A Great Summer Storm

Heavy Clouds

Ain’t Mother Nature grand!

An intense summer storm ripped through here a couple hours ago. My pretty blonde and I were out on the deck, she petting the black cat and I putting away the leaf blower after clearing the deck of a week’s accumulation of debris. The wind whipped up seemingly out of nowhere. We knew from the local TV news there were storms in the area but didn’t know they were getting so close.

Looking at the tree tops to our west, now waving like a field of ripe wheat in a gale, she said, “We better get inside and to the basement. I don’t like that noise.”

It sounded like a muffled jetliner off in the distance. I thought it was just wind in the trees. She grabbed the cat, I put down the blower and by the time we were inside the wind had doubled and I was hearing loud cracking noises like the wind tearing treetops apart.

We have lots of tall trees, by the way. We built our house in the forest for aesthetic reasons and we love it here. Perhaps the risks of weather damage are greater here, but it’s well worth it, we contend.

We dashed to the walkout basement where I opened the door and watched the show. Dusk had rapidly faded to pitch dark. Flashes of light and loud rumbling confirmed intense lightning somewhere within those murky clouds. She turned on the local news to watch the progression of the storm. A suspected tornado had done some damage in Lansing, about 15 miles to our west and warnings were up for Owosso about 25 miles northeast. The tops of our trees continued to wave wildly. A big limb come out of a tall wild cherry tree about 50 yards behind the house.

Then the rain came and pounded down heavily for about an hour as the drama slowly waned.

I sure hope no one was hurt and property not damaged, but I continue to love a good summer storm. It’s sort of Mother Nature’s way of keeping us humble and displaying her beauty and power.

I’ve been fascinated with summer storms since I was about 12-years-old when I made a day trip to Toledo with my best friend Lon Smith and his father. Lon’s dad and uncle were second generation owners of the grain elevator that served our rural mid Michigan area. The occasion for our Toledo trip was an open house at The Andersons, one of the largest regional grain facilities in the Midwest, located on the Maumee River with ready access to the Great Lakes. The scale of that huge grain elevator was mighty impressive for this farm boy with limited horizons – as were the big, free hamburgers.

On the way back we witnessed the gathering and explosion of a wonderful hot-weather thunder storm along the wide-open flat farm lands near Adrian. First, the distant lightning was not shrouded in clouds so we could witness Mother Nature displaying her strength and letting go with rhythmic explosions of light. It was hot and muggy just after dusk when the storm approached and lightning turned to driving rain. Mr. Smith’s appreciation for that storm was infectious and has stuck with me my whole life. I figure that’s one reason why I still find great pleasure in a good summer storm.

One other lightning storm during my youth bears mention.

I was walking home all by myself from working late at the Dairy Queen one hot, muggy Saturday night. I was about 16 years old. I encountered the most dramatic display of lightning I’ve ever seen. It was probably about midnight with just spotty clouds in the sky. The temperature was around 80 degrees, mighty hot for that time of night. Suddenly, the sky started lighting up and for about an hour I stood in the center of a vacant lot and watched amazing patterns of lightning start near one horizon and spread like gnarly tree shapes completely across the sky in all directions – over and over and over again. It was glorious!

Now, back to the present storm:

Here I sit now on the same deck just after dark with the storm just passed. The mosquitoes emerged from where ever they hide during such a hard rain, so I’ve finally had to spray myself generously. Not a wisp of air is moving, as evidenced by the top of the 70-foot-high trees around us being entirely still. A bright crescent moon is peeking at me through gaps in the canopy. The only sounds are crickets and frogs and a distant hum of I-96.


As it turned out that storm did considerable damage. At least two – but probably more – tornados bounced around, the first touching down about a half mile west of us where it knocked an old barn half down; tore parts of the roof off, and the entire belfry out of, a house on the corner of Zimmer and Noble roads (a house that once had been a one-room school house), and it pushed the neighboring house right off its foundation by about 20 feet, tearing the entire front off and disassociating the garage from the rest of the house. The tornados then skipped along a path toward town heading northeast ripping trees apart in the neighboring woods, hopping across the freeway and blowing the sides out of a big old farm house and some buildings at the Wheatfield golf course. Then it touched down in town tearing all the big old trees out of the city park and tearing up more roofs and awnings. More than half-dozen houses were completely destroyed but no one was hurt, at least here.

However, about five miles northeast of town another tornado, or perhaps the same one, picked up a brand new modular home and slammed it into a nearby pond killing the young couple and their two kids who had just moved into the home. Apparently it was not properly anchored onto a foundation and the occupancy permit had not been issued.

About 4:00 AM there was a knock at our door. It was a Williamston cop just making sure we were OK. They were going house-to-house assessing damage.

For the next week we received dozens of calls and emails from friends and relatives who heard on the news of tornados doing damage in Williamston. They were just making sure we were all right.

The house near us that was pushed off its foundation had the most beautiful, symmetrical, old black walnut tree (probably 60-feet high and 40-feet in diameter) standing proudly in its front yard. It was so lovely that the folks who lived there hung large baskets of red and white impatiens on its trunk every summer to celebrate its beauty. My plan was always to “light paint” that tree sometime using this unusual photographic technique where we shoot the tree in very low natural light (at dusk or even at night) with a wide open aperture, a lengthy shutter opening and a spray of artificial light which, like a perfect portrait, would isolate the tree entirely from its background. Now, that will never happen because the tornado ripped that huge tree to shreds, leaving nothing but an 8-foot stump and broken limbs strewn around. Bummer.

The folks there got a nice new house from the insurance company but the old walnut is gone forever, as are the folks in that modular home northeast of town.

Yes, Mother Nature is grand, but she can also be mighty destructive.

©Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved