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Nice and Bright to Black as Night

Written by: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian
National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac, MI
July 22nd, 2005

The word "derecho" may sound unfamiliar or its use in meteorology relatively recent in nature, but the word actually was brought into meteorological vernacular way back in 1888. Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, a physics professor at the University of Iowa, was given that credit when he used the word, derecho, in a paper he had published in the American Meteorological Journal in 1888. Dr Hinrichs chose this terminology for thunderstorm induced straight-line winds as an analog to the word tornado. Derecho is a Spanish word which can be defined as "direct" or "straight ahead" while tornado is thought by some, including Dr. Hinrichs, to have been derived from the Spanish word "tornar" which means "to turn". This definition and other derecho facts are taken from the Storm Prediction Center's About Derechos web page, which contains many interesting facts and background studies about derechos.

Even though the term "derecho" dates back well over a century, it has only been relatively recent (since the 1980s) that more investigative studies and research has greatly increased our knowledge about these types of storms. Derechos are associated with a line of showers or thunderstorms that are often "curved" in shape on radar and satellite. These bowed out storms are called "bow echoes". A derecho can be associated with a single bow echo or multiple bow echoes. By definition winds in a derecho must meet the National Weather Service criterion for severe wind gusts (greater than 57 mph) at most points along the derecho path. In the stronger derecho events winds can exceed 100 mph.

Southeast Lower Michigan has had several derechos in the past, but certainly one of the more memorable ones plowed through extreme Southern Michigan during the forenoon hours of Wednesday, July 16th, 1980.

Summer of '80 starts out on a chilly note

The Summer of 1980 actually hadn't been much of a summer as far as warm temperatures and dry weather were concerned. The summer had been unseasonably cool and soggy into early July. June's average temperature was a relatively chilly 63.7 degrees, making it the eighth coolest June on record at Detroit. To add insult to injury, not only had June been cool, it also had been very wet. June's monthly rainfall totaled up to nearly six and a half inches /6.42"/, making it the sixth wettest June on record, which undoubtedly made the month seem even worse.

While the first few weeks of July averaged a bit below normal, some good ole' fashion summer-time heat finally began to bubble up into the region by mid month. Hot and unstable air pushed its way north into the Great Lakes by the 15th as temperatures surged into the lower to mid 90s. Up until that time, only once before had temperatures pushed up into the 90s that summer. The arrival of the hot and humid air mass set off some scattered showers and thunderstorms on the 15th, but really nothing of consequence compared to what would generate to the west overnight.

Birth of a Hybrid Derecho

Surface map from 8 am EDT, July 16th, 1980; click on image to enlarge A low pressure area with attending warm and cold fronts (map-2) pushing through the Upper Midwest was responsible in igniting the derecho at the surface late on the 15th. Thunderstorms developing over extreme Eastern Iowa and Northern Illinois during the very early morning hours of the 16th, intensified and formed into a squall line that pushed through Northern Illinois between 3 AM and 5 AM EDT. The storms were spawned out ahead of the frontal system as it approached northern Illinois, mainly ahead of the triple point juncture and nearly perpendicular to the warm front. At the same time, a potent mid level short wave (map-3) and wind max (approx 60-70 knots) surged east across the Upper Midwest toward the Southern Great Lakes.

Nice and Bright to Black as Night

The derecho surged quickly east across Northern Indiana and Southern Lake Michigan with a measured wind gust of 98 mph at the St. Joseph Coast Guard as it blasted onshore in Southwest Lower Michigan!

While the sky was relatively bright at sunrise over Southeast Lower Michigan, a band of foreboding clouds advanced in quickly from the west, covering the celestial dome. As the forceful storms and associated hurricane force winds approached the area, several observers remarked about the horrid dark green color the sky took on as the squall moved overhead. In fact, numerous people over the years have commented about the "dark pea green sky" that accompanied the July 16th 1980 storm. The green color in the sky may have been reflective of the low sun angle at the time (the derecho moved through region between 730 and 930 AM EDT) and abundance of moisture in the low clouds. It got so dark that many street lights were triggered and popped on over portions of the region. Severe thunderstorm warnings were issued over the region though some remarked: "it happened so quickly and early in the day, it caught us off guard".

The hardest hit regions across Southeast Lower Michigan were Washtenaw and Wayne counties, extending mainly from the Ann Arbor area east into southern sections of Detroit (or south of the Ford Road /M-153/ corridor). While the wind officially gusted to 71 mph at Detroit Metro Airport, much higher winds were reported in other areas (see storm report below) in the strongest core of the derecho.

As one person who witnessed the swath of damage across southern portions of Washtenaw and Wayne counties, the following excerpts from storm data relay the incredible outcome of the storm. In the storm data below, the derecho is referred to as a downburst. In addition, the derecho was accompanied by a small tornado as it exited extreme Southeast Lower Michigan. Tornadoes can occur in isolated thunderstorm supercells ahead of the derecho producing squall line or they may be associated with the squall line itself.

Counties in
SE Mich
830-920AM EDT

"Intense downburst developed just west of Ann Arbor. Path of the most intense damage across southern Ann Arbor then eastward through the Downriver suburbs of Detroit. Winds estimated up to 100 mph in Washtenaw county, up to 150 mph in Wayne County. Innumerable buildings, vehicles and trees destroyed in eastern Washtenaw, central and southern Wayne, and northeastern Monroe counties. Several boats were swamped on the Detroit River. Power off in some areas up to ten days."

Downriver Communities Date
910 AM EDT

Allen Park, Lincoln Park, and Ecorse, in Wayne county "Railroad cars blown off track in both directions in Allen Park. Department store roof blown sideways in Lincoln Park. Funnel sighted over Detroit River from Canadian shore. Tornado damage included in, and hardly distinguishable from large area of straight line wind damage. Funnel continued eastward several more miles into Canada".

It's amazing that after reading about the force of the wind and subsequent damage, that only one person - a woman - was reported injured in sort of a freak accident when the wind forced her into a revolving door!

Note the following that was taken from "Derecho Hazards in the United States" by Walker S. Asley, Climatology Research Laboratory at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. It gives an interesting account of the July 16th,1980 Derecho storm damage relative to other storm damage.

Fujita and Wakimoto (1981) provided extensive documentation of the 16 July 1980 derecho that produced widespread damage across large areas of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They indicated that this storm produced approximately $650 million in damage as it traversed the four-state region. Accounting for inflation (to 2003 dollars), this storm produced an estimated $1.3 billion in damage from strictly straight-line winds. This estimate exceeds many damage tallies from U.S. hurricanes and is larger than the inflation-adjusted damage estimates from all major tornadoes that have affected the U.S. since 1890 (Brooks and Doswell 2001). This single event illustrates that derecho damage can exceed the damage from most hurricanes and tornado events affecting the contiguous U.S.

Graph of wind gusts by month for the U.S.; click on image to enlarge Note the graph to the right which displays monthly damaging wind events in the U.S. July and June are the top months for wind storms. Many of these wind storms occur as derechos over the Great Lakes states (Johns and Hirt, 1987).