GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Downtown areas of cities represent a relatively low percentage of the total area of the state of Michigan. Nonetheless, we’ve had several tornadoes that have hit downtown areas in the last 45 years.
The first tornado that comes to mind that moved through a downtown area in Michigan was the Kalamazoo tornado of May 13, 1980. Last year, we had a tornado in Gaylord that went through the downtown area and just eight years ago, a tornado hit downtown Portland, Michigan.
The twister touched down around 2:30 p.m. about two miles northwest of downtown Portland and traveled roughly six miles with a maximum width of between 50 and 100 yards. The tornado moved through downtown Portland and continued moving southeast, lifting about 10 minutes after it touched down.
The tornado was rated a high-end EF1 with peak winds of 110 mph. The twister was 50 to 100 yards wide (about as wide as a football field is long).
A dozen businesses and more than 70 homes in the eastern Ionia County town were heavily damaged or destroyed. Portland City Manager S. Tutt Gorman said the city was fortunate: “It could have been much worse,” he said.
Emergency crews from as many as 10 different departments responded to the city. Portland Fire Chief John Baker said one structure fire was put out and they dealt with numerous gas leaks.
Crews from the Lansing area handled search and rescue efforts, Baker said. Michigan State Police sent dogs to make sure no one was trapped in any of the damaged structures.
DAMAGE TO CHURCHES
Among the damaged buildings were three churches within a block of one another: First Baptist, United Methodist and First Congregational.
The 175-year-old First Baptist Church lost much of its roof, and there were fears that a second round of storms Monday night could exacerbate a crack in the steeple and cause it to come toppling down.
Next door, the United Methodist Church sustained significant damage, too. Much of its roof was lying on the front steps following the storm.
Across the street, the new steeple of First Congregational was ripped away. It landed on a neighbor’s house.
A portion of the proceeds from St. Patrick Catholic Church’s Summerfest went to the three churches damaged in the tornado. The church took up a special offering for their parishioners who suffered storm damage. On the following Sunday, they took up a special offering for the other churches that were damaged, according to Ross Schneider, a church member.
GOODWILL STORE COLLAPSES
A mother and two young children were trapped for a short time in the Goodwill Store. Jenni Reed and her two sons had to be rescued by an off-duty fireman and the Portland police after they became trapped inside after the Goodwill store collapsed as the twister swept through. None of the three were hurt.
Reed and her husband moved to Portland — his hometown — from Oklahoma (where they get a lot more tornadoes than here in Michigan). She told News 8 that she had been shopping in the Goodwill for about an hour when she noticed the front door flapping back and forth. She said something to an employee, who came out of an office.
“The rain was coming sideways and we saw the big bay windows on the building shatter out,” Reed said.
She put one of her sons under her cart and shielded the other with her body. Within about five seconds of the windows blowing, she said, the roof came down.
“I definitely had the instinct to cover the kids, and knowing that the roof was likely going to cave after those windows blow. I know that’s from pressure, so a number of things could happen, so I knew I had to protect them,” Reed said.
She said she didn’t hear anything before the windows blew — not sirens and not the tell-tale freight train sound tornadoes are known for.
“I do vividly remember the sound of the air going out after the windows were blown,” she said. “I don’t remember a crash or anything specifically. It just all came down.”
She said her boys didn’t seem to understand what they had just survived. Her oldest had a toy he had been walking around the store with that had kept him calm.
“My oldest, he kept saying, ‘It’s raining’ because we were standing in the midst of all (the) weather after it came down, and he said ‘Go home?’ and I said ‘Yes, we’re going to go home, buddy,’” said Reed.
Reed said that later, the Goodwill employee she has signaled when she noticed the door flapping thanked her for saving her life.
“It was scary. Absolutely scary. You just never know what could have happened in that situation,” Reed said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
A state of emergency was declared. Injuries can occur both during and after a weather event. After a storm, there is a lot of broken glass and debris lying around. Injuries can occur from falls and from cuts and bruises.
SIGNS OF A TORNADO
Storm Team 8 Meteorologist Ellen Bacca suspected the tornado was at least an EF1 before it was confirmed by the NWS based on the damage she saw at churches, businesses and homes, in addition to broken trees.
A red flag, she said, was the relatively narrow swath of damage rather than a wide damage area, which is what you would see caused by straight-line winds. She also said twisted debris, debris thrown around and shoved into structures — including a 2-by-4 beam embedded in a roof — and shattered windows caused by strong wind pressure were all signs of a tornado.
A problem that could have been much worse. The city buried most of its power lines in the early 1980s, so they were protected from the tornado. Mayor Jim Barnes said a few power sources had been disrupted but that for the most part, the infrastructure remained undamaged.
The tornado was only on the ground for about 10 minutes. The National Weather Service said there wasn’t a lot of time to get out a warning.
“We get a low-level scan every two to three minutes, but with this storm only being on the ground for about 10 minutes or less, it was probably two to three minutes before it picked up anything that would’ve carried it high enough for our radar beam to detect,” said an official with the National Weather Service.
Here’s the U.S. Severe Storm Reports from June 22, 2015. On the map above, each red dot is where a tornado touched down. Each blue dot is a report of wind damage or a measured gust of 58 mph or greater and each green dot is a severe hail report (1″ in diameter or greater).
There were 27 tornadoes reported that day, including 17 in Illinois, mostly from one supercell thunderstorm that kept dropping tornadoes as it moved from northwest to southeast across the northern part of the state. There were 6 reported tornadoes in Lower Michigan, 3 in Iowa and one in Kansas.
There were 7 injuries near Morris IL., one fatality and 4 injuries at Fishtown PA (from thunderstorm winds) and 5 injuries at Fishtown PA (from thunderstorm winds. The injuries in PA were both structural failure and trees falling on campers.
There were 349 reports of wind damage, with five recorded wind gusts at or above 75 mph and there were 37 reports of severe criteria hail, including 6 reports of hail bigger than golf balls.
A funnel cloud was photographed near Portland on Aug. 7, 2019. It did not make it down to the ground.