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A massive storm rolled ashore. The wind hit 91 mph. And they were camping.

A tree blown out of the ground, next to a camper.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
The National Weather Service says wind gusts reached 91 mph last night near Grand Haven State Park, where dozens were camping.

The storm rolled across Lake Michigan in the dead of night.

Tanner Smith watched the clouds flash far out on the water before he went to bed.  

“It was just terrifying,” Smith says. “It was so quick, it was rapid.”

Smith was camping with his family at Grand Haven State Park along the beach. He thought the storm might miss them.   

“I was like, I hope that doesn’t hit us.”

It did, right around 3 a.m.

“Our tents … were collapsing down on top of us. And so we just had to get out,” says Holly Smith, Tanner’s mom. “We just ran and jumped in our truck and we were drenched.”

The National Weather Service says the storm stretched 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, from Grand Haven nearly to Jackson.

But Grand Haven got the worst of it. The NWS says it measured a wind gust of 91 miles per hour near the shoreline. One man in town died when a tree fell on his house.

None of the campers at the state park was injured, but the high winds rocked trailers, toppled picnic tables and sent beach gear flying hundreds of yards down the shore.

Everyone at the camp site had a rough night. Tom and Tricia Leigh might have had the roughest.

"We need to protect ourselves because things might start flying," Tricia Leigh remembers thinking. "So I put my helmet on."

They rode to the state park on their blue Harley Davidson. When the storm hit, they had no shelter.

“I mean it is just intense,” Tom says. “Slapping us in the face, and mud’s coming in, and sand. You name it and it was being thrown at us.”

With nothing to protect them from the winds, Tricia Leigh put on her motorcycle helmet.

“We need to protect ourselves because things might start flying,” Tricia remembers thinking. “We’re around all these fifth wheels, bicycles, grills, trees and stuff. So I put my helmet on.”

Their small, three-person tent was no protection at all. So they ran to the nearest building, a small bathroom near the pier. They tried to go inside. The doors were locked.

“But luckily there was a brick wall there, and I just felt so much safer,” Tricia says. “And I started shaking at that point. It was hitting me.”

They stayed huddled there until the storm passed. Then they walked to the campsite’s shower building, where the doors weren’t locked. They say they stayed there until dawn.

When the sun rose, the weather was beautiful again. People went around, trying to track down the stuff that had blown away.

Holly Smith says her family made a trip to Wal-Mart to buy two new tents. They’re from Columbus, Ohio and Smith says they’ve camped many times at Grand Haven State Park. And they will again.

“It won’t scare us off,” she says.

The Leighs, too, say they won’t give up on camping. But Tricia Leigh says she does have a new rule.

“Next time, it’s if we take the tent, we’re taking the truck,” she says. “Not the bike.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.