm],” Wright said. “I remember him coming downstairs because it was starting to come toward us. It sounded like a freight train coming by because it was so loud.”
The Wright family could only wait in fear as the tornado, which had winds of over 120 mph by that point, wreaked havoc above. Their only way of knowing what was going on outside was through the tiny windows in their basement. Wright remembers seeing plants flying in all different directions.
After the storm passed, they stayed in their basement while police officers came through the neighborhood to assess the damage.
“My dad went upstairs, and the whole backside of our living room was collapsed,” Wright said. “Insulation was blown out through the house. When we went up, [there had been] a transformation outside. We had forty foot pine trees on either side of our house that were down over our driveway and in the road. There was a trailer full of snowmobiles that was completely flipped upside down.”
According to Wright, she and her family stayed at a friend’s house a few weeks until they found new housing. Meanwhile, cleanup of Horseshoe Bend and other affected neighborhoods was well underway
“I remember my dad said he came back to our house one day and there were like 50 people in our yard with chainsaws cleaning up,” Wright said. “It was like the whole community came to pitch in. It was pretty amazing how it ended up.”
Five years ago, DHS principal Kit Moran sat in his office on a Thursday afternoon and watched as the sky turned from blue to gray to green. “We were having weird weather,” Moran said. “It was unusually warm.”
The school day had ended and most students had returned to their homes for the evening. “It was scary dark north of here, and we were just watching the weather” Moran said. “As it got windy we were expecting bad thunderstorms and there was this little area in the back of my head that was thinking about a tornado.”
He was not entirely unfamiliar with severe weather. Before moving to Dexter, Moran was an English teacher at Lincoln High School. “One spring, I was teaching my kids and I looked out my window and I saw a tornado.”
As memories of this experience flooded to mind on March 15, 2012, he took action to ensure the safety of the students and staff in the community. “We started getting alerts,” he said. “It was after school, so we had sports going on. We made a few announcements and were trying to get the word out.”
The students who were still in the building were moved to the locker rooms. “As the storm came, I was still trying to get everyone in a safe place,” Moran said. “I was in the commons and the roof sounded like it was starting to come off, so I ran to a tiny storage room off of the cafeteria.”
As the hail stopped and the wind settled, Moran thought the worst had passed, but was waiting for clearance from the National Weather Service. “The cell service had crashed,” he said. “Texts were working but would take forever to send one word, and we were trying to communicate with other buildings in the district, but our radios weren’t working.”
As the weather cleared, emergency vehicles began to show up at the high school. “The parking lot filled up with cop cars and ambulances and firetrucks from Fowlerville and all these other places” Moran said. “At that time we didn’t really know there had been a tornado. This was the first we were learning of it.”
That night there was conversation about whether school should be cancelled the next day. “Originally we were like ‘Yeah, we have to cancel school,’” Moran said. “But then there was the importance of maintaining normalcy for kids to make the situation less traumatic.” Eventually, the administration decided that there would be no classes on Friday, but the buildings would remain open to the community.
Moran believes that one of the biggest impacts of the tornado on the school district was in regards to safety procedures: “After the tornado we completely changed our drills,” he said. “It was no longer a drill that we did just because we had to; we were preparing for something that could really happen.”
Originally, students were instructed to move to the halls during a tornado drill and sit against the lockers with their heads between their legs. “We experimented that fall after the tornado,” Moran said. “We ran the numbers and decided that we could get everyone into locker rooms or the dark rooms on the first floor.”
Moran has never taken lightly to severe weather, but the tornado heightened his sense of awareness. “After going through that and seeing the devastation it’s something that I take very seriously. I’m nervous now that it’s been five years, and people are starting to take it less seriously again.”