Michigan is thought of as a relatively safe area when it comes to natural disasters. The state doesn’t see the hurricanes of the East Coast or the earthquakes and fires of California, for example. But while large-scale natural disasters are less common in Michigan, there have been plenty of historic events that stand out in the mind of Michiganders. Below we take a look at some of those.
The exact ins and outs of when a tornado forms continues to be heavily researched, but early spring to late fall is the most likely time for Michigan to experience one. While we’re not known for being a big tornado state, Michigan sees an average of 15 a year. And there are several that are remembered with awe because of the damage they did.
1953 Beecher Tornado
In early June 1953, more than 100 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest tornado events in Michigan. The Flint-Beecher tornado was rated an EF5, the highest rating on the Fujita scale of damage. Winds were in excess of 200 mph as the nearly half-mile-wide tornado traveled a 27-mile path through Genesee and Lapeer counties. About 340 homes were destroyed, and hundreds more houses, farms and businesses were damaged.
1956 Tornado Outbreak
Meteorologists used the term “tornado outbreak” to describe the spawning of multiple tornadoes across an area. It 1956, it happened in Michigan. Eyewitness accounts describe April 3, 1956, as an unusually warm, humid and harrowing day.
One account mentions their experience near Grand Rapids:
“That day there was a funny color to the sky, kind of green and orange mixed together. I remember commenting on the color as the neighbor and I were playing on the front porch at his house. We lived in Standale, on Kinney Road,” described resident Pat Higgins-Spangeberg.
Water in the clouds is the reason for the color change happening prior to these storms. The exact color is dependent on the angle light is passing through them, and if the water is solid or liquid. A green color is a good indicator that there is large hail in the storm.
The group that Pat was with was preparing for a card night when they heard news of the tornado.
“It was around 6:30 p.m. when on the TV Frank Slaymaker, the weatherman, broke in to the program and announced that there was a tornado coming towards Standale, and everyone should take shelter immediately,” Pat said.
The house they were in had no basement, so the group decided to run to the general store up the street for shelter.
“We could see the funnel cloud coming straight towards us. The tail was moving back and forth and everything in its path was being sucked up into it. The tail never left the ground. Electrical lines were sparking as the tornado took them,” Pat said.
“As we were crossing the parking lot, the stores across the street were being sucked into the tornado. We ran into the store and down in the basement just as the tornado hit. The sound was deafening,” Pat said, comparing it to several diesel trains passing just over your head.
“The tornado ripped the store off the foundation, leaving the floor above us. It sounded eerie as the nails were being ripped away. Then the tornado was passed us. There was no air to breathe for a few minutes as it had been sucked away with the tornado. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” Pat said.
The 21 people huddled in the basement of the general store all made it out okay.
The weather on that day had winds from the south that brought humidity and record-breaking high temperatures. Muskegon and Grand Rapids had highs in the upper 70s, and Holland and Kalamazoo both saw 80-degree days. A strong cold front approaching from the west created a band of severe thunderstorms where the warm and cool air met in Wisconsin and Illinois.
The storms crossed Lake Michigan, and by late afternoon when they hit the west coast of Lower Michigan, they instantly generated tornadoes. In three hours, at least four powerful tornadoes spawned, twisting their way through the state. When it ended, almost 20 people were dead and hundreds more were injured.
Unprecedented damage stretched from Saugatuck to Traverse City, and inland in Middleville and Rockford.
On Friday, May 20, 2022, an EF3 tornado touched down in the Gaylord area, killing two and injuring dozens more.
This devastating tornado destroyed homes, businesses and lives, and it caused multiple gas leaks and left thousands without power.
This tornado was unusual for Northern Michigan. Most of the time the area deals with weaker and smaller EF0 to EF2 tornadoes.
The 2022 one was classified as an EF3, with estimated max winds of 150 mph, a max width of 200 yards, or 1/8 mile, and was on the ground for more than 16 miles. It caused the majority of the damage around Gaylord. This is the first tornado for the Gaylord area. The last notable event there was in 1998 when straight-line winds of 100 mph hit the area.
The tornado was part of one supercell that cruised across the state at about 55 mph. Large hail - some as large as baseballs in Posen - was noted several times.
What kind of conditions cause a tornado?
In general, it starts with different wind directions creating a “spin” in the atmosphere.
Air travels in and out of storms, commonly known as updrafts and downdrafts. A tornado is a rotating form of an updraft, visible by the funnel cloud that touches the surface of the ground. The rotation happens when there is just the right amount of change in wind direction and speed, called shear, as you go higher above ground.
Each weather event is different, but there are indicators that forecasters can look for. Tornadoes spawn on days that are moderately hot and humid. Conditions on the surface may be good, but what happens a few hundred or thousand feet above us is even more important. That includes too much or too little moisture, temperature, wind speed and topography.
Statistically speaking, areas that are flat tend to get more tornadoes.
What season is Michigan most likely to experience tornados?
Based on climate data, Michigan is most likely to see a tornado starting in March. The risk increases northward throughout the spring and summer months.
In middle to late June, Southern Michigan sees the greatest chance of tornadoes. At that time of year, there is a 0.2% chance to 0.6% chance of a tornado on any given day. Areas in Northern Michigan stay in the daily range of 0.1% to 0.4%. As we get closer to September and October, the area of higher chances retreats back south. Michigan keeps at least a 0.1% chance of tornadoes through late October.
Flooding happens when weather patterns bring lots of rain in a short amount of time. Rain falls faster than the ground and rivers can soak it up. When little time passes between substantial rain events, lack of evaporation is a factor.
