ISB (Comerica) Building, 13 May 1980
Bronson Park, 13 May 1980
On Tuesday, 13 May 1980, a tornado struck the heart of Kalamazoo, Michigan. First touching down at 4 pm eight miles west of the city limits, it rapidly moved eastward through downtown until it dissipated east of the city at 4:25 pm.
Only twenty-five minutes had elapsed, but the devastation left in the tornado’s 11-mile wake was considerable: five people dead, seventy-nine injured, and over fifty million dollars in total property damage. Governor William Milliken, walking through the area only hours later, remarked, “it reminds me of a bombed-out city.”
City’s Worst Disaster
When the tornado first struck over the relatively open terrain west of Kalamazoo, it caused only minor damage to trees, fences, and power poles. This changed dramatically once the storm entered the city limits. Homes were leveled in the Westwood residential district, and monuments were overturned at Mountain Home Cemetery. The gymnasium at St. Augustine Elementary School was severely damaged. Fortunately, school had already been dismissed, so most children were at home when the tornado struck.
Bronson Park, the two-acre cultural center of the city, and also the home of numerous century-old oak trees, was also hit. Twenty-six of those trees were downed or damaged, including the one which had shaded Abraham Lincoln when he addressed Kalamazoo in 1856. The roof of the nine-story ISB Building (today the Comerica Building) was ripped away, and its glass exterior was almost completely destroyed; only a handful of its windows remained intact.
Much of the back brick wall of the seven-story Gilmore Brothers Department Store was removed in one clean slice, depositing a six-foot high pile of bricks in the adjacent alley. In a parking structure nearby, cars were flipped over, their windows popped out by changing air-pressure. Kalamazoo Mayor Edward Annen Jr. commented: “This is the worst disaster our city has ever seen, but we'll come back from this.”
1980 Tornado Captured on Video
Workers at the Sound Room (a downtown hi-fi shop) made this historic videotape of the 1980 tornado and its aftermath. “This is the first amateur color VHS video recording of a killer tornado in the United States using a RCA color video camera and attendant recorder.”
The impact of the 1980 tornado was immeasurable and continues to be felt today. Most of the damaged buildings were either reconstructed or razed, but the damage to Bronson Park became a focal point in the city’s recovery. Seeded by a generous gift from the Kalamazoo Gazette , a fund was started to replace the fallen trees. A wide search, lasting several years, was conducted to replace them with new ones of the same species. New flower beds were cut to showcase the area’s bedding plant industry, and to give the park a lift while the new trees matured.
The tornado of 1980 remains one of the most significant events in Kalamazoo’s history, but not only because of the immediate destruction it caused or the powerful community spirit it engendered. The legacy of the tornado will continue indefinitely in the question, “Where were you when...?”