Tornado in Coleman, MI (March 12, 2012)

First chase! So close!

First full day back to school at CMU, and things got interesting. Not long after sitting down for dinner, I received a lovely text message that a Tornado Warning had been placed for Mount Pleasant just after 6pm. Stunned for about 5.324 seconds, I buzzed out of the cafeteria and went to examine the situation.

Tornadic cell located just west of Mount Pleasant. It was moving northeast at 55mph.

Radar revealed a cell strengthening south of Big Rapids and aligned itself just north of Mount Pleasant. I breathed a sigh of relief as the tornado evidence was only radar indicated (still nothing to mess around with). It was better than a ‘tornado on the ground’ phrase that could have replaced it. It was best to take action anyway. Perhaps a tornado had not been reported yet, but was on the ground. Lots of questionable space there, which is why trained weather spotters are so high value!

What started as a little laughing point between friends, became serious. “Hey Greg, you going to go chase it?”

Employing a small crew of interested friends, we took off at 6:30. Large scud cloud and part of a lagging wall cloud were visible from the street. We designated one person with driving, one as the navigator, and had another with us to keep us sane and communicate with the outside world. I rode shotgun with camera and phone in hand. With the radar updates showing the cell tracking just north of campus, I knew 127 went north, so we could traverse up quickly and catch it. The issue was getting east. By the time we were on the road, the storm had already crossed 127 and was heading northeast at 55mph.

Started in Mount Pleasant. At 'A' we encountered heavy rain and needed to get east ASAP. At roughly 'B' we were in a dry area. This offered a good vantage point of where the ideal spot of the storm was. We needed to head north (running out of road). We encountered more rain at 'C' and took the closest road east. This was dirt. We called off our chase, and turned home, when we found debris at 'D'.

Katy's view of the wall cloud looking NE from a different vantage point.

Our north trip took us to Rosebush Rd. We had gotten soaked by the  rain behind the visible wall cloud, and this indicated the storm had a good structure. This was a cool thing to experience first hand.

Our travels indicate that we went through a few portions of a supercell thunderstorm. Found an easy to read graphic from the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

Top-down view of a supercell thunderstorm.

When we traveled north, we would find ourselves in the green area. However, when we traveled east we would get out of the rain. Perhaps this was the wrap around updraft area. We went east as much as possible to avoid the low visibility rain. Traveling too far north we would hit hail. Almost two-inch diameter hail was reported north of the storm track.

Wall Cloud Ahead!

Gust front clouds are on the right of the frame. Wall cloud is dead center. This is looking NE as the storm tears a path in front of us.

Fellow student and storm chaser, L.B. LaForce was out and about as well. Our times match up and we may have been on the same road at one time.

LB LaForce's radar and velocity images of the storm crossing 127 north of Mount Pleasant. His chase path is in blue.

After dodging huge puddles on Rosebush Rd, we went north on Coleman Rd. Again we were enveloped in rain. This concerned me at first. Perhaps there was another cell following up, and this tornado was rain-wrapped? Remembering radar data, there was no cell behind the original storm which we were chasing. I dismissed that worry and we looked for another road east. Nothing pleasant presented itself, so we chose a dirt road, either Star or Burns Rd.

The road was terrible. Heavy rains had saturated the dirt well enough to make it a mud bath. At time it felt like off-roading. The speed we carried was much less than that of the storm, and we made a decision to call off the chase.

Bummed but still fueled by the exciting chase, we turned south on Lewis Rd. Sky still had unique characteristics to it. The gust front to the south still held together and created a nice contrast on the horizon.

Outflow shelf cloud visible from the back side.

No longer than 10 seconds after this photo was taken, our navigator shouted STOP!

*THUNK

We were lucky. One of the most dangerous things to look for during and after a severe storm are downed power lines. We clipped a downed line on our way home. This brought all our attention to our front. To the right, we saw this:

Trail of Debris 2

Looking southwest, this trail of debris is from the garage that once covered that RV and red SUV. A torn up trailer is just off the left side of the picture. I assume this was sitting near the garage, got picked up, and blown through a tree to its resting place.

Immediate reaction was checking for other power lines down. The intersection of Lewis and Weinert Roads was littered with downed lines. We pulled off to the side and got out to check on the residents. I got no closer than the garage before the homeowners came out of the house announcing they were okay. They had called 911 and reported the damage. I asked permission to take photos and started documenting.

Grass was soaked. Chips of wood were embedded in the ground. While the house was spared, shingles were ruffled. Walking through the debris, it felt like utter destruction. It was a moment of recognition. Look how destructive weather can be, and this was only a EF1 with winds estimated at 90mph. The garage had a lean to it. I’m assuming the back part that was destroyed lifted up from the tornado. The side of the RV was relatively undamaged, but it was now parked at an angle. Across the street, more debris lay. The stop sign was standing at an awkward angle, and tall grasses were mangled.

Shelter Gone

RV is not parked like it was a half hour before. What used to be a sheltered garage is now a pile of plywood and debris.

Crooked

Garage now exhibits a lean. Weather vane hasn't seen winds like that before.

Fire Department on the Wires

Debris in the field. Grass is flattened and twirled about. Fire department arrived shortly after we did. They stopped here to clear the power line.

Trailer reduced to shambles.

After snapping the photos, the firetruck arrived and tended to the wire that we originally hit. Playing it safe, good idea. Rain started and we moved to the car and packed up.

The damaged site we visited looked to be the beginning of the path. What bad luck to be there. The NWS said the tornado left a path 5.1 miles long with a maximum width of 125m. A few more pole barns were damaged across the field.

At home, the social media was spreading the weather. Unfortunately, this included a fake and manipulated photo that spread like wildfire. The photo showed a mean sky with a funnel coming down. Trained eyes spotted the funnel feature online and found no ‘wall cloud’. This is a rotating mass of lowered cloud which the funnel descends. That and a few poor brush strokes meant the gig was up. But damage was done. Pranking about something so potentiality dangerous and life threatening should be frowned upon. Furthermore, this puts real life-savers like spotters and law enforcement down. How can trust be assured with scams like this going around?

The NWS did a survey of the site and surrounding areas and found it to be evidence of a EF1 tornado with winds up to 90mph. More information about the track of the storm and weather reports can be found here.

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About gweatherc
Live in Michigan and enjoy observing the weather. Want to pursue it as a career! Currently taking classes at Central Michigan University.

One Response to Tornado in Coleman, MI (March 12, 2012)

  1. Dad says:

    Good job! Glad everyone was OK. Interesting report, sure can’t get much closer to observing a storm like that one.
    Standing by, Dad

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