“A tornado has been sighted southwest of Grand Rapids and is moving toward the northeast sector of the city. Seek shelter in the southwest corner of your basement.”
“Hudsonville has been badly hit!”
“Standale is leveled!”
“Comstock Park is badly demolished!”
These were the words that echoed into the homes of many Grand Rapids residents on April 3, 1956.
Out of a turbulent and black sky came death and destruction at Hudsonville and other towns surrounding the city of Grand Rapids on that momentous Tuesday night.
The impressions of the tornado which devastated parts of West Michigan were varied. Here are a few.
“It was like rolling smoke moving in on you.”
“It sounded like a freight train going by.”
“It looked like a big black spinning top.”
The force of the tornado was tremendous. Houses were lifted from their foundations, never to be seen again. Huge slabs of cement were lifted and deposited again without being cracked. Automobiles were tossed about like toys.
Do we understand it? Can we imagine it?
Hardly. It seems almost unbelievable. One must have seen the devastation to really observe the tornado’s tremendous power.
Mayor-elect Paul G. Goebel of the city of Grand Rapids expresses what I would like to say. He was touring Europe when the disaster occurred. He says, “From European news reports I had no idea the damage was this terrible.”
When we think of the greatness of our Sovereign God as He reveals that greatness and power in nature, we confess with the Psalmist:
“My soul, bless the Lord! The Lord is most great;
With glory arrayed, majestic His state;
The light is His garment, the skies are His shade
And over the waters His courts He has laid.
He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm,
The lightning and wind His mission perform;
The earth He has founded her station to keep,
And wrapped as a vesture about her the deep.”
Michigan received little consolation from the state meteorologists after the storm. They rather predicted that we in Michigan could expect more of the same storms.
If this be true, we inquire concerning their cause.
It is above all true that they are sent by God because of His wrath against the children of men and to chastise his people. God, in his providence, also controls the storms of nature, too.
God uses the elements of nature to accomplish His purposes, however; so let us discuss these things in more detail.
There is much confusion (undoubtedly less since our most recent experience) about the distinction between tornados and other types of violent storms. In order to understand properly these things, we must first make a few observations.
Tornados are often mistakenly called cyclones, or hurricanes, and the truth of the matter is that they are neither. Tornados are not cyclones but occur within cyclones.
A cyclone is an area of low pressure. Its opposite is an anti-cyclone or an area of high pressure. A low is a great circular area of air which has a barometric pressure lower than that of surrounding areas and usually less than 30.0 inches. A low may be as large as two thousand miles across; yet it rarely extends more than four or five miles above the earth’s surface. Cyclones (lows) are followed by anti-cyclones, or highs. These are also great whirlpools of air. In them, barometric pressures are higher than those of surrounding areas and are usually 30.0 or more.
The winds of a cyclone, or low, are not necessarily violent. They will occasionally reach speeds of 100 miles per hour. At that speed much damage can be done. The air currents in a cyclone move counterclockwise and are constantly rising from the center of lowest pressure, while the air currents of an anti-cyclone move clockwise and are descending currents.
We said that a tornado is often confused with a cyclone. As we have already stated and want to re-emphasize, tornados and cyclones are not the same. A tornado occurs within a cyclone, or low. The tornado is usually a slender funnel of violently twisting and whirling air. This revolving motion is the basis for the name tornado, a Spanish word that means twister. The whirling is so fast at the center of the tornado that it sets up a small area of low pressure, which is nearly a vacuum. (You can see the reason for the confusion before referred to. A tornado might be called a miniature cyclone. A barometric pressure reading would register very low.)
The whirling air reaches estimated speeds of 300 to 500 m.p.h. on the surface of the cone, creating, as we said, a partial vacuum on the inside. (Scientists have never been able to accurately measure the speed of the winds because their instruments are always smashed or rendered useless by the tornado.) Houses or buildings caught up in the vacuum set up in the tornado virtually explode from their own internal pressure; therefore, the advice to open doors and windows. This advice is given so that the pressure on the inside and outside will possibly be equalized, thus possibly preventing some destruction.
Unlike hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, tornados are small, localized violent storms. The funnel usually ranges from 100 feet to half a mile in diameter.
The tornado moves across the country with the cyclonic low in the general direction from southwest to northeast, in somewhat the same way that an eddy in a river travels with the current. The tornado itself does not move rapidly. It can easily be outrun by an automobile in uncongested areas because they seldom travel much more than forty m.p.h.
A tornado usually occurs after a period of warm, calm weather. Weather in the Grand Rapids area was a record-breaking April 3 temperature of 78 degrees.
There are several explanations for the formation of tornados. One is: The air next to the earth becomes heated but convection currents (the method by which heat travels in water or air by means of currents) are delayed. As a result, there is a layer of warm air close to the earth’s surface. Above this, like an invisible roof, is a stratum, layer, of cold air. Finally, the pressure of the expanding warm air becomes great enough to break through a thin portion of the colder stratum above. Immediately the warm air is pushed from every direction toward this hole, in much the same way water is pushed in every direction toward the drain when the stopper is removed in a washbowl. The result is a terrible whirling wind. Another explanation is: Tornados usually form along a cold front when a mass of cold air forces its way under warm moist air. This causes the warm air to rise rapidly. As the warm air rises along the cold front, the moisture in the whirling air forms tiny drops, or condenses and forms a great black cloud sheet. Suddenly, a finger-like or funnel-like projection drops from this cloud sheet which is whirling air and the tornado is formed, ready to do its lethal work.
Which is the proper assumption and explanation, I do not feel qualified to say. There seems to be considerable dissension among scientists on this point, but this should serve to show us all the more how finite we are before our infinite and great God.
The tornado months, technically speaking, are just beginning. The months April through July are considered to be tornado months.
Tornados rarely hit in mountainous regions or where there is little moisture in the air.
The U.S. Weather Bureau has not made a practice of forecasting the occurrence of tornados because it is not possible to predict the exact location, but it has forecasted conditions which are favorable for the formation of tornados. The main reason why it has not forecasted tornados is because this information might create much needless fright and panic in the minds of many people.
A bit of advice if you don’t already know. If you see a tornado cloud, get into a storm cellar if there is one. In a frame house go to the southwest corner of the basement as such a house will likely be removed from the foundation intact. In a brick or masonry structure, that basement is most dangerous, since the tornado may rip such a house to pieces and whirl the pieces into the basement. Seek shelter under something or outside the house.
Considering all these things, we as people of the Most High God should remember above all:
“Though hills amid the seas be cast,
Though foaming waters roar,
Yea, though the mighty billows shake
The mountains on the shore,
The Lord our God is on our side;
Our safety to secure;
The God of Jacob is for us
A refuge strong and sure.”