GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday marks 25 years since one of the greatest thunderstorm complexes in recorded history moved through the Great Lakes region, killing four people, injuring hundreds and causing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage in Michigan alone.
Here’s a loop of that historic May 31, 1998, storm:
I remember it well as I was supposed to begin my training at WOOD TV8 as the newest meteorologist. We all saw the potential for severe weather so we decided to delay the training. That was a good idea.
The storm began as a cluster of supercell thunderstorms, one of which produced a deadly EF5 Spencer, South Dakota, tornado. The storms converged into a powerful line of thunderstorms that we call a derecho (Spanish for “straight”). The derecho moved through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, southern Ontario and New York. The storm didn’t completely die out until it moved 400 miles over the Atlantic ocean after some 1,500 miles.
The strongest winds and most intense damage happened in southern lower Michigan, where the storm peaked. It arrived onshore around 5 a.m. Sunday, May 31, 1998, and raced across the state with a staggering average speed of 70 mph. Severe wind gusts between 60 and 90 mph were common, with pockets of wind estimated at upwards of 130 mph in Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Walker. That would be considered on the top end of the EF2 scale for tornadoes. Here’s what the radar and velocity imagery looked like as it moved into Grand Haven/Spring Lake and later in Walker:
Here are some of the recorded and estimated wind gusts to correspond with the radar imagery above.
The damage was impressive and extensive. Across Michigan, there were four deaths and 146 injured. Some 284 homes and businesses were destroyed and another 12,800 sustained significant damage. In all, damages were around $316 million.
Scott Conner, who was and still is the city of Walker engineer, recalled a hectic response. Roads including Nolan Avenue were shut down to deter gawkers. The city coordinated with Consumers Energy to work on the massive power restoration effort. Every traffic light between Walker and Baldwin was out.
Statewide, more than 860,000 customers lost power (exceeding the 1991 derecho by nearly 20,000) and a few didn’t have their power restored for 10 days. Dan Bishop, the Consumers Energy public affairs spokesperson at the time, said one of the reasons it took so long to restore power was because there were five 115 kilowatt electrical towers (there biggest) destroyed between Grand Rapids and Ludington. These towers are engineered to withstand wind gusts of 110 mph. Dan mentioned that to this day, the Southern Great Lakes Derecho, as it’s historically known, is Consumers Energy’s most significant weather event.
Derechos are characterized by a line of severe thunderstorms that travels a minimum of 240 miles and is at least 60 miles wide. They favor warm air, so it is no surprise that most occur during the months of May, June and July.
We average one per year, though some years are more active. There were four derecho events that occurred across the Great Lakes during 1998. Climatology suggests you have a greater threat of receiving a derecho in the Southern Plains but we are not excluded in the Great Lakes.
Bob Dukesherer of the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, who was working the weekend of the Southern Great Lakes derecho, said that derechos are typically easy to issue warnings for because you can see the coming from quite a distance upstream. That was the case in 1998.
The problem was most folks were out and about enjoying the nice Memorial Day weekend weather and didn’t catch the weather forecasts. Additionally, the timing was such that most of Michigan was asleep when the storms arrived. I think this was a blessing because it meant most people were sheltered inside. I think there would have been many more injuries and potential fatalities if the derecho occurred at 5 p.m. as opposed to 5 a.m.