PALM SUNDAY TORNADO OUTBREAK
APRIL 11TH, 1965

Written by: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian
National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac, MI
March, 2005

The Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak occurred on April 11th, 1965 with the violent storms tearing through much of the Southern Great Lakes Region and Northern Ohio Valley. The worst hit states were Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. It is the second biggest tornado outbreak on record; 47 confirmed tornadoes resulted in 271 people killed and 3,400 people injured in just a twelve hour span. Damages from the storms mounted to more than 200 million dollars (1.1 billion/2003 dollars). Only the "Super Outbreak" of April 3rd, 1974 was worse. This write-up is mainly from a Southeast Lower Michigan perspective with some data taken directly from the NWS Storm Data files.

COLD MARCH LION PROCEEDS PALM SUNDAY STORMS

March of 1965 had been a cold and stormy spring month (several degrees below normal, ranking in the top twenty listings for coldest and snowiest Marches at some locations) in Southeast Lower Michigan with several rounds of heavy rain and snow which lasted into early April. There really had been no surge of warm spring weather to speak of that year until the first week of April, the week which preceded the second biggest tornado outbreak in recorded history. During that first week of April, temperatures surged quickly up to near 70 degrees on the 6th but then, just as quickly, they were knocked back down into the 40s again by yet another chilly air mass on the 8th. Palm Sunday weekend (10-11th) started out calm enough with temperatures actually rising up to near normal levels (mid 50s) under partly sunny skies on Saturday. Many meteorologist eyes, however, were focused on the strong mid and upper level jet stream surging across the Southern Plains into the Midwest later Saturday. In retrospect, this was the harbinger of the rough times that lay ahead, the vicious Palm Sunday Tornado outbreak.

PALM SUNDAY

500 MB chart from 7 am EST, April 11, 1965; click on image to enlarge The strong jet core extended throughout all levels of the atmosphere as of Palm Sunday morning. At 850 MB (5000 FT), a 50 to 60 knot west southwest wind could be found over the Southern Plains moving through Kansas into Missouri, while at the 700 MB (10,000 FT) level, a 70 knot wind maximum was surging northeast across the Texas Panhandle into Oklahoma. Higher up, from the 500 MB to 300 MB (18,000 - 30,000 FT) layer, incredibly strong maximum winds of 120-150 knots extended from the Desert Southwest into the Southern Plains.

Surface chart from 7 am EST, April 11, 1965; click on image to enlarge At the same time, and in response to the strengthening upper level winds, a deepening surface low pressure system was taking shape over the Midwest. This intensifying low pressure, central pressure at 990 MB (or about 29.20") moved east northeast into Iowa by the forenoon hours of Palm Sunday. Its attending warm front surged northward into Southern Indiana and Ohio, while the 850 MB warm front pushed north into Southern Lower Michigan. As this warmer, more unstable air aloft approached Southern Lower Michigan, scattered thunderstorms were triggered during the pre-dawn hours. A thunderstorm was ongoing at both Detroit City and Metropolitan airports as of the 400 AM EST observation (Detroit City Airport was the official climate observing site for Detroit at the time and this was transferred to Metro Airport just a year later in April 1966).

500 MB chart from 7 pm EST, April 11, 1965; click on image to enlarge Temperatures climbed up through the 40s over Southern Lower Michigan during the forenoon hours of Sunday, while behind the warm front (along the Ohio River), readings rose into the mid 70s and were accompanied by dew points in the lower to mid 60s. Early in the day, the surface warm front surged rapidly northeast, aided by the strong south winds of 20 to 30 mph at the surface (and as mentioned earlier, much stronger aloft). During the early afternoon hours, the warm front pushed northeast into extreme Southeast Lower Michigan. With the passage of the front, skies broke out which allowed some sunshine to aid in raising the temperatures into the mid 60s to lower 70s by mid afternoon. Dew points followed right along for the ride, rising from the lower 40s early in the day, to the lower 60s by mid afternoon. This helped set the stage for the violent weather that was to explode shortly over the Lower Great Lakes and Northern Ohio Valley.

Map of tornado tracks; click on image to enlarge The deepening low pressure system and attending fronts began spawning severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over Eastern Iowa, Extreme Southern Wisconsin and Extreme Northern Illinois early that Palm Sunday afternoon. Along with numerous severe thunderstorms, up to 13 major tornadoes swirled violently through that region. As the low pressure center pushed east northeast across Central Wisconsin, the strong jet core of upper winds began to surge northeast into the Lower Great Lakes Region. Severe thunderstorms blossomed out ahead of the swiftly moving cold front, which extended in an arc from the greater Chicago area south southeast across extreme western Indiana along the instability axis. The first tornadoes spawned in the tri-state area (Michigan-Indiana-Ohio) developed quickly and in rapid succession over Extreme Northern Indiana (see map of tornado tracks) starting 545 PM EST, then 613 PM, 618 PM, another at 625 PM and on and on.

