Suspected tornado hits Michigan as warm spell goes on

CHICAGO Fri Mar 16, 2012 6:24am EDT

1 of 3. Damage from a suspected tornado is seen in Dexter, Michigan, March 15, 2012, in this image taken from video. The storm caused severe damage to some structures but no deaths, as forecasters put four states in the country's midsection under severe thunderstorm watches or warnings.

Credit: Reuters/WDIV TV/Handout

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - A suspected tornado touched down in Michigan on Thursday, causing severe damage to some structures but no deaths, as forecasters put four states in the country's midsection under severe thunderstorm watches or warnings.

A dispatcher with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department said "there are homes leveled at this point" in Dexter, just north of the Michigan college town of Ann Arbor.

Local TV stations posted images of what appeared to be a funnel cloud bearing down on the town, as jitters remained high in tornado country two weeks after a chain of fast-moving twisters spawned by massive thunderstorms killed dozens of people, mostly in Indiana and Kentucky.

Much of southeast Michigan was under either a severe thunderstorm warning or watch, after a tornado warning for parts of Washtenaw County expired before 8 p.m. local time, the National Weather Service said.

Parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee were also under a severe storm watch on Thursday, with forecasters warning of wind gusts of up to 70 miles an hour and dangerous lightning.

The severe thunderstorm warnings came as much of the country east of the Rocky Mountains enjoyed yet another day of unseasonably high temperatures. Forecasters at Accuweather.com said that warm air was helping to fuel Thursday's storms.

"It's just so warm that we're seeing thunderstorms pop up like popcorn the way you see it in the summertime," said Dave Samuhel, a meteorologist at Accuweather.com.

The biggest risk from the storms was of large hail and damaging winds, but the Weather Service warned that severe thunderstorms "can and occasionally do produce tornadoes."

New record highs for the day were set from Macon, Georgia, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In Madison, where the previous high for March 15 was 69 degrees, temperatures reached 81 degrees on Thursday.

"They just destroyed that record," Samuhel said. "We're seeing a lot of that in Wisconsin."

In Chicago, the official temperature at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday afternoon was 79 degrees, 5 degrees above the previous record for the day, and Indianapolis topped out at 80 degrees, 3 degrees above the previous record.

Accuweather.com said the unseasonably warm weather west of the Plains would continue into next week and spread further east into places like New York City, where residents were experiencing a more typical spring day on Thursday as winds out of the northeast kept daytime highs in the 40s.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Johnston)

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