40 Years Ago – The Kalamazoo Tornado

Bill’s Blog

Posted: May 13, 2020 / 01:33 AM EDT Updated: May 13, 2020 / 01:33 AM EDT

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Kalamazoo Tornado. We’ll have a special TV show on the Kalamazoo Tornado tonight at 7 pm on WOOD TV8. The twister struck shortly after 4 pm and it was on the ground for at least 22 minutes. The tornado was rated F3 and moved west to east along an 11-mile path. There were 5 fatalities and 79 injured (does not include the injured who self-treated) . Damage totaled over 50 million dollars (1980 dollars). The tornado first touched down in far western Kalamazoo County (wind damage from the storm was reported in E. Van Buren Co.) and moved west to east right through downtown Kalamazoo.   These were the first tornado deaths in Kalamazoo County since August 1939.  Huge trees were uprooted in Bronson Park and windows were blown out of downtown buildings, including the ISB Building – now the Comerica Building.  Here’s a couple of eyewitness accounts.  Here’s a map of the tornado path:

Path of the Kalamazoo Tornado

Here’s video of the tornado approaching downtown Kalamazoo and video of the damage right after the tornado.  Here’s the 10-minute story from WOOD TV  “there were reports of 2 x 4s being driven into cement walls…a rowboat was found 5 blocks from where it was parked.”  An initial report counted 47 homes destroyed with another 216 heavily damaged.  116 businesses were heavily damaged.

Video of the damage in downtown Kalamazoo

 Here’s downtown Kalamazoo after the tornado. The wall of Gilmore’s Dept. store caved in.

I did the morning shift that day and stayed through the afternoon to cover the severe weather threat. Craig James had come in early to track the storms. I remember hand-plotting a surface weather map…showing the warm front between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids and low pressure over Southern Lake Michigan. I remarked that the map looked similar to a Texas case study that I had participated in at a meteorology conference. At the time, all we had was the 1957 technology radar (RCA AVQ10) that was designed for aircraft use. However, even with better Doppler radar that we have today, storm spotters are an important link to warning the public when these storms threaten.

Hope you can join us for the special tonight at 7 pm on WOOD TV8.

Severe weather ramped up early this year in the U.S. We’ve had 73 tornado fatalities so far in 2020. That’s more than we had in 2018 and 2019 combined. The weather has been generally quiet of late. Over the last week, we’ve had only three tornadoes in the U.S. (two of them yesterday in Texas).

Kalamazoo Township decomishioned their 9 tornado sirensRichland tornado 9/1/18 (best toward the end of the video.  Another view of the Richland tornado (note the larger rotation).  Story from the Kalamazoo Library