These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Michigan! Are You Prepared?

What natural disasters can occur in Michigan

Located in the center right of the United States, Michigan touches four of the five Great Lakes, hence why it’s also known as the Great Lake State. Michigan boasts 11,000 inland lakes, over 36,000 miles of streams, and the longest freshwater shoreline in the world! Many water and outdoor enthusiasts call this beautiful state home.

The combination of the state’s climate and its close proximity to the lakes are a couple of the reasons why Michigan is subject to unwanted high levels of precipitation and some other natural disasters. On the other hand, it’s no question that the benefits for living in the Wolverine State outweigh the disasters that its prone to.


What natural disasters does Michigan have?


Michigan’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, winter storms, wildfires, power outages, and tornadoes. Another disaster of considerably less probability and impact are earthquakes. Between 1953 and 2019, Michigan declared 38 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to FEMA.


1. Floods

Like many other states throughout the US, flooding is common in Michigan. Low-lying areas are at the highest risk, but living on a hill does not necessarily make your property immune. Flooding can occur anywhere throughout the state and can cause millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages. One of the greatest contributors to floods is heavy precipitation, more so when it occurs in a short amount of time or consistently over a period of days. The average annual precipitation varies state-wide but it ranges from 27 inches to 38 inches. Western and mid-Michigan generally receive the most rain and can be especially prone to flooding during the spring months.  

Two of the biggest floods in Michigan’s modern history include the Grand River Flood of 2013 and the Detroit Floods of 2014. In April 2013, several days of rain caused the Grand River to rise to record-high levels. This led to wide-spread flooding of roads, dams, businesses, and homes throughout Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city. FEMA’s damage analysis estimated the cost to be $1.3 million. A little over a year later, in August 2014, a storm caused 5 inches of rain to fall very quickly in the Detroit area. The flood that resulted devastated much of the metropolitan area, causing road closures, damage to homes and buildings, and water contamination due to sewer overflows. The cost of the damages left by this flood reached $1.8 billion!

Heavy precipitation and the consequent risk of flooding are predicted to increase in the future, thereby opening the path for development companies to build homes and businesses in a new way. Preparing for a flood begins with you learning about your home and community’s flood-risk level. Even if your flood risk is low, consider that the risk may be present regardless. Prepare your family so that when an unexpected storm arrives, you will know where to go and how to stay safe. In this flood guide, you will find many tips to help you become ready for a flood. There’s a free checklist available which you can print out and keep with your emergency supplies for future reference.


2. Severe Storms

Thunderstorms are really cool to look at, but unfortunately, they can become deadly because people underestimate the risk involved when observing lightning. How many times have you stood outside watching the lightning strike and started counting "Mississippis" until you heard the thunder? Okay, we’ve all done it! But get this- a single lightning strike can contain up to one billion volts of electric current!! Not just that, but lightning can also strike up to 10 miles in any one direction, so even if you’re not standing right under the storm, your life can be in danger. Lightning is not your only threat during a thunderstorm. In fact, it’s common for hail, high winds, and tornadoes to develop as well. The Southern portion of the lower peninsula is primarily affected by heavy thunderstorms. 

Lightning and thunder typically occur during the summer months when people are more likely to be spending time outdoors, thereby increasing the risk of injury. When it comes to the number of lightning-related deaths across the United States, Michigan ranks eleventh. In the last 30 years, there have been 88 reported deaths. That statistic may not sound alarmingly high but when you look at the number of lightning-related injuries, of which there have been 570 reported cases, Michigan ranks second nationwide. Hail is another major threat to life and property. In 2015, hail the size of a baseball fell in Northern Michigan, breaking the state’s record.

It’s imperative to be prudent when a thunderstorm is forecasted. Do not hang out outdoors during a severe storm, especially if there is hail and strong gusts of wind involved. Look for a walled structure to take shelter in, and wait for the storm to completely pass before attempting to go outdoors again. The safest place within a home or building is an interior room without windows, such as a closet. Do not touch water, take a bath, wash laundry, or talk on a landline telephone, since these things conduct electricity and a strike to the ground can cause any affected devices to shock or electrocute you. For a complete thunderstorm safety list, check out our guide here!


