I hadn't even planned on being in the City of Wyoming, Michigan on the day of the tornado (Saturday, August 20, 2016). Wyoming is a suburb on the south-west side of Grand Rapids. I ended up there through a series of unexpected events. I traveled from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan in a car rental on Friday. August 19 for work. The original plan was to travel to Mt. Pleasant on Thursday afternoon, stay the night in a hotel, attend the work-related event on Friday, and then travel back to Kalamazoo Friday afternoon. However, I canceled my hotel on Thursday night and made the drive to Mt. Pleasant on Friday morning. I stayed in Mt. Pleasant longer than I expected. This resulted in a long day on Friday. I drove into the rest area along US-131 just north of Grand Rapids at around 6 pm as I was driving back to Kalamazoo. I have health problems resulting from a neurological disorder. Because of the long day, I was having trouble. I was unable to take my medication, which I usually take in the evening, because I can't drive for a few hours after I take it. I rested for about 30 minutes at the rest area before finally deciding that it was too risky to finish the drive back to Kalamazoo. I instead drove to my mom's house in Wyoming to stay the night. Due to my health problems, I ended up sleeping in until early afternoon on Saturday. This was how I ended up in the path of a tornado.
Reports started coming in that a tornado was on the ground in Allegan County (southwest of Wyoming). Based on reports I was seeing from the meteorology team at WOOD-TV 8, I realized that the tornado was heading toward Grandville (another suburb on the south-west side of Grand Rapids) and Wyoming. I decided to start warning people. I said to my mom, "This is heading our way. We should go to the basement now." But we didnít. At 2:21 pm, I sent a text to my friend Jabari, "Tornado on the ground heading toward Wyoming." He wrote back at 2:22 pm, "It's just a funnel most likely." I texted him back at 2:26 p.m., "No! On the ground!" and then added a second text at 2:28 p.m. that said, "Confirmed extensive damage!" He took shelter. At 2:26 p.m. I put out a warning on Facebook: "Tornado on the ground tracking toward Grandville and Wyoming! Take cover now if you live in southwest Kent County!" I also have a memory of warning my sister Rena to "take shelter," but I can't find evidence on my phone that I called her at that time. I may have used my mom's phone.
My sister Rena was driving when the tornado hit. Rather than driving to her own home, she tried to make it to my mom's house before the tornado hit because my mom's house was closer. My sister was driving just north of Ivanrest Ave. and 44th St. in Grandville when she called my mom's house. This location was about one mile south-west of my mom's house as the crow flies. My mom handed me the phone. My sister said, "I'm not going to make it! There are trees falling down all around me!"
What happened next was surreal and unfolded like scenes in a horror movie.
"Oh,_____!" My sister suddenly screamed.
The phone instantly went dead.
"Rena?" I said, my voice trembling with fear. I turned to my mom and said, "I lost her!"
The power went out. It came back for a brief moment but went out again.
My mom has a huge glass patio door in her kitchen. After the power went out the second time, I looked out the patio door window and saw the swirling rain and treetops. My knowledge as a meteorologist kicked in. I knew instantly what I was seeing.
Echoing the words of my sister, I screamed, "Oh,_____! I see it! It's here! We need to go to the basement NOW!"
I sent a text to my friend Jabari as I was fleeing into the basement. I went back through my sent messages later and found that the time stamp on that text was 2:35 pm, so that was the time the tornado hit.
The noise started as soon as we hit the basement. It sounded like a rumbling noise to me, like an earthquake. My mom later said she heard cracking and crashing noises, along with an occasional "BANG!" sound. I didn't hear any of that. I only heard loud rumbling.
"What do we do?" my mom asked.
"I don't know," I replied.
We were in the safest place we could be. What else could we do except wait it out? I reached out to my mom and hugged her. She hugged me back and we held each other tightly.
The rumbling stopped and all went quiet. I thought it was over. But then it started all over again. Was this a second tornado? Or did we just experience the "eye" of the tornado? My mom said she head more crashing, cracking, and booms. I only heard loud rumbling. My mom also looked over at one of the windows and saw tree debris on the other side of it. She thought the house was being destroyed. I didn't look that way, so I didn't see the debris.
