40 years later: The Kalamazoo tornado

Weather

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was 40 years ago on May 13, 1980, that the Kalamazoo tornado tore across the city, leaving it’s scar on history and on the minds of so many West Michigan natives.

The twister was only on the ground for 25 minutes, leaving a 11-mile long scar across Kalamazoo County.

It touched down around 4 p.m. just to the west of the city on relatively open land. While the damage was minor at the start of it’s journey, the upper-level winds carried the twister right through the center of the city. It killed five people and injured 79, flipping cars and flattening houses in its path.

Ted Ruble was testing out his new camera equipment that sunny, spring day when the tornado came over the horizon. He was able to capture the first viewer video of the Kalamazoo tornado as it entered the city.

(Above: Video of the tornado in Kalamazoo – courtesy: Ted Ruble)

Windows were blown out of the ISB Building (now the Comerica Building). A full wall of Gilmore’s Department store was completely sheared off. Twenty-six of the massive, old oak trees in Bronson Park were destroyed, including the one Abraham Lincoln was told to be shaded by when he addressed the city of Kalamazoo in 1856.

The tornado lifted around 4:25 p.m., east of the city, marring the once-beautiful May day and sending hundreds into emergency mode. An estimated $50 million in damage was done by the tornado. After walking through the zone of destruction, Kalamazoo’s mayor at the time is said to have remarked that it looked like a bomb had gone off.

Of the 25 tornadoes ever reported in Kalamazoo County, the F3 is not technically the strongest to ever strike within county limits. On April 2, 1977, an F4 tornado touched down on the east side of downtown Kalamazoo, cutting a path up to Augusta. While there were no fatalities associated with that twister, 10 people were injured. The Kalamazoo Valley Museum has extensive information on the tornado, including a gallery of videos.

STRONG TORNADO DROUGHT

Since 1980, a total of nine other tornadoes have struck the Kalamazoo County area. These have ranged in intensity from EF0 to EF2.

In fact, all the tornadoes that have touched down in the last 40 years have been an EF2 intensity or less, save for the one EF3 that touched down on the fringe of Calhoun County for just two miles.

The 1980 Kalamazoo tornado is considered the “Last Big One” and a starting point for a strong-to-violent tornado drought we’ve seen in Michigan for decades now.

A “strong tornado” is meteorologically defined as being an EF3 or stronger on the Enhanced Fujita scale. A “violent tornado” is meteorologically defined as being an EF4 strength or higher.

While West Michigan has violent tornadoes in its history, none have occurred since 1977. The last (and only) F5 or EF5 tornado to hit West Michigan was on April 3, 1956.

What’s more, the number of tornadoes we’ve been seeing in Michigan as a whole have been below average lately.

Michigan is no stranger to severe weather, and strong to violent tornadoes have been reported in all other surrounding states, even Canada, in the last few decades. Michigan has remained eerily silent on the strong to violent tornado count.

Experts agree it is only a matter of time before another violent tornado strikes our state again. Technology has increased massively since the 80s in the science realm, with better forecasting equipment and models and in the communication realm with better and more accurate lead times and warnings that can go straight to a cellphone.

Still, a violent tornado leaves little behind. Memories of what a strong tornado like the one that struck Kalamazoo 40 years ago are a good reminder of how quickly danger can arrive, and how much damage a twister can cause.

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