3. Winter Storms

Michigan winters are known for being extremely cold and overcast. Blizzards, heavy snow, lake-effect snow, ice storms, and wind chills are to be expected. The season lasts approximately four to six months, usually beginning around November and lasting through April, with the coldest months being December, January, and February. The lowest recorded temperature in the state was -51°F but the average low temperature state-wide is between 2°F and 20°F. While snow is common throughout the state, Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula receive the most snowfall annually, reaching 200 or more inches!   

The Great Blizzard of 1978 remains the worst winter storm on record for Michigan. This catastrophic storm lasted three days, dumped around 28 inches of snow, got over 100,000 cars stuck on the highway, brought strong winds, killed 20 people, and caused approximately $73 million in damages.

A common question we hear is, “how do people survive winter in Michigan?" Winter storms can become deadly, especially if you’re caught in freezing temperatures and hypothermia begins to set in. Hypothermia can occur to a person whether they’re indoors or outdoors. For instance, if you don’t wear the appropriate clothing while you’re outside, your body temperature can drop quickly. If you’re indoors and there’s a power outage, you’ll have to find alternative heating sources to prevent the temperature from dropping to dangerous digits. Either way, prior to the winter season you should prepare your home and vehicles with updated supplies to withstand any storms and possible emergencies. Our extreme cold survival guide highlights important tips for surviving winters in Michigan!


4. Wildfires

Michigan averages between 10,000 and 12,000 wildfires every year. While not all of these are major in size, they all pose a huge threat to life, property, and the economy. The majority of wildfires are caused by people and the careless burning of debris. The peak time of wildfire season in Michigan is the spring season because it’s windier and drier than other times of the year.   

The Great Fires of October 1871 marked Michigan forever. This was a series of unmerciful fires that spread quickly because of the strong winds. Although there are only theories of how the fire started, the effects were certainly devastating and long-lasting. 

There are many ways to become prepared for a wildfire, but like all other disasters, you need to take action way before there’s even a threat. One of the biggest roles you have in preventing forest fires is not to start any open fires, especially on the days where the fire danger is high. If you burn debris or have a family bonfire, never leave it unattended and always keep the appropriate tools on hand to keep control of the flames and embers. If you live in the woods or a specifically risky area, I recommend retrofitting your home with fire-deterrent materials. Even if your risk is low, I insist on developing and rehearsing a family evacuation plan. Make sure to include all the members of your family, especially your children. Putting together an evacuation kit is also essential! Learn more wildfire preparedness tips and print out our free checklist here!


5.
Power Outages

Natural and manmade disasters are largely responsible for causing power outages. While a short-term outage might only cause minor disruptions, a long-term outage can become devastating. Imagine sheltering-in-place for days without electricity during a blizzard. What about a loved one that is dependent on a medical device that needs to be plugged into the power? From personal inconveniences to life and death scenarios, power outages can highly impact us. 

This website offers real-time data regarding which counties are experiencing outages. One of the worst outages to affect Michigan occurred on August 14, 2003. The blackout impacted 50 million people and spread from Michigan to New England and into Canada. The outage lasted for up to two days in some regions and cost millions of dollars in damages. 

Power outages can cause a lot of disruptions in our lives. Almost everything we do requires electricity, so it’s necessary to learn ways that we can adapt to it long before an outage happens. Find the power outage safety and preparedness guide here!


6. Tornadoes

While tornadoes are not too common in Michigan, the state typically experiences about 16 each year. Based on the records of previous tornado activity, researchers have observed the common travel paths and determined three tornado alleys within the state. One tornado alley is found in Southern Michigan from Coldwater to Hillsdale to Adrian to Monroe. A second one is found in Northeast Michigan and it stretches from Gladwin to West Branch to Hale to Oscoda to Harrisville. Finally, the largest tornado alley is found from Grand Rapids to Lansing to Flint/ Saginaw. 

