BEFORE THE STORM: An in-depth look at tornadoes

Gusty wind, hail and potential tornadoes were forecast Saturday across the Southeast. (Source:...
Gusty wind, hail and potential tornadoes were forecast Saturday across the Southeast. (Source: Jan Mallander / MGN Online)
Published: Apr. 17, 2019 at 6:09 PM EDT
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In Michigan, it's important to be ready for those sirens and everything that can come with them.

One week a year is dedicated to severe weather awareness.

This year it took place March 24th through the 30th.

A state wide tornado siren went off simultaneously across the state to make sure they are all in working order.

Individual cities and counties often still test their sirens on the first Saturday of the month.

Did you know there are an average of 17 tornadoes in Michigan every year?

Michigan actually has two peaks to the season, with late spring and early summer being the first peak and late summer early fall being the other.

Tornadoes are most common in the heating of the day from mid afternoon thru evening.

The average Michigan tornado is usually only on the ground for less than 10 minutes and travels about five miles.

Our typical tornado has winds of 80 to125 mile per hour.

The state with the most tornadoes is Texas which averages 132 each year.

You've heard the phrases describing tornadoes EF-1, EF-2, up to EF-5... but do you really know what it means?

A majority of the tornadoes that happen in Michigan are rather weak.

In fact, of the all the tornadoes recorded in Michigan's history, less than two percent reach EF-4 or EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Damage Scale.

Now, the EF scale actually starts at EF-zero with winds of up to 85 miles per hour.

Generally they just lead to light damage like broken tree limbs or minor roof damage.

EF-1 tornadoes contain winds between 86 and 110 miles per hour.

These tornadoes typically lead to more moderate damage to buildings but typically the main structure of those buildings remain in tact.

EF-2's contain winds between 111 to 135, damage to framed structures become more considerable at this level and mobile homes can even be demolished.

EF-3 goes from 136 to 165 miles per hour with severe damage now being done to well constructed homes.

And the catastrophic ones, EF-4 166 to 200 miles per hour and the EF-5 with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour.

Damage at these levels can only be described as catastrophic with EF-4s leveling most buildings, and EF-5s typically leave just bare foundations in their wake.

Only two EF-5 tornadoes have been recorded in Michigan, both causing an incredible amount of damage.

The best known and deadliest was the Flint-Beecher tornado on June 8, 1953.

It was the ninth deadliest tornado in U.S. history with a 23 mile path of destruction, killing 115 people, and injuring 844.

The second EF-5 tornado was in Hudsonville.

On record, there are at least a dozen notable tornadoes besides the Flint-Beecher storm.

April of 1965 the Palm Sunday outbreak ripped through Branch, Hillsdale and Lenawee Counties.

That EF-4 tornado caused 23 deaths and 294 injuries in its 90 mile path.

The same day, Clinton and Shiawassee counties were hit with an EF-4 tornado.

In 1977, one person died and 44 were injured when a tornado touched down near Charlotte in Eaton County.

And in 1988, a tornado cut a path of over 25 miles near the campus of Michigan State University east into Livingston County.

Then just last year - nine tornadoes touched down in Michigan.

Seven in one night.

And with the technology we have now, tornadoes and thunderstorms are spotted quicker which allows meteorologists to put watches and warnings into effect.

Do you know the difference between a severe thunderstorm watch and a severe thunderstorm warning?

A severe thunderstorm watch means severe thunderstorms are possible in and near the watch area, stay informed and alert to changing weather conditions and be ready to act if a severe thunderstorm warning is issued.

Severe thunderstorm watches usually are for large geographic areas of many counties or even states.

A severe thunderstorm warning means "take action" severe weather has been reported by storm spotters or indicated by radar, and damaging winds and large hail are now occurring or will shortly.

Also, seek shelter inside.

Do you know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning?

A tornado watch means be prepared, severe weather including a tornado is possible.

It is time to stay informed with the latest weather information and be ready to act if a warning is issued.

A tornado warning means a tornado has been spotted or indicated on radar.

It is time to seek shelter.

Go to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building and protect yourself from flying debris.

All severe weather watches and warnings are issued by the national weather service.

WILX News 10 monitors for watches and warnings for our area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

With a push of a button important weather information can be inserted over programming on TV 10.

When conditions warrant our meteorologists will interrupt programming with special weather reports.

