Kalamazoo Tornado – 31 years ago today

May 13th, 2011 at 2:01 am by under Bill's Blog, News, Weather

isbside.jpg (25845 bytes) kalamazoo-tornado kalamazoo-tornado-2 Thirty-One years ago today, an F3 (158-206 mph) tornado cut an 11-mile path from eastern Van Buren right through downtown Kalamazoo. In 20 minutes (about 3:40 PM to 4 PM), the storm left 5 dead and 79 injured. Damage totaled 50 million dollars (that’s 1980 dollars). Three hundred homes and 150 businesses were severely damaged or destroyed.  Note the picture on the right and what it tells you about tornado safety. Go to the lowest floor…the first floor offered better protection than the 2nd floor…and stay away from windows. You can see the first floor windows are broken. Glass probably blew inward and debris could easily have come through the windows. Interior rooms on the lowest floor provide the best protection. Here’s lots of information on the twister. More info here. and here. Here’s more pictures, and here’s a map of the tornado’s path. Here’s a slide show from YouTube. Here’s a first-hand account of the storm.  The first 22 comments are from last year – I moved the thread up today.

41 Responses to “Kalamazoo Tornado – 31 years ago today”

  1. Don Steffen says:

    Bill… this reminds me of the tornado of 1974 April 3… we had a 1967 Ford Comet and 9 of us Steffens inside…. My father freaked out, and decided that he had to get the heck out of Dodge ( Mason OH) a.s.a.p…. it wiped out every other house on our street, three weeks without power….this is were I found out how much I liked to grill out…. the cold baths stunk… guess it was better then me stinkin…hahaha! yep for years after the slightest storm would send people running for shelter… and a lot of people needed to talk to a Psychiatrist..afterwards…. we have family in Xenia… if you get the chance look up what it did to Xenia… its was unbelievable

  2. Mary in NE Van Buren Co. says:

    I lived on the street where the “House for Sale Cheap” photo was taken and saw the tornado. The fact that we are in a severe risk today has me a bit spooked. I’ve noticed over the years that May 13 and May 31 have had a few nasty storms. I’m sure it’s just coincidence…but it doesn’t make me feel any better!

    I hope no one in the risk area has anything like May 13, 1980 happen today.

  3. Brenda says:

    A cousin of mine lived in Kalamazoo when this tornado hit. It terrified him so badly, that he moved down to Arizona soon afterward and never looked back. In 1979, I remember we had a tornado warning (I was in the 11th grade) while we were in school, and we at Harper Creek were hosting the Special Olympics when it hit. Everyone got brought inside to take safe cover just in time; with only one HC student getting a minor injury from a flying tree branch. That was a scary day but the staff and student of Harper Creek High School handled it with grace and calmness. May we remember those who died in Kalamazoo who lost their lives in the tornado of 1980.

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I think I will blog about this sometime today. I was right in the path of this monster, and it was very scary. The other bookend for me (so far) was the Fruitport storm last summer. I was in the middle of that, too. They were very similar experiences. I would not have thought that so much rain could fall all at once. And the winds were amazing. I just about lost my car down the side of a hill during the Kalamazoo tornado. The wind was definitely lifting it up and trying to carry it away!

  5. fixxxer says:

    i read about this last night, a good read. it’s a shame the last time we had a large tornado here was 30 years ago, id love to see one. of course with no one getting hurt, im not that selfish.

  6. fixxxer says:

    and for the love of god let’s not be on air all day talking about this event. remember the blizzard hype that never came true. ;)

  7. Jim S (North of Parchment) says:

    I was living about a mile south of the intersection of M40 and M43 (North of Paw Paw) when the tornado hit. As the tornado was traveling east down M43, it was actually sunny where I was sitting in our house. I then heard the “freight train roar” and the back door was ripped from its hinges. I didn’t realize that a tornado had been in the vicinity until I left to go to Kalamazoo much later.

