Historian, resident recounts record tornado

Historical Society open house to display 40th anniversary artifacts

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published February 25, 2016

 Workers delicately remove power lines and broken pole pieces from Orchard Lake Road after the tornado.

Workers delicately remove power lines and broken pole pieces from Orchard Lake Road after the tornado.

Photo provided by the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — March 19, 1976, was an unusually warm day for Michigan, especially since the month prior, West Bloomfield experienced below-freezing temperatures.

But as historian and West Bloomfield resident Charles Martinez said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a moment. It’ll change.” 

Martinez is the author of “Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield.”

The day before a record tornado ripped through West Bloomfield on March 20, 1976, leaving one dead, the temperature was 70 degrees and skies were clear, Martinez said. 

“There was warm, moist air pushing into Detroit, raising the temperature to about 70 degrees,” Martinez said. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the March 20, 1976, tornado was the strongest tornado to hit Oakland County since 1950. The tornado resulted in 55 injuries and was categorized as an EF4 on the Fujita scale, which rates a tornado’s intensity based on the damage it produces. The West Bloomfield tornado had winds estimated around 260 mph, Martinez said.

Ninety-one houses, a mobile home, 23 businesses and about 25 vehicles were destroyed or damaged from the tornado. The NOAA reports that the total damage was over $5 million, which ranks the tornado as the “costliest” in county history. 

Martinez recalled the fateful day. It was a Saturday, he said, and local radio and television stations broadcasted around 4:30 p.m. that a tornado watch was in effect for Oakland and Macomb counties. Martinez said a cold front occurred, moving eastward and extending from Texas and Oklahoma to Michigan. 

“That spelled trouble, because the cold air would override the warm area and create … vortex winds,” Martinez said. 

By 6:40 p.m., the earlier tornado watch had been canceled; however, the public was cautioned that tornadoes could occur in any month — even though in Michigan, most tornadoes occur April-July. In fact, he said, there were several tornado sightings in Michigan on March 12, 1976. 

According to the NOAA, a record number of tornadoes — 182 — were reported across the country in March 1976.

Around 7 p.m., “a monster wind took off, and a funnel cloud was spotted,” Martinez said. Tornado warning sirens were nonexistent at that time, so the community relied on broadcast weather bulletins. The tornado first touched down in a subdivision near 14 Mile and Drake roads in Farmington Hills, and “there were several accounts reported of people who were injured or had their homes blown away,” Martinez said. The tornado created more and more damage as it bounced southwest to northeast.

“It kind of tiptoed its way through West Bloomfield,” Martinez said. 

Martinez told the story of a Farmington Hills man who lived near 14 Mile and Drake roads. The man left his ranch-style house to attend a football game, and his wife, his 1-year-old daughter and his mother-in-law stayed home. After the tornado hit, the man’s wife and mother-in-law were trapped under debris, but the baby was safe. Electrical wires were draped over what was left of the roof. The women were rescued and were taken to Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield.

After sweeping a single-dwelling home in the 5700 block of Maple Road, near Orchard Lake Road, Martinez said, the funnel then smashed into what was then a Belle Tire store and Danny’s Marathon station. The tornado carried debris, and he said it was as if Belle Tire’s 60-percent-off tires were black frisbees. 

“The kill zone,” as he called it, was in the area of Orchard Lake and West Maple roads. Based on the damage of the area, Martinez said, it’s surprising there was only one fatality from the tornado.  

Bloomfield Hills resident Kiely Weaver and three other teenagers were driving to dinner before a Sadie Hawkins dance. When the car was stopped at a light in the “kill zone,” one teenager reported that a business sign was swinging back and forth “like a straw in the wind,” Martinez said. 

As the tornado roared, the car was lifted off the pavement and dropped onto a nearby car. Three of the occupants escaped without injury, but Weaver died instantly, Martinez said. 

On March 13, 2016, the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society will remember the 40th anniversary of the record tornado at its March open house 1-4 p.m.

Historical Society President Gina Gregory said two residents who lived in the area at the time of the tornado will be the docents for the open house, and newspaper articles, photographs and “whatever else we can put our hands on” will be on display. A firsthand account video produced by Civic Center TV will be shown. 

“It’s nice to look back. There was a stone garage on Orchard Lake Road close to Northwestern Highway. It was a landmark for people, and it blew down during the tornado. People remember that,” Gregory said. 

The Orchard Lake Museum is located at 3951 Orchard Lake Road in Orchard Lake. There is no charge to attend the event.

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