The noise stopped a second time, but because of the first "false stop," I was hesitant to believe it was over. I waited 30 seconds, let go of my mom and said, "I think itís over."
I tried to call my sister but she wasn't answering her phone. I later learned that the tornado had touched down near the intersection of Ivanrest and 44th St., which was where my sister was driving. The time stamp on my phone says it was 2:41 pm when I called my sister. This was a terrifying time period. I didn't know if my sister was dead or alive until she called at 2:48 pm. She said that a tree was ripped out of the ground and landed right in front of her car. She fled her car and knocked on the door of a nearby house. They let her in and she took shelter in the basement.
My mom stayed in the basement while I walked upstairs. Everything looked okay as I walked through the house...until I came to the living room and looked out the front window. The picture below shows what the front yard looked like from inside the house
My sister took this picture the next day. The tornado had ripped apart one of the two large oak trees in my mom's front yard, and did major damage to the other. I stared in disbelief. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Nearly the entire front yard was covered in tree damage!
Truthfully, I kind of freaked out. I started shouting, "Oh my gosh! There's total devastation! Everything has been annihilated!" I was exaggerating of course, but not deliberately. I saw so much damage outside and was reacting emotionally. It probably didn't help my mom ease her mind. She was still sitting in the basement thinking that the house had been destroyed. My words probably confirmed her fears. I called both of my brothers, Dan and Rod, and told them what happened. Rod and his entire family were in Mt. Pleasant dropping Rod's oldest daughter Kelsey off at Central Michigan University because she was about to start college. I was kind of freaking out on these phone calls.
I look back at this now and compare my intense reaction to my past reactions to tornadoes. I've chased tornadoes before, and did so with thrills of excitement. One time a funnel cloud unexpectedly went directly over me and I started screaming with excitement. Where was "storm chasing Bob?" He was no where to be found today. I think the thing that made this so different from my past experiences with tornadoes was the danger element. I had just spoken to my sister who was caught in the tornado and I didn't know if she was dead or alive. To make matters worse, this was the anniversary week of when my older sister Robbin died of a heart attack back in 1998. Did I just lose another sister? My dad also had died in 2003. If I had been out on my own chasing the tornado from a safe distance, it probably would have been the thrill of a lifetime. However, it wasn't so fun when the lives of people I love were in danger.
Mom finally came upstairs. She was relieved to see that the house was still together, although the side door had been damaged and would need to be replaced. There was wind damage to the roof, but we didn't yet know that. Things seemed okay to her until she looked out the front window and saw what I saw.
The first word that came out of her mouth was, "Judy!"
Judy and Jay were my mom's neighbors. The people in my mom's neighborhood are very close and everyone knows each other. Judy had been like a "a second mom" to my siblings when we were growing up. My mom and I rushed outside and were shocked to see that a tree had crushed Judy's new car and landed on their house. Judy had just bought that car a week ago. She hadn't even made the first payment.
"Judy!" I started calling out. "Are you and Jay okay?" I started walking toward the house. Finally, Judy stuck her head out the door and said, "We're okay."
Mom asked me to check on Jim and Laurie, the neighbors on the other side of her house. A tree branch went through their roof and landed in a closet. I knocked on their front door but no one answered. They came out later and were okay.
The tornado sirens were still going off. I started looking around and was amazed at the damage. There was a lot of tree damage. Kent Trails goes behind my mom's house. Several large trees had fallen on the paved path. They fell in a WESTERLY direction. The upper half of a pine tree in Laurie and Jim's yard was ripped off and blown over my mom's line of bushes, and then over my mom's shed. The tree crashed into and spread across her yard, missing both the line of bushes and the shed (see the picture below that was taken by my brother Rod).
