Preparing for the Big One: Michigan’s worst tornadoes

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For three decades, some of the most violent and deadliest tornadoes in the U.S. happened in Michigan.

Powerful F4 and F5 twisters touched down from Hudsonville to Beecher, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds of people. The most recent F4 or larger tornado in Michigan touched down on April 2, 1977.

Below is a look at some of the most destructive tornadoes during the turbulent period from 1950 to 1980.

JUNE 8, 1953
FLINT-BEECHER TORNADO

A 1953 photo shows the Flint-Beecher tornado. (via NWS)
  • Strength: F5
  • Track: Flint to Lapeer, 27 miles
  • Width: 833 yards
  • Deaths: 116
  • Injured: 844
  • Damage: $19 million, 340 homes destroyed

APRIL 3, 1956
SAUGATUCK TORNADO

  • Strength: F4
  • Track: Saugatuck to Holland, 9 miles
  • Width: 100 yards
  • Deaths: 0
  • Injured: 7
  • Damage: Destroyed the Saugatuck lighthouse and four homes

APRIL 3, 1956
HUDSONVILLE-STANDALE TORNADO

  • Strength: F5, strongest ever in West Michigan
  • Track: Vriesland to Trufant, 52 miles
  • Width: 400 yards
  • Deaths: 17
  • Injuries: 340
  • Damage: $13 million

APRIL 11, 1965
PALM SUNDAY TORNADO: ALLENDALE-CEDAR SPRINGS

  • Strength: F4
  • Track: Allendale to Cedar Springs, 35 miles
  • Deaths: 6
  • Injuries: 100+
  • Damage: $15 million, 200 homes damaged

APRIL 11, 1965
PALM SUNDAY TORNADO: BRANCH COUNTY

A photo of the huge tornado that tore through Indiana and Michigan on April, 11, 1965, one of the Palm Sunday tornadoes. Here, it can be seen in Branch County. (Courtesy Dale Myers from Ron Wilbanks via the NWS)
  • Strength: Two F4 tornadoes
  • Track: Orland, Indiana, to Washtenaw County, 80 miles
  • Deaths: 44
  • Injuries: 587
  • Damage: $32 million, 550 homes damaged

APRIL 2, 1977
AUGUSTA TORNADO

  • Strength: F4
  • Track: Kalamazoo to Augusta, 14 miles
  • Deaths: 0
  • Injuries: 20
  • Damage: $1 million

MAY 13, 1980
KALAMAZOO TORNADO

  • Strength: F3
  • Track: Kalamazoo, 11 miles
  • Deaths: 5
  • Injuries: 79
  • Damage: $50 million, 400+ buildings damaged

—News 8 executive producer Luke Stier

IS MICHIGAN IN A TORNADO DROUGHT?

Michigan tornadoes, especially strong EF-3 or greater, have exhibited a downward trend in recent decades.

Here’s the breakdown of all tornadoes, by decade, since the 1950s:

Below is the breakdown of strong to violent tornadoes per decade. These represent the the most destructive and deadly with winds in excess of 136 mph. Note the downward trend, especially since the turn of the century.

Notice the decades of the 1950s and ’60s had the most EF-3 or stronger tornadoes, yet they recorded the fewest total numbers of tornadoes. It seems odd that the decades that produced the strongest tornadoes corresponded with the least amount of total tornadoes.

It’s my theory that a few of the weaker EF-0 or EF-1 tornadoes may have been missed during the ’50s and ’60s. For instance, the most recent weak tornado in Gaines Township would likely not have been detected.

There’s a couple of reasons why I think tornadoes may have been undercounted. One, the population of Michigan wasn’t as large in the 1950s and ’60s. The population of Michigan in 1950 was around 6.5 million and 7.8 million by 1960. By 1971, the population increased to nearly 9 million and has been hovering between 9 to 10 million from then to now. The damage left behind by a weaker tornado is usually more subtle and with fewer eyes to witness the potential damage, some may have been missed, especially in rural areas.

This brings up my second theory. With the advent and proliferation of Doppler radar in the 1990s, we are sometimes able to see the weaker rotation of a tornado. This would allow a survey team to more easily locate them, especially in rural locations.

Michigan averages 16 tornadoes per year. If you look at the data for the past decade, only one year, 2017, exceeded that. The average number of tornadoes this past decade is 10, a 35% decrease.

Here are a few more remarkable tornado statistics that reflect the tornado drought:

Nationally, 70% of tornado-related fatalities have happened during the most violent EF-4/EF-5 tornadoes. That means there has been an upside to the tornado drought: Only seven Michiganders have lost their life in a tornado since 1990.

Between the two decades of the ’50s and ’60s, 219 Michiganders lost their lives to tornadoes. Since then, through the span of five decades of the 1970s to now, only 25 people have died.

The strong to violent tornado trend has been down throughout the entire United States:

The obvious question is why: Why such a precipitous drop in tornadoes and in particular, strong ones?

Experts think it is tied to the “warm” or “positive” phase and the “cool” or “negative” phase of the Pacific Ocean. When the heat content of the largest ocean on earth redistributes, it can have a profound affect.

Here’s what the two different phases look like:

The Pacific Ocean was predominately in a cool phase from the 1950s through the ’70s and a warm phase from the 1980s through much of the ’90s.

Why is this important to severe weather? La Ninas are more frequent during the cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO.

The graphic below from the Storm Prediction Center shows the correlation between La Nina years versus El Nino years. There’s a notable increase in severe weather and tornadoes during the La Nina episodes.

Why is this? The thinking is that La Ninas create more instability east of the Rocky Mountains, especially during the spring months.

“For thunderstorms, we need instability. La Nina increases the amount of instability we see in the continent, particularly early in the season,” Central Michigan University Professor John Allen explained. “La Nina tends to increase the likelihood of us seeing tornadoes and severe weather across the Continental United States. Generally speaking, La Ninas can result in anywhere from 125% to even 200% of normal.”

Recently, the PDO has been flipping back and forth. It’s only a matter of time before we slide into a more dominate cooler phase and a resulting uptick in severe weather.

Storm Team 8 will be there when that happens.

—Storm Team 8 meteorologist Matt Kirkwood

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