One of my earliest researched published articles while at the National Weather Service was about the incredibly destructive EF-5 Flint-Beecher Tornado. This storm occurred 61 years ago with its anniversary on June 8th 1953.
The Flint-Beecher Tornado
National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac, MI
First published: June, 1996
The afternoon weather map on June 8, 1953, showed a warm front pushing northeast out of the Ohio Valley into Southern Lower Michigan. At the same time, a cold front was advancing east across Eastern Wisconsin. Temperatures were in the 70s ahead of the warm front, while dew points were in the lower 60s. South of the warm front, temperatures and dew points jumped up about 10 degrees. The most impressive weather feature was the intense energy, spin and shear in the upper levels of the atmosphere, that moved over Michigan during the late afternoon and evening.
By late afternoon, the warm front had progressed northeast to just north of Flint, while the cold front advanced east over Lake Michigan. Temperatures over Southeast Lower Michigan had warmed into the lower 80s as dew points flirted with 70 degrees. The atmosphere was warm and very unstable and the stage was set for possible severe weather. All that was needed was a trigger mechanism and, as though on cue, it did arrive that the evening in the form of the potent cold front.
Strong thunderstorms broke out over Lower Michigan during the late afternoon and evening with some quickly becoming severe as they moved into Southeast Lower Michigan. At dusk, a severe thunderstorm moved into Southeast Lower Michigan, just northwest of Flushing. At approximately 830 pm, a violent tornado was spawned 2 miles north of Flushing. It then tracked east across the north side of Flint to as far east as 2 miles north of Lapeer. A second twister was then generated just northeast of Lapeer and moved across northern St. Clair county until finally dissipating over Southern Lake Huron.
The Flint-Beecher tornado was described in the Flint Journal as an "ugly, dancing black cloud with a ball of fire in it." As the tornado roared through the area, the sound was equated to that of "roaring furnaces and freight trains, only many times louder!" The Journal captured the horror in the aftermath of the tornado in the following: "The injured and dead, some bodies battered beyond recognition, were strewn amidst twisted heaps of wreckage and debris". As darkness descended, extensive power and communication outages also plagued the area.
Like many others, this tornado was not without its remarkable tales. Take for instance the lady who, with her six children in her car, literally put the pedal to metal and drove frantically at 100 mph to outrun the tornado. Luckily, she did without an accident nor a ticket, but this is not advised in tornado safety rules. Or how about the sick woman in bed who saw her roof collapse and then threw her hands over her eyes. The next thing she knew, she was in a field about 100 yards away, still in bed with her purse next to her. Then, there are the stories of a huge 100 year old elm tree pulled out of the ground by its roots, the two-by-four driven deep into a concrete pillar, and what about the man who found his house trailer he had parked in his yard...some eight miles away, near Columbiaville. Stories (and pictures) of defeathered chickens, roses with all petals intact sitting next to a completely leveled house and one of the most astonishing, a letter was "air mailed and delivered" from a couple's home in Flint to 60 miles away to its addressee, their second cousin. All sorts of papers and debris were found across the Thumb region of Lower Michigan and as far as 200 miles away in Southern Ontario.
The loss of life and property in the Flint area was concentrated largely in a residential area along Coldwater Rd. and Kurtz Ave. between Clio Rd. and N. Dort Hwy. The final tally of people killed in this storm reached 116, making it the eighth deadliest tornado in U.S. history and the last single U.S. tornado to kill more than 100 people. There were around 900 injured, many critical, taxing nearby hospitals in emergency care.
At the time of this devastating tornado, there were no short-term tornado warnings like we have today. Had there been a warning, more than likely fewer people would have been killed or injured. The tornado is considered an F5 on the Fujita Scale, the most powerful and potentially the deadliest, with estimated wind speeds of 261 to 318 mph. While tornadoes can potentially develop during any month in Southeast Lower Michigan, the majority occur March into September, with April through June having the highest occurrence.
On June 8th 2003; A 50th Anniversary Commemoration of this terrible tornado was held in Flint.
Bill Deedler -SEMI_WeatherHistorian