The storm that pummeled Marquette the morning of August 16, 1988 will long be remembered as one of the most violent and damaging to ever hit the area. Hundreds of trees were blown down, a fisherman was drowned, buildings were damaged and thousands of residents lost power, some for several days.
This storm was unusual in a couple of ways. First, the complex of thunderstorms developed over the relatively cold waters of Lake Superior before tearing through Marquette eastward into parts of Alger County. And second, most summer thunderstorms reach their peak of frequency and intensity during the late afternoon and evening; this squall developed during mid morning.
The summer of 1988 was a hot one over all of the Midwest. Records were set for duration and extremes of heat from the Canadian border to the Mid-Mississippi Valley. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees on a number of days in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Marquette recorded 13 days with temperatures of 90 degrees or above; the long-term average is only three days.
Dry weather set in during the spring and held through the heart of summer. It took until July 30 before a large line of severe thunderstorms brought brief heavy rain to some spots. The heat built back a few days later. On August 2, the high temperature reached 101 degrees in the northern Menominee County community of Spalding. That evening, a complex of heavy thunderstorms rolled through north central Upper Michigan. Marquette recorded over three inches of rain during the deluge. The rainfall in this one event exceeded the total precipitation for the months of June and July combined. This occurrence foreshadowed things to come; the pattern was changing, setting the stage for the August 16 assault.
A frontal boundary set up over the northern Great Lakes early August 16. This front separated searing 100-degree heat to the south from relatively cool, dry air to its north. An unseasonably strong jet stream was associated with the boundary, ready to add energy to any storms that ??popped.?? Extremely moist, hot and unstable air from the south glided over the cooler drier air and rapidly developed areas of thunderstorms. At about 4:00 a.m., an intense, rapidly moving storm dropped one-inch hailstones on downtown Marquette. This system moved east and later drenched areas around Munising with over two inches of rain.
Just after 8:30 a.m. National Weather Service (NWS) radar (pre-Doppler radar) detected some showers over Lake Superior just southeast of the Keweenaw Peninsula. They moved rapidly southeastward in the strong, energetic flow aloft. At first these developing thunderstorms looked rather benign. ??The storms blew up in about ten minutes?? time,?? recalls Marv Taulbee, a long-time head of the cooperative observer network at the Marquette NWS. ??Our radar showed level twos, basically ??garden variety?? storms as they approached Marquette over the lake. When they passed our ground clutter, they were level fives,?? (the strongest returns on the radar).
For fishermen on the lake, the violent wind turned a pleasant morning of fishing into an instant nightmare. Seas went from calm to eight feet with blinding rain in a matter of moments. Even the most cautious boaters were caught off guard by the sudden squall. One of them, an avid Lake Superior fisherman, managed to get off a distress signal to the Coast Guard just as the storm peaked. But he drowned when his boat went down near White Rocks, about two to three miles offshore.
Others got caught in the blow but managed to survive. One fisherman told a newspaper reporter he made a run for the Upper Harbor and was about 100 yards from safety when a violent gust spun his craft around. The wind ripped the canvas canopy clear off his boat. Then in a wall of rain, he was swept toward McCarty??s Cove. He eventually made it to safety, as did a couple of fishermen I talked to years after the storm. They had the same experience; the wind ripped off their boat canopy, while they found themselves caught in a blizzard of blinding rain and pounding, chaotic waves. They sought refuge in the Upper Harbor, but were swept to the Lower Harbor, almost two miles to the southeast.
The squall line tore through Big Bay about 8:55 and raced down the lakeshore, reaching Marquette just after nine. Large trees were snapped or blown over along its path. Power poles fell and trees came down on wires, causing instant, widespread power outages. Windows were blown in on some buildings and a church steeple, just north of downtown, was tilted off its base by the strong winds. At least one business on Marquette??s north side lost part of its roof.
Some people reported seeing a funnel cloud at Tourist Park on the city??s north side. While a small ??gustnado?? may have dropped out of the storm??s leading edge, Taulbee of the NWS says the damage was produced by straight-line winds: ??Our damage surveys indicated it wasn??t a tornado but extremely strong downburst winds because most of the big trees were uprooted with no twisting. They were all blown over in the same direction.??
The highest recorded wind gust in the city came in at 65 miles an hour from an anemometer on the north side. Judging by the extent of damage and the size of the trees that came down, some of the peak gusts were much higher. An anemometer on Middle Island Point, just north of town, recorded a 95-mile-per-hour gust just before the power went out.
Four distinct bands of thunderstorms plowed through the area on August 16, 1988. Later that day, a tornado watch was issued for a large portion of Upper Michigan. A tornado was spotted near Republic around 6:00 p.m., but no damage was reported. In the late evening, I stepped outside the TV station during a break between severe weather broadcasts. I remember watching the chaotic sky with some of the other station employees. In just a few minutes, the flag across the road was moved around by the wind in every direction of the compass as the clouds boiled and rolled above us. It was an awesome sight, and a fitting end to a weather day that many will never forget.
In retrospect, this stormy August day marked the end to a long, hot summer. Two days later, a low of 39 degrees was recorded by the Weather Service. In less than two months, the first measurable snow arrived, leading to one of the coldest Octobers on record.