Flint-Beecher tornado: The 69th anniversary of Michigan’s deadliest tornado

A lookback at the only F5 tornado to hit Southeast Michigan

Flint-Beecher tornado 1953 (National Weather Service)

Flint, Mich. – On Monday, June 8, 1953, disaster struck the north side of Flint and the northern suburb of Beecher. The National Weather Service reported that the Flint-Beecher tornado was Michigan’s worst natural disaster in terms of deaths and injuries.

The Flint-Beecher tornado is the only tornado to hit in Southeast Lower Michigan to be classified as F5 on the Fujita scale. According to the National Weather Service, an F5 tornado is defined as, “incredible damage. Strong frame houses leveled off foundations and swept away; automobile-sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 meters; trees debarked; incredible phenomena will occur. Wind speeds approximately 261-318 mph.”

For those of you who want to get sciency, the National Weather Service explains the theory of how this tornado happened:

“The surface map at 130 pm that afternoon showed strong lower pressure for early June over the Minnesota “arrowhead” region, with a warm front south of the Great Lakes, and an occluded front immediately west of Lake Michigan. By late afternoon, the warm front had moved quickly into southern lower Michigan, allowing temperatures to climb to near 80F and dewpoints to in excess of 70F.

Not only were the thermal and moisture profiles in the region conducive to strong, severe thunderstorms, but the wind profiles were suggestive of tornado-producing “supercell” thunderstorms. Winds in excess of 50 knots in the 700-500 mb layer were indicative of strong, deep shear through the lower troposphere (0-3 km Storm Relative Helicities ~300 m2/s2 and 0-6 km cumulative shear ~55 m/s) - and supportive of supercell thunderstorm formation. And, meanwhile, the presence of the warm front in southeast lower Michigan added a “veering” with height aspect to the winds in the lowest 1 to 3 thousand feet of the atmosphere, adding to the tornado potential that evening.”

Path of Flint-Beecher tornado (National Weather Service)

It is believed winds were likely in excess of 200 mph. The 800 yard wide tornado travelled 27 miles at approximately 35 mph killing 116 and injuring 844 in its tracks. The Flint-Beecher tornado took the lives of people as young as 5 months and as old as 80.

So many were killed by the tornado that the National Guard Armory building and other shelters were temporarily converted into morgues. Over 100 people, families and friends of victims, waited outside these morgues in the rain for hours before they could move inside to identify the bodies. State Police Captain James Berardo warned the people outside that the tornado had horribly battered some victims and that the scene inside would be gruesome.

At least 20 families reported that more than one of their family members had been killed, multiple deaths. The Gensel and Gatica families each lost 5 members. Out of the 116 people killed, 55 of them were under 20 years old, and out of those 55, five were less than a year old. Of the 844 injured, the last two to leave the hospital were discharged 5 months after the tornado.

State Troopers, National Guard, and The Red Cross were all quickly at the scene, within 12 hours of the tornado they were in action. First aid, food, and clothing were quickly made available to the tornado victims.

The National Weather Service stated in their Beecher 50th Anniversary Commemoration, “The Flint-Beecher Tornado was just one of eight tornadoes that occurred that horrible evening across the eastern portion of the Lower Peninsula. Those other seven tornadoes resulted in an additional 9 deaths, 52 injuries, and damage stretching from Alpena to Erie.”

Flint-Beecher aerial (National Weather Service)

It is estimated that nearly 340 homes were destroyed, 107 homes had “major damage”, and 153 homes had “minor damage.” In addition to residences, businesses, farms, and other buildings were destroyed/had damage. These totaled 50 additional buildings and 16 with damage. It was reported that there was nearly $19 million in damages which would be close to $157.12 million today.

Pearl Chapman, a tornado survivor and Flint resident, told his account in a June 11, 1953 publication of the Flint Journal. He said, “I had just pulled into the driveway: I got out of the car and saw it coming. The boy was in the garage and I yelled to him. We all got in the basement. It’s hard to describe it. It sounded like 10 freight trains coming down Coldwater Rd. None of us will ever forget it.” His house was among the few that were not completely demolished. It was lifted off the basement and moved about five feet from the original foundation, every window shattering in the process. Chapman said, “the house was twisted so bad I’m pretty sure it will have to be torn down.”

Beecher was able to rebuild thanks to the Flint community that supported a “Red Feather” campaign to gather relief and rebuilding funds. With the community money and The Red Cross, Beecher rebuilt its community. In the late summer of ‘53, a community supported “Builder Bees” project had volunteers help rebuild some of the homes that were lost in the tornado.

About the Author:

Morgan is a Digital Editor and has been with WDIV since May of 2022. She is also studying political science and communications at Wayne State University.