When you are away from your television, severe weather watches and warnings when issued are always on and the WILX weather and News apps.

Tornadoes are as fascinating as they are dangerous.

With the use of cell phones and the increase of tornado voyeurism, more twisters are being caught on video.

And often those who catch them are storm chasers.

Brett Collar caught up with one local man, Rob Dale, who tells us more about why he does it.

Brett Collar: "Tell us a little bit about your past chases."

Rob Dale: "My favorite chase was when my daughters were with me, when I saw a tornado south of Williamston. Did not expect it to be a tornado day and I stayed safely away, but they'll remember that for the rest of their lives."

Brett Collar: "Let's talk more about those dangers."

Rob Dale: "There are so many cars on the road, that there are literally traffic jams, so there's a danger in that. If you're in a crowded road and you think that you have a way out but you don't because it's packed with other cars that are coming in or locals driving on by the area so there's that sort of danger."

The other issue we have in Michigan are trees and hills.

You just don't have that sense of being able to see something 30 miles away.

So you have to balance being close enough to see it, but also staying far enough away to not be in the threat.

To be a storm chaser you need to have far more than just a 2 hour class those are great to give you the basics, but you need to go along with someone who has done this before.

BC: "If somebody wanted to become a storm spotter is there a website that they can go to to sign up for a class or anything like that?"

RD: "Yep the National Weather Service. Weather.Gov for Grand Rapids is the one that serves our area or Detroit on the other side of 127. They put on these free spotter trainings they're free and open to the public."

Anyone can go in and take a look and spend 2 to 2.5 hours on learning how to read the sky.

"The breakdown on how storms actually form is really quite interesting."

How do storms actually form?

Spring time in mid-Michigan means warmer temperatures, and if the set up is right....thunderstorms.

The life of a thunderstorm starts as a towering cumulus cloud.

The updraft of this storm grows the cloud to heights that can reach the top of the troposphere, even at times peaking into the lower parts of the stratosphere.

During the storms mature stage there's an updraft and a downdraft.

This downdraft is for the most part, where we see rain and sometimes hail falling.

When the storm starts to weaken or dissipate, some lingering rain continues to fall, but that updraft which is the driver behind these storms is absent.

Now if the dynamics are just right and the storm gets to be strong enough, we can sometimes see super cells.

These are more common in the plains and in tornado alley, but they do occur sometimes here in mid-Michigan.

There's the updraft just like a regular thunderstorm, but there are other features that we may see such as an overshooting top, a flanking line, a shelf cloud, and if the setup is just right... a wall cloud.

These situations increase our worry as these wall clouds are a sign that a tornado may not be far behind.

If things line up just right, we could sometimes see a tornado develop from that wall cloud.

Now tornadoes can form in storms without super cell characteristics or even a wall cloud.

And Michigan is certainly no stranger to spring and summer storms.

We have had some that have caused death, injuries and a significant amount of damage.

You may remember last year at the end of summer, Michigan had eight tornadoes confirmed in just two weeks.

Four touching down over labor day weekend alone, including one in Bath Township.

It rated as an EF-0 and had wind speeds up to 80 mph.

It was strong enough to snap trees in half and leave homes damaged.

That same day another EF-0 touched down in Jackson.

It had winds of about 75 mile per hour and traveled nearly a half a mile.

Many trees limbs were snapped with other trees uprooted.

A 100 yard wide tornado also touched down that day in Barry County.

Thankfully there were no injuries in any of them.

One of the worst tornadoes to hit our area in recent memory was the Portland tornado that struck without warning on June 22, 2015.

That twister was caught on camera by a local business.

The tornado damaged numerous churches and businesses.

"I head little kids screaming through the goodwill calling for help," said Tim Perry, a business owner in Portland who helped rescue five people trapped inside two buildings.

His rescues included a mother and two children who were trapped in a Goodwill Store.

The tornado touched down without warning so he didn't have a lot of time to run for cover.

Perry added, "There had to be a spirit watching over me, an angel to have the building disintegrate around me and pick me up and literally carry me away."

On the one year anniversary of the tornado, Perry showed WILX News 10 how he landed in the hallway of his office, under the only spot there was roof left.

He said when he got out of the building is when he went to help people who were trapped inside.

"It makes you realize that time is that short you really just don't know so enjoy what you have," said Perry.

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