There was only wind damage to the roof of the shed. Both that tree and the tree that hit Judy and Jay's house fell toward the NORTH. As I walked around to the front of the house, I saw the damage to the two oak trees in my mom's front yard. The oak tree near the house had been ripped apart. That tree fell in pieces in a NORTH and slightly NORTHEAST direction, missing the house by inches. If that tree had blown west, it would have fell on top of the house and split it in two. The oak tree was over 100 years old and it was HUGE! A second oak tree out near the road took significant damage. It was the only tree my mom was able to save in the end. Branches from that tree, along with two trees in front of Judy's house, fell NORTHEAST across the road, taking out the power lines. There was also a tree that fell across the driveway of a home on the other side of the street. That tree fell SOUTHEAST. There were, of course, many other trees that fell.
My rental car was destroyed. The back end of the car was blown at an angle toward the north before a branch from Judy and Jay's tree fell on top of it. The roof caved in, the back window was blown out, and the side driver's window was blown out. Large portions of my mom's driveway had been destroyed. A chunk of the driveway 32 inches long one way and 18 the other was thrown 15 feet away from where it had been torn out. It landed directly in front of my mom's living room window after hitting the corner of the house 52 inches above the ground. When it hit the corner of the house, it took a 2-inch long chunk out of the bricks that were there. (The front of my mom's house is covered with bricks.) I also found a branch that acted like a missile in the back yard. When I pulled the branch out of the ground, I measured an 8-inch hole that was left behind.
My friend Jabari came to the house. Rena arrived at the house after staying 40 minutes in the basement with the kind people who let her in their home. My brother Rod's family arrived later that day after they returned from Mt. Pleasant. It was a very emotional time for all of us. A friend Rod grew up was in the tree removal business. His name is Mark. He was at the house within hours and was already removing the tree damage by Sunday night.
People didn't come out of their houses right away; they slowly trickled out. There was soon a steady stream of people walking through the neighborhood looking at the damage. I myself took a walk around the block. I was able to figure out the width of the tornado by seeing where the damage was. The northern end was just on the other side of Judy and Jay's house near Kent Trails; the southern end was a couple houses south of the intersection of 38th and Wedgewood Ave. This was a width of about 6 to 8 houses. On Wedgewood Ave., the damage seemed worse. The upper half of a telephone pole had been ripped off. A large tree fell onto the middle of a house, though it did not collapse into it. The tornado continued moving north-east, passing through the nearest major intersection at 36th St. and Byron Center Ave.
My mom did have wind damage to the roof of her house and to the roof of her shed. The driveway would have to be replaced. The mailbox was gone. Her car was damaged but usable. My car rental was destroyed. All but one of her trees were gone. But overall, we weren't in bad shape. I was in a conversation with someone shortly afterwards about whether God was involved in protecting us. This person felt, "Science can explain everything that happened." Personally, I have no problem embracing both the scientific aspect and the divine aspect. On the one hand, I looked around the neighborhood and saw the direction the trees fell, and I could offer a scientific explanation for how everything went down. On the other hand, I was able to see God's protective hand on my family and on the area. It could have been worse. God controls the elements. He designed the universe. The oak tree could have split my mom's house, but it didn't. In fact, it missed the house by inches. The pine tree from the neighbor's yard could have crushed the shed and the bushes, but it didn't. The tree that fell in front of my sister's car could have crushed her car and killed her if she had driven just a little bit further. But that didn't happen. I see no contradiction between science and God. I embrace both. I study the damage with a scientific fascination, but I praise God, who designed and controls all the elements, for sparing us from what could have been much worse. As we all know, disasters happen all the time in which people are not spared.
No one was injured or killed in any of the six tornadoes that touched down in Michigan that day. People were warned well in advance by the National Weather Service and by the local media outlets. They did a great job!
Strangers came into the neighborhood and helped. One man came with his chainsaw and cut a path through the debris from the road to my mom's house so we could walk through. My mom and I stayed the night at my sister and her husband Scott's house, but returned to my mom's house Sunday evening. The clean-up would start on Sunday and would continue until Wednesday. Most of it was done by Tuesday afternoon. It was a very quick process, thanks to Mark the tree removal guy.
I could keep on going on and on about different things, but maybe I've said enough. Maybe I'll write more later, or maybe I'll stop here. I think that this is plenty to digest. Thanks for taking the time to read it all! I hope you found it interesting!