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Looking back at the deadly Palm Sunday tornado outbreak on its 50th anniversary

Apr 9, 2015

Double tornadoes in Elkhart, Indiana on April 11, 1965
Credit Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most devastating weather events in Michigan history: the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak.

It happened with virtually no warning on April 11, 1965. Killer tornadoes smashed through the Midwest over a 12-hour span, killing 271. Michigan was one of the hardest-hit states with 53 deaths.

The tornadoes started when a cold front from the upper Plains states hit a warm front from the Gulf of Mexico and spawned tornadoes around one or two o'clock in the afternoon and touching down in Michigan in the early evening.

"In the early afternoon, people began to notice the sky took on an eerie tan, peach color and what that was was the agricultural dirt in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana was being pulled up into the atmosphere by the tornadoes that were already on the ground," explains Lenawee County historian Dan Cherry.

Cherry has written two books about the tornadoes, "Night of the Wind" and "50 Years Later."

The Weather Bureau, or the National Weather Service as it is known now, didn't have the tools to properly predict and warn those in danger. Cherry says many didn't know to expect the tornadoes until they heard the loud, freight train-like sound of them approaching.

Soon after the first tornado, a second one followed in its path.

"People were in shock. They were completely taken off guard by the first tornado and then all of a sudden here comes a second one in an unprecedented event," Cherry says.

According to Cherry, many of the precautions we have in place today are a result of the 1965 tornado outbreak.

"Now we have real-time weather predictions. We would know a week in advance if this area would be susceptible to a tornado outbreak," Cherry says.

For many, the event is still hard to discuss and Cherry has neighbors and friends who find it too painful to talk about that day. 

Below is a public safety documentary that recounts the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak: