Michigan weather history: The derecho of July 16, 1980

A low pressure area with attending warm and cold fronts pushing through the Upper Midwest was responsible in igniting the July 16, 1980 derecho. (National Weather Service)

DETROIT – On July 16, 1980 between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. an intense line of storms, also known as a derecho, tracked across far southern Michigan.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), the hardest hit were locations along and south of the I-94 corridor from Ann Arbor to Detroit. There were reports of wind gusts of more than 100 miles per hour. Extensive damage occurred to homes and businesses across the area. Railroad cars were blown off the tracks in Allen Park and several windows were blown out of the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit, according to the NWS. 

Meteorologist Paul Gross was in Dearborn at the time. He offers this recollection of the storm: 

"I remember this storm so well.  

I was taking some classes at the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus, and volunteered to help out with their freshman orientation, which was being held in what was called the ROC (Recreation and Orientation Center).  As best as I can recall, it was a round building with first and second floor offices on the exterior walls that were all fronted with big panes of glass, and there was a big round open area in the center of the building.  There was no place to take shelter in the event of a tornado.

At some point during the morning, I noticed a bunch of kids looking out a door. I walked over and heard them talking about a storm so, not wanting to fight the crowd to get a look, I went to the opposite side of the building and opened a door.  Well, as things turned out, that was the side of the building that the front edge of the storm was hitting, and the severe wind had pushed a solid wall of water from the rain against the building -- the moment I opened the door I was instantly soaked. The sky was a dark-emerald green -- the only time in my life that I’ve seen a sky like that. The rain was coming down so hard that I couldn’t see the parking lot, which wasn’t that far away. I struggled to get the door shut against that wind, and went over to where the other students were looking. Somebody asked me what was happening, and I still remember my response like it happened yesterday:  

"I think there’s a tornado nearby, and we have absolutely no place to take cover.”  

My biggest fear was the roof caving in and, of course, flying glass.

As we know now, it wasn't a tornado, but the straight winds coming out of that storm were as strong as those of a tornado.  After the orientation session ended, I had to drive to an orthodontist appointment in Clawson, and I still remember seeing downed tree debris all along my drive from Dearborn to Clawson.

I’ll never forget that storm." -- Paul 

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