On May 19, 2020, a ripple of dam failures resulted in a 500-year flood that emptied Sanford Lake and caused nearly $200 million in damages. When meteorologists say “500-year flood,” it means that the flood has a 1/500, or 0.2%, chance of happening in any given year. It does not mean it will happen once every 500 years.
From May 1 to May 19, 2020, the four dams located along the Tittabawassee River saw 20 inches of rain. The bulk of it fell on May 18, the day before the flood. The hydro dams were owned and operated by Boyce Hydro.
The rain on May 18 caused levels at the dams to rise. Gates were opened periodically to relieve pressure, but operations stopped after 8 p.m.
On May 19 at 5:35 p.m., the Edenville Dam failed, releasing waters that overtopped the downstream Sanford Dam.
With no operations at any of the other Boyce hydro dams, it created a wave of dam failures, with the floodwaters now pouring into Gladwin and Midland counties.
A five-member independent forensic team released a 42-page report finding “strong evidence” that weak soil contributed to the disaster. The report also cites precipitation, lake levels, and gate and power plant operations as contributing factors to saturated soil.
The mass flooding forced about 10,000 people to temporarily evacuate.
Areas in Michigan near major streams and rivers and other major bodies of water are more susceptible to flooding. The risk of flooding will depend on a lot of factors, including the type of soil.
The report says that the failure of the Edenville Dam is consistent with static liquefaction, or loose saturated sand. It also says that weak soil led to internal erosion and embankment instability.
Flood plains are flat areas near bodies of water (mainly rivers and streams). They are (mostly) naturally a part of the land, for excess water to go when there is a higher amount of discharge in the rivers.
1986 Michigan Flood
Rain began late Tuesday night, Sept. 9, 1986, in the “thumb region” of Southeast Michigan. Rainfall during the Sept. 10-12 period over Central Lower averaged 6 to 12 inches, with even isolated reports of up to 14 inches. Much of this drench occurred in a 12-hour period on Sept. 11.
The Cass River at Vassar has a flood stage of 14 feet. It rose to a remarkable 24.82 feet, or over 10 feet above what would be considered a flood. This level of nearly 25 feet is striking, considering the average height of the river is about 4.5 feet. The Cass River at Frankenmuth was measured as 10 feet above its flood stage, coming in at 27.52 feet.
At least 10 people died, and close to 100 were injured.
Across Central Lower Michigan, 22 counties, nearly 14,000 square miles, were named disaster areas. 1.8 million people lived in the damaged areas. Property damage was estimated between $400 to $500 million.
In 2014, 92% of the Great Lakes were capped in ice. On a normal year, ice covers roughly 55% of the lakes. This extreme ice cover was thanks to a prolonged drop in temperature caused by a polar vortex.
What is a polar vortex?
A polar vortex is the area of cold air and low pressure in the atmosphere over the polar regions of Earth’s poles. The polar vortex determines the strength of the jet stream. When the low pressure of the polar vortex is stronger, it helps keep the jet stream moving in a more circular pattern. When the low pressure is weaker, it causes the jet stream to have more dips. That is how we get some of the extreme cold air. We only see the cold air outbreaks from it during the winter months because of the colder conditions at the North Pole in the winter. During the summer, the pole is tilted toward the sun, so the air isn’t nearly as cold.
2014 deep freeze
The cold arctic air defined January in Michigan, as two polar blasts hung over the region for weeks.
Then in February, the Detroit area set records for its snowiest month ever, exceeding the record of 38.4 inches set in February 1908, according to the National Weather Service. By the end of the season, the Detroit area set the record of 94.9 inches of snow total.
The White Hurricane of 1913
Known officially as the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, this radical weather event unleashed mayhem on the region Nov. 6-10. While blizzards are linked with loads of snow and intense temperatures, the most fatal element of this particular storm was its hurricane-strength winds, reaching upwards of 100 mph. Throughout the Great Lakes region surrounding Michigan, there were 12 storm-influenced shipwrecks and roughly 250 fatalities. In terms of number of ships lost, this storm is still the largest inland maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Heat Wave of 1936
The period from July 8-14, 1936, is likely the most severe heat wave ever experienced in Michigan, and one of the worst ever recorded in U.S. history. In 1936, the southern plains were in the midst of the Dust Bowl, and much of country was dealing with drought. It’s the hottest summer on record. The Detroit area reached 100 degrees or more for seven days straight.
The Richter scale is an open-ended numerical system for describing the magnitude of an earthquake, in terms of the energy used up in it, with 1.5 indicating the smallest earthquake that can be felt, 4.5 an earthquake that causes minor damage, and 8.5 characterized by devastating damage. The recent earthquake in Turkey measured a 6.3 on the Richter scale.
1947 Coldwater – Magnitude 4.6
This is the most intense earthquake ever recorded with an epicenter in Michigan. On Aug. 10, 1947, the earthquake hit the town of Coldwater, causing building damage in Coldwater, Kalamazoo and the surrounding area. Residents reported feeling the ground move in cities as far away as Cadillac, Cleveland and Chicago.
2015 Galesburg – Magnitude 4.2
Kazuya Fujita, a geology professor at Michigan State University, predicted an earthquake could spawn here 20 years before it did. In a published paper, Fujita based his theory on information from the U.S. Geological Survey that showed variations in the magnetic field. This same fault line is likely to have also caused the earthquake in 1947.
Originating in Kalamazoo County near the town of Galesburg, this is the strongest recorded earthquake in Michigan in the 21st century. On May 2, 2015, residents across Southern Michigan felt the ground shake and objects move in their homes. However, no damage was reported.