Tornado or Not? Most of the Time, It Doesn’t Really Matter

Posted at 10:53 AM, Nov 18, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-18 10:53:51-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Reports of wind damage during severe weather usually prompt a flurry of speculation by local media and those hit by the storms: Was it a tornado? Did anyone see it? What will the survey crews determine? What will the National Weather Service say in its report on the storm?

While FOX 17 meteorologists will spend time looking at radar data and scouring reports, just like many others in West Michigan, the answers matter little in the big picture.  More importantly, focusing on whether damage was caused by a tornado can distract us from some important lessons about severe weather awareness and safety.

Sunday afternoon, there was one Tornado Warning issued by the National Weather Service office in Grand Rapids, for a storm that moved through eastern Muskegon and southern Newaygo counties.  That storm produced this damage from Moss Ridge Golf Club near Ravenna — you see light poles knocked over in the parking lot:

Moss Ridge

Other nearby locations had barns collapse, billboards destroyed, and trees uprooted.  Damage surveys from the National Weather Service may confirm a small tornado produced this destruction.  One other Tornado Warning was issued for parts of Cass and St. Joseph counties as well by the Northern Indiana NWS office.

Meanwhile, in Kalamazoo County and surrounding areas, storms went through that produced wind gusts of around 70 miles per hour.  This storm had a Severe Thunderstorm Warning associated with it, and no apparent tornado.  Here is an image of damage from that storm — a light pole knocked down along Westnedge Avenue in Portage:


Elsewhere in Kalamazoo County, mobile homes were overturned, homes had tree and roof damage,  along with other similar reports.

The lesson here is that, tornado or not, severe thunderstorms are capable of producing massive amounts of damage on a widespread scale.  In many cases, the path of damage associated with a straight-line wind event can be wider and longer-lived than most of the tornadoes that we see in this part of the country.

Too often, we as meteorologists and viewers tend to focus on locations that may see a tornado at the expense of areas that receive straight-line wind damage.

A perfect example of this occurred earlier this year on the evening of June 13, when a Tornado Warning was issued for a small circulation near Delton in Barry County.  That part of the storm produced some minor damage, but nothing compared to what was happening in another part of the storm in Van Buren County.  There, straight-line winds toppled trees and power lines like toothpicks near the village of Bloomingdale.

Tornadoes make for dramatic images and television.  Strong tornadoes can be devastating and deadly, which is why we rightly consider them a major threat to life and property.  But the reality is that the large majority of tornadoes that occur in West Michigan are nowhere near the massive ones that we see in places like Oklahoma.  Approximately 90% of West Michigan tornadoes cause damage rated EF-0 or EF-1, the lowest end of the scale.  Our typical tornadoes are on the ground for only a few minutes and are rarely more than a few hundred yards wide.

It is important to stay vigilant and prepare for the possibility of the next strong or violent tornado in West Michigan; however, to ignore other severe thunderstorms simply because they are not tornadoes is a recipe for disaster.

We at FOX 17 will continue to do our best to not only pass along severe weather warnings, but also to help interpret the information so that you understand when, where and what the greatest threats will be.  The National Weather Service, too, has recently started to focus on ways to provide more detail about the projected strength and impact of storms within their warnings.  But the ultimate responsibility lies with each of us to heed the warnings that are issued.