I was born late in life to my parents, so I’m too young to have gone through the infamous Beecher Tornado of 1953. My parents and siblings, however, were right in the middle of what is still considered the most deadly tornado ever to hit Michigan.
The only category F5 tornado ever to touch down in lower Michigan, the Beecher Tornado killed 116 and injured another 844 people.
My parents lived in the deadly path of the tornado, which started between Linden and Webster roads in Mt. Morris Township, and ended at Five Lakes Road in Lapeer County’s Deerfield Township.
Growing up in the 1970s, I remember my parent’s reaction every time we had a bad storm and tornado watches or warnings were issued. While there was never panic or outright fear shown, they were always very uneasy when a storm was near.
For my dad, his experience that fateful morning 60 years ago this weekend, was displayed as something more like a seasoned veteran of war. He would look at the clouds, listen to the birds and feel for the wind. If the sky became a greenish tint, if the birds became suddenly quiet and if the wind stopped blowing and all became still and calm — that was when he would worry.
I asked him why these conditions seemed to be his indicators of a possible tornado and I remember him telling me as a boy “because that was what it was like the day we were in THAT tornado.” Both mom and dad recalled that day as if it had happened yesterday. Dad, who worked the late shift, was resting in bed that morning, while my mom had just finished mopping the kitchen floor. My brother and sister were also there, both of them quite young at the time.
Mom remembered her floors wouldn’t dry and she’d put on a fan to speed the process along. Outside it looked like a storm was coming and then my mom noticed what she thought was a local junk yard burning old tires – a tall column of swirling black smoke which was heading their way.
She told my dad about the “burning tires” and he got up to look. When he saw it, he knew what it was and gathered up his family and they all went to the neighbors because their house had a basement.
They barely reached the neighbor’s house when the tornado hit. My dad remembered watching trees twist like corkscrews out of the ground in front of him, only to be flung in the air like twigs. My family survived, but they remembered the scenes of devastation around them for weeks to come.
This was why in our household, when I was growing up, tornadoes were taken very seriously. As Genesee County observes the 60th anniversary of that fateful day, we should be thankful for the advances in early warning tornado detection — but at the same time remember these storms can be unpredictable and outright deadly.