Michigan has only had one F5 tornado in its recorded history. The Flint-Beecher Tornado occurred on June 8, 1953, and tore through the north of Flint traveling 23 miles with sustained wind speeds of 261 to 318 miles per hour. In its path of destruction, it left 844 people injured, 115 people dead, and $19 million in damages. Michigan has also experienced several devastating F4 tornadoes.

To become prepared for tornadoes, you should learn the warning signals that accompany them. Since they can form within seconds, they don’t give people too much warning time to get to a safe location. For this reason, you should consider well ahead of time where you plan to seek shelter if you’re given minutes to take cover. Some of the safest places include in a storm shelter, a basement, and an interior room of the home, such as a bathroom or closet. Being in a vehicle or outdoors is extremely dangerous so try to seek refuge indoors. Here you can find more tornado safety tips!


7. Drought

The hottest it has ever been in Michigan was 112°F in Rio on July 13, 1936. Unfortunately, however, Michigan does not boast very hot summers. Depending on where you are, the state averages between 70°F and 85°F. Even though it’s not the warmest of all states, droughts are possible. The longest drought Michigan experienced was for 113 weeks, beginning on August 26, 2008, and finally ending on October 19, 2010. Drought can affect crops, increase the likelihood and strength of wildfires, and affect the state’s economy. It’s important to conserve water especially when droughts are forecasted. The drought monitor website highlights what level of drought Michigan currently is in.


8. Earthquakes

Michigan lies along the Midcontinent Rift that is connected to the Keweenaw Fault in the Keweenaw Penninsula. While earthquakes are extremely uncommon, they’re not entirely unheard of. Manmade activities, such as well-digging, fracking, and mining are also known to cause seismic activity. On May 5, 2015, there was a 4.2 magnitude earthquake that rocked Pavilion Township and its surrounding areas. This was Michigan’s second strongest earthquake in recorded history, but luckily it was not strong enough to cause infrastructural damage nor injuries.   

Even though earthquakes are not a huge threat in Michigan, they may take you by surprise. In order to become prepared, you should practice the earthquake drill and plan safe places to take cover in case of falling debris. Learn more about earthquakes here!


Natural disaster resources for Michigan


While we cannot control natural disasters nor their magnitude or effects, we are in full control of how we respond to them— both before and after. Taking measures toward becoming prepared now will greatly benefit you in the recovery process later. These are some amazing resources to help you get started: 

  • Sign up for alerts on your phone with the NOAA Weather App. The National Weather Service sends out alerts in real-time based on your cell phone’s location. This is one of the fastest ways to receive notifications of weather alerts and warnings if you’re not constantly watching the news or listening to the local radio station. Keep your phone charged and remember to adjust the settings so that you can hear any alerts that may be delivered while you’re sleeping. 

  • Get to know your city and property's risk. Understanding the disaster risks present in your region is vital in determining the best ways to prepare for them. Once you narrow down the major threats, be sure to check out our disaster guides. There you can find free safety checklists that you can print and store along with your important documents or emergency kits.

  • Become involved in your community’s preparedness group. Meeting like-minded individuals in your area is a great way to enhance your preparedness skills and knowledge. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a government-run organization that trains civilians to become prepared for all types of emergencies. They host free classes, simulations, and community meetings. Find your local CERT here!

  • If you have your own organization, business, or have resources that may be needed during a time of crisis, I recommend you connect with the Michigan Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (MIVOAD). This is an organization made up of volunteers who analyze and determine what needs are present immediately after a disaster. They find the best ways to allocate resources to help meet those basic needs.

  • Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services is another place you can look at for more preparedness information. You can find information on specific disasters on the Michigan Prepares website and information on planning and response on their Division of Emergency Preparedness and Response website.

I hope this article provided you with insight as to which disasters are threats to the Great Lake State. Actively preparing now can greatly reduce the level of impact you may experience in the future. I encourage you to take advantage of the resources mentioned above and share this information with your loved ones. 

Are you interested in learning about which disasters affect other states? Find the information to all the other 49 US states here!


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