A look back: The Great Tornado Outbreak of 1997, when 13 twisters hit SE Michigan

Largest single-day tornado outbreak on record for SE Michigan

This radar image is from 6:16 p.m on July 2, 1997. (NOAA)

DETROIT – This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of southeast Michigan’s most notable tornado events.

A strong cold front marching eastward into a hot, humid air mass generated numerous severe thunderstorms, some of which dropped tornadoes. In fact, by the end of the day, 13 confirmed tornadoes touched down in southeast Michigan, the largest single-day tornado outbreak in recorded southeast Michigan history.

Another tornado dropped down across the river near Windsor, but that doesn't get counted in our official southeast Michigan statistics. Unfortunately, two people were killed by tornadoes, one in Genesee County and one in Oakland County. Five other people were killed by the strong storms in Wayne County.

Some of the twisters were violent, with two F3 tornadoes hitting Genesee County, and an F2 tornado that hit the Detroit/Highland Park area. I vividly remember working that event with Chuck Gaidica, and can still picture the damage to the Focus:Hope building Downtown.

One take-away from this horrific day of tornadoes is that, yes, tornadoes sometimes do hit major metropolitan areas. I’ll never forget the aerial tour showing the storms’ path of destruction done by our late reporter, Susan Wangler. Her words, and the emotion in her voice as she described the devastation, will always be with me.

Another important take-away from this day is that it doesn't have to be a tornado to cause significant property damage and fatalities. As this wave of storms crossed our area, one severe storm directly hit Grosse Pointe Farms. As I recall from that day, there was an outdoor swim meet going on at a swim club and, when the tornado sirens went off around 6 p.m., an announcement was made that the rest of the meet was canceled and that everybody should leave and seek shelter.

View: Radar loop of SE Michigan on July 2, 1997

Wayne County storm

One family in attendance didn't understand the message, and did not leave since it was still a nice summer day at that moment. But what they didn't realize was that a high-end severe storm was heading toward them as fast as a car going east on I-696.

Before they knew it, the skies darkened to the west, and they sought shelter under a gazebo. Then the storm hit with 100 mph winds, and blew the gazebo into the lake. Five of the 13 family members died.

Importance of storm warnings

There is a great complacency among a lot of people regarding severe thunderstorm warnings. For some, if it’s not a tornado warning, it’s just not that important. July 2, 1997 is the perfect example as to why you also need to take severe thunderstorm warnings seriously.

Many communities now sound their tornado sirens if a severe thunderstorm with wind gusts expected to exceed 70 mph threatens, and you need to heed those sirens when you hear them. Any delay in getting to your place of safety could cost you your life.

Here’s a look back at WDIV Local 4′s coverage that day:

About the Author:

Local 4 meteorologist Paul Gross was born in Detroit and has spent his entire life and career right here in southeast Michigan. Paul has researched, written and produced eight half-hour documentaries for WDIV, as well as many science, historical and environmental stories.