  8. Dan J says:

    I was 15 and walking home from the store when I started hearing the warning sirens. I saw cars go by me really fast and decided to start running home. My brother met me at the door and we ran to our basement where 3 of my sisters were waiting. I lived on Northampton on the west side of Kalamazoo. Within about a minute or two, we could hear glass breaking upstairs. Once it was over and we got up the nerve to go upstairs, our parents’ house had lost some windows and had some other “relatively” mild damage done. Three doors to the north of us, has lost it’s garage and it’s top floor. It remains an amazing memory.

  9. Truthplz says:

    Thanks for the pictures and coverage. I enjoyed the comparison of technology that Kyle did the other day.

    This was my first birthday so I hear often how I was the one who tore up town…lol but that really didn’t happen until a few years later!

    1. Replier says:

      The map of the tornado’s path should expand farther east into Comstock & Galesburg. It doesn’t go past River Street in Comstock as it’s drawn on that map. The tornado took out some structures on E. Michigan (M-96) down into Galesburg, MI. So, NOAA didn’t do a thorough job on creating an accurate path for this map.
      It would be nice to see NOAA properly update the map to show the destruction caused in the nearby communities east of Kalamazoo, as this tornado followed a close path to the Kalamazoo River on the North side.

  10. Fred Langeland says:

    There have been many articles and news stories regarding the Kalamzoo Tornado and the warning systems now in place. There is much said about “Outdoor Warning Sirens.” The problem with outdoor sirens is that is just what they are, “Outdoor warning systems.” They do little to warn people in large buildings, cars, and homes. If you are very close to a siren location you may hear it while indoors. Many homes and buildings have air conditioning that block out most outside noise and siren sounds. I think we need to focus on personal protection devices. We have TV, radio, & cell phones, but we need to get home weather alert radios in every home. This, in my opinion, will save many more lives. If I am home in bed at night, I will not be saved by an “Outdoor Warning System,” I will be indoors!
    Outdoor warning systems do play an important part in the overall warning system. You should contact William Smith, Ottawa County Emergency Management Director to get an insight into a “State of the Art” warning system that Ottawa County has in place. Again, many areas even in Ottawa County do not have sirens in their local
    I would like to see more news/stories on personal protection devices.

    Fred E. Langeland, Retired Fire Chief

  11. Laurie says:

    Thanks for your coverage of the Kalamazoo Tornado. I was a student at WMU that Spring, and worked at Gilmore’s. I was lucky to be out of town that day, but was involved with the cleanup at the store, and vividly remember the stories of my co-workers and of the tragedies that happened there that day. One memory that actually makes me smile though is of when we learned that our favorite downtown disco [The Fox Hunt] had been destroyed, we all said at once, “well it must be a sign that disco is really dead!”


  13. Melissa says:

    I was 20 and worked at the Rite Aid in Westwood Plaza in Kalamazoo. My boss and I were in the break room, and heard the rain, then hail hit the tin roof, so we ran outside to close car windows for everyone who was working that afternoon. I will never forget looking up and seeing the Westwood church spire go flying over the plaza. It was surreal. Even though we had no power in the store, we stayed open, using flashlights to guide people in the aisles, and adding up purchase prices by hand on a piece of paper!

    I will also always remember the disaster of Bronson Park from that storm. It was so sad to see all of those beautiful trees uprooted and the power lines hanging low.

  14. Skot says:

    Man. I never heard so much hype or appreciation (it seems) about an anniversary of something I have never heard of until a few days back. No offense, but why is this so special? Probably because we were expecting bad weather again on the same day??

    1. Rob Dale says:

      I’m not sure why you were expecting severe weather today, but it never looked that good to begin with.

      In any case, read the dead/injured/damage numbers above and you’ll see why it is a notable event.

  15. I’am explaining my friend Jim La Verde’s experience in the minute that the tornado weaved it’s way across downtown Kalamazoo. He along with a lady were standing at Michigan and Rose waiting for their city bus. Jim heard the lady next to him loudly exclaim “HIT THE GROUND”; in not knowing why the directions or her degree of sanity, he did as he was told. Jim remembers the feeling of being sucked upward while being pelted with an unknown source. He then stood up and noticed that his clothing had numerous tears; Jim also realized that the lady stood up and ran out into the middle of Michigan Avenue where a man was laying and bleeding badly. In that moment he realized that she was a nurse.

