West Michigan’s most severe weather events

Severe Weather

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you want to focus on the biggest storms to have ever hit West Michigan, you have to go back to the last century.

The only F-5 tornado ever to happen in West Michigan was the Hudsonville-Standale tornado of April 3, 1956. That twister cut a path over 50 miles long through Ottawa, Kent and Montcalm counties. Seventeen people lost their lives and another 340 were injured.

Winds were estimated at over 200 mph and in fact, the strongest wind anywhere on Earth in 1956 was recorded on Van Buren Street in Hudsonville. Cars were lifted higher than utility poles, carried hundreds of yards through the air and mangled beyond recognition. Tiles were ripped off floors and trees were totally debarked.

>>App users: Watch our special from the 50-year anniversary of the storm

Three other strong tornadoes hit West Michigan that day. A powerful F-4 rated tornado came right off Lake Michigan and destroyed the Saugatuck lighthouse. Another F-4 tornado cut a 50-mile path from north of Manistee to Grand Traverse Bay, and a strong F-3 tornado moved along a 55-mile path from Bangor to just south of Lowell.

In 1950, less than 74,000 people lived in Ottawa County. Today, the population has soared to over 291,000. Tornadoes and severe storms that moved over open farmland 60 years ago would today hit sprawling residential communities.

One of the deadliest tornado outbreaks happened on Palm Sunday in 1965. A total of 47 tornadoes struck in six Midwestern states, including 12 twisters in Michigan. Across the Midwest, there were 271 deaths and 1,500 were injured.

A tornado touched down near Allendale and intensified to F-4 strength, hitting Comstock Park and Rockford. The twister was on the ground for over 20 miles before lifting in Montcalm County. Two deadly tornadoes struck 30 minutes apart in Branch and Hillsdale counties. One of those tornadoes had a path length of over 90 miles and the second over 80 miles. Twenty-one people lost their lives. Over 550 homes and 100 cottages were destroyed by those two twisters.

>>App users: Survivors speak 50 year after the tornado

On April 21, 1967, a fierce F-3 tornado cut a path from Grandville to East Grand Rapids. There were 32 people injured. A total of 10 tornadoes struck western and central Michigan that day.

>>App users: See photos of the 1967 tornado damage

A tornado hit Kalamazoo on May 13, 1980. The twister first touched down in eastern Van Buren County and moved right into the downtown area, uprooting huge trees in Bronson Park. That storm was on the ground for at least 11 miles and was responsible for five deaths and 79 injuries.

The worst severe thunderstorm ever to hit West Michigan occurred in the early morning hours of May 31, 1998. Called a derecho, this line of thunderstorms moved travelled 975 miles from South Dakota to the Atlantic Ocean in just 15 hours. It moved through Lower Michigan at 70 mph. Winds were estimated at 130 mph at both Walker and Spring Lake.

The storm caused four deaths and 146 injuries. That total could have been much worse if not for the storm hitting at 5 a.m., when most people were in safe spots indoors. The storm left 860,000 customers without electricity in lower Michigan.

>>App users: Watch 1998 derecho special: “Blown Apart, Drawn Together”

From 1953 to 1977, Michigan saw a dozen tornadoes ranked F-4 or F-5. Since 1977, we’ve had none. That means we’re overdue for a significant tornado to strike somewhere in lower Michigan.

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