GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Severe weather reports have been down this past decade. Nationwide and in Michigan, severe weather is defined by wind gusts of 58 mph or higher, hail an inch in diameter and of course, a tornado.
Calculating the numbers dating back to 2000, an average year in Michigan tallies 524 reports. Not only have they been down in recent years, but 2016 and 2017 received only half the reports that are normally reported.
The last year to receive above-average numbers was 2011. Tornado numbers are down as well.
Throughout the United States, annual tornado numbers come in around 1,250. Michigan, specifically, receives a paultry 16 on average and most of those are considered weak EF-0 to EF-1 in strength — or winds of 110 mph or less.
Most years, June tends to be the most active month with an average of four tornadoes reported. Even though the total number of severe weather reports is down over the past decade, each year we still get episodes of severe weather.
Case and point: 2016. That year we tallied only 256 reports, yet we had a significant event occur in August. Six weak tornadoes touched down that afternoon, accompanied with severe, straight-line winds across Southwest Michigan. This included the city of Grand Rapids and surrounding suburbs, racking up more than $4.6 million in damage.
We are also long overdue for a strong tornado of EF-3 or greater intensity. Remarkably, the last strong tornado in Southwest Michigan was the Potterville tornado in August 2007. That one was given a rating of EF-3 with winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
When you go this long without a major severe weather event, you may be lulled into thinking it won’t happen again. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, rather, when it will happen.
Here’s a sampling of some of the more notable severe weather events that have occurred.
I’ll begin with the only EF-5 tornado recorded in West Michigan’s history. It happened on April 3, 1956 and ravaged the towns of Hudsonville and Standale. I thought Chief Meteorologist Bill Steffen had a succinct desciption, stating that the strongest wind on earth at that point in time was in West Michigan.
Unfortunately, those winds resulted in 17 fatalities and 340 injuries. Nearly a decade later, the notorious Palm Sunday outbreak made an imprint on Lower Michigan on April 11, 1965.
One of the 47 tornadoes that day in the Midwest was an intense EF-4 tornado that scoured its way through Walker and Comstock Park. Seven people parrished in the northwest suburbs of Grand Rapids with nearly 200 hundred injuries. This historic event had 21 killer tornadoes (17 EF-4/EF-5) with 271 fatalities, 1,500 injuries and $5.5 billion in damage.
We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the Kalamazoo tornado. This one will be remembered by most for spinning its way through the heart of downtown Kalamazoo. The EF-3 tornado killed five people with 79 sustaining injuries and $50 million in damages.
Not all significant severe weather events are tornadoes. In terms of magnitude and the number of people it can impact, the straight-line wind event can be much more dangerous than a typical weak Michigan tornado.
One of the worst storms of my on-air career was the May 31, 1998 derecho. This incredible line of thunderstorms formed in the North-Central Plains and raced eastward across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and eventually died out once it reached upstate New York.
It’s average eastward velocity was around 70 mph and anywhere along the line wind gusts were consistently 60 to 90 mph with pockets of winds estimated up to 130 mph in Spring Lake and Walker.
Four people were killed in Michigan with 146 injuries. Damage was quite significant at $172 million but just as notable was the loss of power to 860,000 customers statewide, which was a record. Some folks were without power for over a week.
Thunderstorms are inevitable through the warm season and when severe weather is imminent, you can turn to the experience of Storm Team 8 to track into your neighborhood.