It was also just about this time that severe thunderstorms moved onshore into Western Lower Michigan from Lake Michigan. The storms extended from Muskegon southward to the Holland area. At 630 PM EST, one tornado (F3) touched down in Kalamazoo County, while another tornado (F4) developed at 650 PM EST and moved across Ottawa and Kent counties. Still, another complex of severe storms ignited more strong tornadoes over Central Indiana, starting just after 6 PM EST.

CLOSER TO HOME: TERRIBLE TWOS

Detroit Radar showed a rapid increase in thunderstorms over West Central and Southwest Lower Michigan and Northern Indiana by late afternoon. Storm movement was pegged east northeast at around 70 mph! As these storms roared into South-Central Lower Michigan, two horrible twisters were spawned over Branch County, one at East Gilead at 715 PM EST and the other, just a half hour later, southwest of Kinderhook (or, nearly in the same spot as the first). The first tornado seemed to be the most intense and may have caused the most deaths. After striking East Gilead, the storm tracked across Coldwater Lake and damaged several homes along its path. It was about this time (1/2 hour later) that the second twister took off, also plowing across Branch County in nearly the same path as the first. Branch County was hardest hit with at least 19 people killed and about 200 injured, with just under 200 homes destoryed and $20 million (113 million/2003 dollars) in damages.

The tornadoes then sped quickly across Hillsdale County, both tracking just south of the town of Hillsdale. So identical where the tornado paths at this point, that the second tornado actually leveled much of the remaining standing parts of homes hit by the first tornado! At least 11 people were killed in Hillsdale County by these storms along with at least $7 million (39.7 million/2003 dollars) in damages, including the 177 homes leveled. As the tornadoes crossed into Lenawee County, about 100 vacation homes (cottages) were torn apart on Devil's Lake at Manitou Beach but fortunately, being early April, most were vacant at the time. However, just south of Manitou Beach, the Manitou Beach Baptist Church was destroyed, burying 26 people alive under its debris. Miraculously, only one man died later from his injuries sustained at the church. Five miles south of Manitou Beach, a family in a home did not fare as well with six members of the family perishing in the storm!

Wind gusts recorded in Tecumseh, MI; click on image to enlarge The damage path from these terrible two tornadoes extended at one point up to four miles wide, though some of this damage might well have been also due to straight line winds. At least 14 people were killed in Lenawee County with damages amounting to $5 million (28 million/2003 dollars) and 189 homes destroyed. In the four counties, 44 people were killed along with 612 injured with property damages amounting to around $32 million (181 million/2003 dollars). These tornadoes were ranked an F4 on the Fujita Scale and their total paths were about 90 miles long. The tornadoes dissipated over extreme Northern Monroe County east of Milan. During these two monsters lives, over a thousand (1026) buildings were damaged along with countless vehicles (cars, trucks, boats, etc). With all the destruction that these two tornadoes brought to the area, we were fortunate to capture the wind gusts on a rather resilient wind gust recorder at Tecumseh in Lenawee County.

OTHER TORNADO "FAMILY" MEMBERS CAUSE HAVOC IN SOUTHEAST LOWER MICHIGAN

Another F4 tornado touched down at 815 PM EST and roared across Clinton County into Shiawassee. The path of this tornado was about 20 miles long at extended from just south of Dewitt (in Southern Clinton County), east northeast to Bennington (or just southwest of Owosso). A nine-year old girl was killed and six homes were destroyed in Clinton County, while three more homes were destroyed in Shiawassee County.

As 9 PM EST approached, two weaker F2 tornadoes appeared farther north in Bay and Tuscola counties. One tornado touched down at 850 PM EST in Bay County at Portsmouth Township and tore the roofs off some buildings and destroyed a few barns and trailers before moving out over Saginaw Bay. At 9 PM EST, another F2 tornado dropped down out of the sky over Tuscola County; it then moved east northeast for 10 miles ending at the town of Unionville. Some barns and a lumberyard were demolished along the ten mile path. There were no deaths and only two injuries with these two tornadoes.

A final tornado (another killer F4) touched down near the Michigan/Ohio State line (mainly on the north side of Toledo) at approximately 930 PM EST. The storm tracked east northeast and caught the extreme southeast tip of Monroe County. The worst damage from this tornado occurred on the north side of Toledo with 16 people killed in Ohio and two in Michigan. About 50 homes were destroyed along with a bus that was picked up and slammed down on I-75, killing four people. Damages with this tornado amounted to around $25 million (141 million/2003 dollars).

Much of the Detroit Metro Area observed strong to severe thunderstorms with very heavy rainfall as the intense low pressure system and strong cold front surged through Lower Michigan that night. Both Detroit City and Metropolitan Airports received about 1.5 inches of rain, whereas Flint measured just a quarter of an inch (.25). As the system moved into Canada, it put an end to the severe weather (well, almost). Very strong isobaric winds encompassed the region behind the storm center on Monday morning, the 12th, with Detroit City Airport (which at that time, housed the wind gust equipment) clocking a west northwest wind gust at 55 mph!


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