TWISTER! The 1980 Tornado

Tornado Strikes the Heart of Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo Tornado, May 13, 1980. Photo taken by David Flamm of Parchment.

ISB (Comerica) Building, 13 May 1980
ISB (Comerica) Building, 13 May 1980. Photo: Amy Jastrzembski

“Where were you when…?”

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, 13 May 1980
Bronson Park, 13 May 1980. Photo: Amy Jastrzembski

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.”

Tornado’s path through Kalamazoo
Tornado’s path through Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo Gazette 1980 graphic

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.” (visualarchivist)


Video courtesy and copyright © 1980 Ted Ruble. | View more on YouTube

Lasting Impact

Bronson Park, 13 May 1980
Bronson Park, 13 May 1980. Photo: Amy Jastrzembski

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…?”



The Kalamazoo Tornado of May 13, 1980: a Report

  • National Academy Press, 1981
  • H 551.553 N277

Storm damage investigation of Kalamazoo, Michigan tornado of May 13, 1980

  • McDonald, James R.
  • Lubbock, Texas: Institute for Disaster Research, Texas Tech University, July 1980.
  • Copy in History Room Subject File: Tornadoes


“Disaster! Killer tornado strikes city”

  • Kalamazoo  Gazette, Special Section, 14 May 1980

“Kalamazoo’s May 13 tornado: a look back 1 year”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 May 1981

“Winds of Change: 10 Years After Kalamazoo’s Killer Tornado”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, Special Section, 13 May 1990

“25 years later: Nature’s fury remembered”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 May 2005, pages B1-B5
  • Other survivor memories are printed in several issues preceding the 13th.

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Tornadoes

Orange Dot File: Tornadoes


Share: Facebook Twitter