  16. Just as the lady screamed hit the ground next to my friend Jim La Verde, my other friend Norma Jean and her little daughter were existing out the northside of the Michigan Avenue bank. Norma knew immediately what was happening; she with her daughter dropped to the sidewalk. Although, the tornado had other plans and tried to suck Norma’s daughter up like a kite. Norma reached up and grabbed her wrist and hung on. Unknown to Norma was another lady just existing right behind them. The second lady as she dropped grabbed Norma’s daughter from the other side. They both immediately pulled her back down onto the sidewalk and crawled on top of her; forunately they all survived.

  17. I had purchased a beautiful burl wood trunk from Stewart & Clarke’s Furniture store on Michigan. The store put all floor pieces on sale. I saw no flaws with the trunk and was looking forward to having it delivered the next day May 14, 1980. When the tornado swung over Stewart & Clarke the whole roof collapsed into the store. My trunk was the only reason that it hadn’t dropped any farther down; the main beam was directly sitting on it. The staff had been in the front of the store watching the weather; they realized that a tornado was upon them so they ran back grabbing seat cushions and dove under the Oak desks in the office. This was the day that I had planned to go down to Stewart & Clarkes but I decided the last minute to do my other errand. I needed to pick up a finished item at Frames Unlimited. The sky outside was perfectly clear and bright but the rain was pouring very hard, and fast, strange I thought. A customer walked in with the exclamation that this piece of glass was what was left of De Nooyers. We all found her statement very bizarre. I for some unknown reason had to get to downtown even tho I was only wearing shorts and flipflops. I guess I wasn’t thinking to clearly was I. I parked on Lovell and walked into what was left of my beautiful childhood park. Once I walked farther in, I realized that Medics were in the east side attemping to save a man’s life to no avail; I found out that later on the news. I made it around to the Burdick Mall but when I saw National security with their holsters unlocked I b-lined back to my car minding my own business with sadness over the loss.

  18. kfch says:

    Our home on Piccadilly was a total loss. These images remind me how near the trauma of that moment is. So many years but still not enough distance.

  19. the real ned says:

    Check this out

    Don’t stop at the BP commercial, watch at Rachel Maddow explains more. This can’t be real.

    1. Brian(Grandville) says:

      My 4 year old is a more reliable source than Maddow.

      1. Mr. Negative says:

        I’ll second that Brian. My guess is that your 4 year old will not require the services of a “pregnancy school” in Detroit, as her parent is obviously ahead of the crowd, and knows the truth.

      2. the real ned says:

        Why don’t you ask your four year old what Rachael said that was incorrect. I will bet that you never watched it and are only running your big fat mouth. Am I right?

        1. michael g (SE GR) says:

          The basic idea that Benton Harbor and Detroit are so well run that no changes are necessary is borderline retarded.

        2. big Daddy BC says:

          More than 100 cities and towns are borderline Benton Harbors, Michael g. Snyder wants to end statutory revenue sharing. If this happens, all 100 towns will be on the menu. The GOP will take funding and then assign an EM to eliminate your right to representation, thus engineering the crisis. The EM can fire the town manager, mayor, city council, any and everyone including those voted into office.
          The question is not whether Benton Harbor needs help, but if that help should come at the expense of democracy. How many men and women have died to preserve our democracy? You’d spit in their faces to make a point.

        3. Bill Steffen says:

          That’s why JENNIFER GRANHOLM named the EM for Benton Harbor: http://articles.wsbt.com/2010-02-26/pension-funds_24802421 And NPR reports that Granholm also named EMs for Pontiac and Ecorse: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/news.newsmain/article/1/0/1631320/Michigan.News/Emergency.Financial.Manager.Appointed.In.Benton.Harbor Democratic Black Pastors in Benton Harbor supported the EM: http://articles.wsbt.com/2011-04-28/benton-harbor_29485035 Democracy was Nov. 2. You’re plan of massive tax increases on small business was rejected. We want to see business in Michigan competitive with Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. We want to see the unemployment rate go DOWN instead of up like it has the last 10 years. We want our kids to have job opportunities in Michigan and not have to move out of state to find a job. We want the future, not the past.

