GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — April 3, 1956 is a day many across West Michigan will never forget. Saturday marks 65 years since lives were lost, many were injured and towns were destroyed.
April 3, 1956 started off like any other day but ended up being a deadly day marking the worst natural disaster in West Michigan history. National Meteorologist Ernie Ostuno says, "There were 17 fatalities, over 300 injuries and probably in adjusted dollar damage probably close to 20 to 30 million dollars of damage".
HEAR FROM A SURVIVOR: Rose Kole who survived the tornado
HEAR FROM A SURVIVOR: Pat Spangenberg who survived the tornado
HEAR FROM THE CITY OF WALKER MAYOR: Gary Carey Jr. discusses how the tornado would impact the city today
It was a warm and humid day as West Michigan landed in the warm sector of a low pressure system. A strong dry line was in place representing the boundary at which warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meet the dry air from the dessert southwest. This all happened at just the right time at the max daytime heating of the day during the afternoon and early evening hours.
Four strong tornadoes in total touched down that day with three moving through West Michigan from Saugatuck to Holland, Bangor to Lowell and the strongest possible tornado an F5 moving from Hudsonville to Lakeview.
Many Michiganders can still tell you about that day walking through their experience step by step. Cathie VerHage was only 11 years old living with her family in Walker at the time and now in her 70s she still remembers it well. A strong tornado is a scary feeling and sound many of us have never experienced let alone lived through, but Cathie and many others have. "It was like a freight train going right through your house and a lot of noise. I was in the cement wall my sister was on the cinder block wall, which was the original wall of the house. I actually put my head in her lap and she was over my head leaning over me and all I remember is I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I didn't even hear it. That's how loud it was", Cathie said.
Hundreds of Michiganders were injured and 17 killed. Many weren’t so lucky and didn’t receive a warning in time getting caught in cars, stuck at the store or worse unknowingly driving into the storm. 65 years ago, technology was not as advanced which means severe weather warnings reached people differently then what we are used to today. "People didn't have any personal means of getting the warning, if they were away from a TV or radio. We didn't have that technological advantage. So if you were outside or if you weren't listening to TV or radio unfortunately, and a lot of people found themselves in a situation, they heard it coming first and then they looked out their door and it was very close, already too late to really do anything except run for the basement", said Ernie.
TV and radio meteorologists, along with weather bureau spotters in the lookout tower at the old Grand Rapids airport, were credited for saving lives getting the warnings out as soon as possible. When the tornadoes finally passed towns and neighborhoods were left unrecognizable and completely destroyed.
Some of the hardest hit areas were Standale, Walker, Hudsonville and Comstock Park. Standale had a thriving business district booming, with stores that the City of Walker’s current Mayor Gary Carey Jr. says took 30 years to develop and seconds to destroyed. "When you look at that from a city leaders perspective, and you look at what it did to that business district that was thriving, Standale never fully recovered. It's reinvented itself and it is now a thriving booming retail and commercial district," he said.
Standale and many towns alike took several years to rebuild, but by the time Standale’s business district bounced back shopping malls came to life taking away shoppers from the once thriving downtown. Standale was never quiet the same, but years of reinventing itself the town finally bounced back and so did numerous other communities and neighborhoods. People built back their homes and towns stronger and better than ever. Now decades later we remember the tragedy of those tornadoes and remind future generations it can happen here and we need to be prepared. "I think there's an obligation for those of us that have maybe been through this before to make sure that our younger generations understand. Hey this is real this is not just something you watch on the weather channel this is a very real thing and if it comes through it could be a matter of life or death if you do things the right way", said Carey Jr.
Since 1977 we have had zero violent tornadoes come through West Michigan. That’s a drought going on 43 years. National weather service meteorologist Ernie says,"So we've just been lucky and that's what it boils down to and they will happen again. It's just a question of when it could be this year could be another 10 years. We don't know. But they happen here and they will happen here again."
Any April 3, tornadoes can be a sensitive thing to talk about for many, especially those who lived through it and even still experience some PTSD from surviving through the tornadoes. None of this is meant not to scare anyone but to make you aware this can happen and to be better prepared for severe storms.