How NWS tracked tornadoes across West Michigan

NWS: Warnings issued up to half an hour before tornado approached

fennville tornado, radar, national weather service
The National Weather Service shows 24 Hour News 8 the radar recording where a tornado was indicated near Fennville. (Aug. 21, 2016)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The National Weather Service said it performed well during Saturday’s tornado outbreak, sending out warnings in plenty of time as the storm churned north.

“It was a good day for us,” National Weather Service senior forecaster Bob Dukesherer said Sunday. “We had tornado warnings out throughout that entire path. I live in southwest Kent County, in the Wyoming area, and my phone was going off probably 20 to 30 minutes before the wind moved through Wyoming.”

Dukesherer said the average lead time for tornado warnings in the U.S. is closer to 10 minutes.

generic national weather service generic nwsThe storm popped up near Bangor. At the NWS office in Grand Rapids, it appeared as a mix of tiny blue and green boxes showing wind flow on a computer screen — a sign of circulation.

“This isn’t the greatest circulation yet,” Dukesherer said, pointing to a recording of the Saturday radar.

But it was enough, he said, for the NWS to issue a severe thunderstorm warning for Van Buren County, with the possibility of small tornadoes, at 1:11 p.m.

“We saw this broad circulation and said, ‘We’re going to warn for this,'” Dukesherer said.

storm damage, bangor
Storm damage in the Bangor area on Aug. 20, 2016.

Within 10 minutes, after the storm had left behind damage in Bangor, NWS forecasters noticed on their computer what appeared to be debris in the atmosphere. It was the work of an EF-1 tornado, with winds up to 85 mph.

“That’s when we went tornado warning,” he said.

That was also for Van Buren County and went out at 1:21 p.m.

clyde township storm damage
Storm damage in Clyde Township, south of Fennville. (Aug. 21, 2016)

Within minutes, near Fennville, the storm blossomed. The race was on, with the NWS trying to stay ahead of an unusual and hard-to-track storm churning toward Grand Rapids at 30 mph.

The NWS says it won that race.

“It was a long damage path, a wind damage path, from Bangor all the way to Rockford and we had warnings out ahead of all that on the order of tens of minutes,” Dukesherer said. “It doesn’t get much better than that, really.”

>>Photos of the storm damage

In Grandville, Bob Terpstra says he and his family got the warnings on their phones.

“We got it 25 minutes before, a half hour,” said Terpstra, who added that he waited a time before rushing downstairs. “Then we heard a bunch of crashing and noises.”

The neighbor’s tree crashed into their home.

“Even if it’s an extra 5 minutes, that can make all the difference in the world for a lot of people,” Terpstra said.

And in Wyoming, Bob Striebel was watching the Olympics when Storm Team 8 broke in, tracking the storm. Not long after that, he heard sirens.

“They showed the trajectory on the television and I could see where my house was. I figured we were ground zero,” Striebel said.

Minutes later, three big pine trees snapped off and plunged through his roof, crushing his daughter’s bedroom.

“The fact that the warnings were ahead enough got our attention and we went downstairs. If we hadn’t been downstairs, it would have been bad,” Striebel said.

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Complete coverage of the tornadoes

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