Michigan & deadly summer weather – it happened once, it can happen again

On anniversary of Flint tornado, key tips from a U-M emergency doctor to staying safe in tornado, flood & heat wave season

Tornado for blog.fw

This image taken by the federal weather agency NOAA shows the devastation left by one of the nation’s deadliest tornadoes ever. Source: NOAA

Deadly tornadoes in Oklahoma. Dangerous flooding in Texas. Could Michigan be next for the freakish weather patterns of 2015?

After all, severe weather can happen here too. In fact, today is the anniversary of the 1953 tornado that struck Beecher, a small town just north of Flint, and killed 116 people and destroyed nearly 350 houses. Even 62 years later, it remains one of the nation’s most deadly twisters.

So today’s a great day to take stock of what every Michigan family can do to be ready in case a major weather event strikes the Mitten State. With a few simple actions, you can keep yourself and your loved ones and pets safe and healthy during a tornado, flood, or more routine summer thunderstorms.

We turned to a U-M doctor who thinks about emergency planning a lot – because he treats a lot of people who didn’t plan or think ahead and paid the price with an injury or illness. He’s Brad Uren, M.D., a U-M emergency physician and past president of the Michigan College of Emergency Physicians.

Uren tornado pull quote.fwQ: The Beecher tornado is the worst in Michigan’s history, but we have them every year, right?

A: Yes. As we move into summer, it is important to be ready, not only for heat-related injuries and illness, but also for severe weather. Many people think of the Plains states when they think of deadly tornadoes, but Michigan was the site of the 10th most deadly tornado in U.S. history on June 8, 1953. The Flint-Beecher tornado, as it came to be called, killed people, ranging in age from 5 months to 80 years.

As we enter the time of year when weather can be severe, and life-threatening, it is important to be ready.

Q: What should families be doing to get ready for tornado season?

A: First, be prepared. Pay attention to weather bulletins. Invest in a NOAA weather radio or use an app for your smartphone that can alert you to weather and other local emergencies, even if your TV or radio is turned off or you are outside.

Understand the terminology: a watch means conditions are right for severe weather, such as a thunderstorm or tornado. A warning means that a severe storm or tornado is in the warning area and immediate action is required.

In one deadly day, a number of tornadoes classified in strength from F1 to F5 struck Michigan Source: NOAA

In one deadly day, a number of tornadoes classified in strength from F1 to F5 struck Michigan
Source: NOAA

Q: So if a tornado warning goes into effect where you are, what should you do?

A: The people we worry about a lot are those who live in mobile homes, which are not safe in a tornado. If that’s you, be ready to move to a larger building before a warning is issued.

No matter where you are, at home, work, the park, or shopping, act immediately whenever a warning is issued. Don’t assume someone will usher you to the right place.

Seek shelter in a sturdy building, preferably one with a basement. If a basement is not available, seek shelter in an interior space on the lowest floor, such as a bathroom or closet, without windows. Lay low on the floor and cover yourself with a blanket if one is available.

College students, and those in apartments and condos, as well as those in high-rise office buildings, should also know where the nearest safe location is. If you’re traveling and staying in a hotel, ask at the check-in desk what the procedure is.


Q: What should you have in your home?

A: Be sure to have a shelter location identified in the home stocked and ready, so that you can go there immediately in an emergency. Be sure all family members know where this place is.

Make sure you have emergency supplies ready to take with you if you have to evacuate to the basement or other safe location.

Be sure to stock enough food, water and supplies for at least 72 hours, as assitance might take more than 24-48 hours in the event of a large scale disaster such as flooding or a tornado.

Stock at least one gallon of drinking water, per person, per day. Stock enough non perishable food for each person as well. Don’t forget to stock appropriate utensils, paper plates, plastic forks, etc. If stocking canned food, be sure you have a can opener. If stocking food in other containers, such as plastic or foil packets, be sure to have a knife or other cutting instrument to open the containers.

Don’t forget to have a supply of medications that you or family members may need.

Stock the old pair of eyeglasses to ensure you have some nearby in an emergency. Have a radio and NOAA weather radio with extra batteries, or a solar charger, or hand cranked radio.

For those with children, don’t forget to have diapers and baby formula on hand.

Also, if you have pets, have food and water for them, and account for their water requirements as well.


Q: Do you recommend any particular apps?

A: FEMA has an app available for Apple, Android, and Blackberry systems that can track severe weather in up to five locations, and provides helpful planning checklists and information. In addition, in a disaster, the app can help guide you to assistance in your local area.

The American Red Cross has a Tornado app too.


Q: What about lightning?

Lightning injures over 400 people annually, and kills 50-60 people per year on average. The national weather service recommends that people avoid being outdoors whenever thunder can be heard.

As the National Weather Service says, “When thunder roars, go indoors.” It’s a good slogan to teach children too.

If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be at risk of being hit by lightning. There are no safe places outdoors, but avoiding tall trees, towers, metal fencing, antennas, etc if you are stuck outdoors in a thunderstorm is advisable.


Q: What about flooding?

Michigan has recently seen some localized flooding with heavy rains. It is important to remember that even 6 inches of water can carry away a person, and 2 feet of water can carry away a vehicle, even a truck or an SUV.

A few inches of water over a road may not look like much – but don’t forget that floodwaters move, often swiftly.

Do not ever attempt to cross a flooded roadway or area with floodwaters–turn around!


Q: What about heat waves and super-humid weather?

A: These can be very dangerous, especially to the young, the very old, people with underlying health conditions, and the mentally disabled.

My key tips are:

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: Bring water wherever you go, or bring a bottle and refill it. If you’ll be outdoors and active, set a reminder on your smartphone to tell you to stop and drink. But whatever you do, keep drinking water the whole time. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. And stay away from alcohol, and from soda pop or other drinks with caffeine or lots of sugar.
    • EXCEPTION: If you take “water pills” (diuretics) for blood pressure, kidney disease or another condition, or your doctor has told you to limit fluids because you have a condition such as heart failure, be careful about water intake. Pay special attention to your doctor’s advice for hot weather, and don’t over-exert yourself.
  • Block that sun: Put sunscreen on exposed skin before you go, to let it take effect, and keep applying as you sweat it off. Wear a hat with a broad brim, and cover up as much as you can stand.
  • Don’t let heat exhaustion (or worse) sneak up on you: Patients who wind up in the emergency department during hot weather often disregarded the early signs of heat-related issues, such as nausea, headache and dizziness, Take frequent rest breaks in the shade or an air-conditioned location – and more water.

Take the next step:


University of Michigan Health SystemFor more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.