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Stateside Podcast: Prepping for Storms Like Thursday Night

Courtesy of Rob Dale
Courtesy of Rob Dale
Ingham County Emergency Management
Rob Dale has been updating Ingham County Emergency Management's Facebook page with images from the scene.

Another round of severe storms blew through Southeast Michigan Thursday night. Meteorologists reported torrential rains, winds up to 80 miles per hour, and confirmed tornados that touched down in Livingston County and in Rockford, just north of Grand Rapids.

Stateside spoke with Rob Dale, deputy emergency manager for Ingham County Emergency Management, who was on the scene to assess the damages.

What are things looking like in Ingham County?

The tornado likely touched down near I-96 in Williamston and traveled along the highway toward M-52, Dale said. Just outside the main area of damage, there were destroyed barns and damaged homes.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Dale said. “I’m also a meteorologist, so I’ve seen tornado damage. It still takes my breath away when I see it. Trees just gone, entire areas of wooded lots that are just literally gone. They’re empty fields now.”

According to Dale, the inclement weather didn’t just cause damage via the tornado. A home was struck by lightning and caught on fire. There was some regional flooding that resolved overnight, and significant straight line winds between 60 and 70 miles per hour.

Is this weather normal?

While Ingham County is no stranger to severe weather, it’s relatively uncommon to see such storms in August, Dale said.

“We have had significant tornadoes in August in the past, so it's not entirely rare, “ he said. But it certainly isn’t common. It's been a few years since a tornado has caused this much of this stretch of damage.”

What was Ingham County's disaster response plan?

Throughout the day on Thursday, the Ingham County Emergency Management team monitored the weather closely. They sent out severe weather alerts periodically to inform citizens of the incoming storms and the potential for a tornado. The county also has sirens that citizens recognize as signifiers of severe weather.

The sirens were first activated, Dale said, due to the high-speed straight line winds. Then, they were activated repeatedly to alert citizens of the tornado.

What kind of severe weather preparation is best?

Dale noted the value of tornado drills performed regularly in schools, as they regularly train residents to seek shelter in a basement or an interior room with no windows.

There are flaws, however, in the severe weather alert process. Severe weather sirens can be hard to hear due to wind and rain, especially if one is inside. While most cell phones automatically receive government-issued severe weather alerts, Dale recommended also signing up for other alert services. Most weather apps issue alerts, and communities often have localized alert messaging systems.

Texting family and friends and sharing alerts via social media are critical ways to help others prepare for inclement weather.

“We hear many, many stories of people saying, ‘I got a text from my daughter,’ or ‘I saw a post that someone shared. . .” Dale said. “We strongly encourage that if you’ve got someone in your family that’s reluctant to take action, when you hear something bad is coming that you be the voice of reason and enhance the alert.”

What does long-term planning for Southeast Michigan flooding look like?

The stormy summer has brought severe flooding to Southeast Michigan and Metro Detroit. This is due to the outdated sewage system. The system that covers much of the region is designed to accommodate both rainfall and sewage. According to Nina Ignaczak, founder and editor of Planet Detroit, these sewers are at capacity, and under serious strain.

Part of Kelly Karll’s job as manager of Environment & Infrastructure for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is to assess how to distribute funds for climate resilience. One of their key goals is to fix this old infrastructure and create solutions for the strained sewers. She works to examine the regional investment needs and make that funding more equitable.

What communities and areas are most affected? And within those, how are people affected in the sense of getting access to the core services they need? And those decisions and those tools that we're developing with [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] will help inform future decisions on where road projects can happen…” Karll said.

According to Karll, what used to be a 100-year rain event — four inches of rain in 24 hours — is becoming a 10-year rain event. There are certain areas where infrastructure can be rebuilt to manage this rain, but it’s unrealistic to expect this for the entire region.

Now, her team is looking to manage the flow of excess runoff into natural areas like wetlands, rather than allowing the flow to overwhelm pipes. This management can happen upstream from urban areas to minimize the impact of large scale weather events.

To hear more about the aftermath of last night's storms and ongoing efforts in flood management, listen to today's pod.

[Get Stateside on your phone: subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify today.]

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Cate Weiser joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023, and is a second-year at the University of Chicago.