        4. big Daddy BC says:

          Who ever said anything about tax increases on small businesses? More propaganda, Comrade? Jennifer’s EMs operated within the law. Snyder’s do not…article one, section ten of the US constitution prohibits states from breaking contracts.
          Hitler was an Emergency Manager. That’s how he got around many of Germany’s laws.

          We live in a democracy. What did the people of Benton Harbor do to deserve to lose their right to representative government? If it’s accumulating debt, then we’re all guilty. Maybe we need a national EM. Let’s just throw the constitution right out until we get this pesky debt taken care of. By supporting this, you’re spitting in the faces of all who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve democracy. You should be ashamed of yourself.

        5. Bill Steffen says:

          Snyder’s EMs aren’t going to break the law. They’re going to try and return fiscal sanity to governmental units that are often suffering from the mismanagement, greed and/or incompetence of the people (all from the left of the political spectrum) who have been in power. Democracy was Nov. 2. Granholm appointed the EM of Benton Harbor. It’s either fiscal sanity or bankruptcy. Put down your Little Red Book and read this: http://articles.wsbt.com/2011-04-28/benton-harbor_29485035

        6. big Daddy BC says:

          There are one hundred of those towns slated to lose their democratic right to representation. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Comrade Steffen. It doesn’t matter who you put in charge. Hitler was an emergency manager.
          Do you think our country needs an EM? Because our nation as a whole is worse off per capita than Benton Harbor.

        7. Bill Steffen says:

          Granholm thought that EMs were needed in Benton Harbor, Ecorse and Pontiac. That’s why Granholm appointed them.+ Granholm was way to the right of you, but she was still a Democrat. Black pastors have come together to support the EM in Benton Harbor: http://articles.wsbt.com/2011-04-28/benton-harbor_29485035 Of those 100 towns…how many are run by Republicans?

      3. Skot says:

        Here we go again.

      4. PFL says:

        Amen to that!

        1. PFL says:

          That didn’t post where it was supposed to–sorry!

        2. big Daddy BC says:

          No problem. Thanks.

        3. Bill Steffen says:


          Michigan advanced eight spots in this year’s Competitiveness Awards, up from 16th to 8th in 2011.

          The state’s many business climate changes have resulted in other noteworthy improvements, including:

          No. 1 for states that recovered most from the Recession.
          No. 4 in the nation for most new corporate expansions or building projects in 2012.
          Third most business-friendly tax ranking among the nation’s 12 largest states.
          Third in the nation for high-tech growth.
          Michigan’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in four years.
          Sixth fastest growing economy in the nation in 2011.
          Credit rating upgraded to AA, the first time it’s been above AA- since January 2011.
          Balanced budget two years in a row.
          Chrysler, Ford and GM all gained market share for the first time in 20 years and had their best U.S. sales since 2007.

          Michigan is a lot better off now relative to other states than it was under Granholm.

  20. JimM says:

    This was my first tornado chase….took a friend’s car and tried to catch it. Watched it pass over West Main and 131 and a large tree branch fell in front of us. End of chase! Ended up skipping school to go downtown and look at the damage. Unbelievable, and one reason why I earned a degree in Meteorology in college!

  21. DaveR says:

    I was working at WMU at the time, had an office in the basement of the Physics Building, busy working on a design. I noticed that the hall got really noisy and full of students, so I closed the door and went back to work, never giving it a second thought. About an hour later, my wife called and asked if I was OK. I asked her what she meant, and that’s when I found out there had been a nasty tornado!

  22. Soccer6713 says:

    That was 31 years ago? Gee, I’m getting old!

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