First time in 25 years evacuation has taken place


IMLAY CITY — The 2023 Eastern Michigan State Fair will go down as one to remember. Mostly for weather related issues.

For the first time in 25 years, Fair Manager Ian Kempf said the fairgrounds was evacuated just before 9:30 p.m. Friday evening.

A strong line of severe weather was rumbling towards the fairgrounds, capping what proved to be a volatile week of wet weather.

This photo from Christopher Carey shows storm clouds rolling in over the Eastern Michigan State Fair Friday evening as people were being evacuated.

“Everyone knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when, for sure,” said Kempf. “They said two o’clock, then four o’clock, then six o’clock. We knew it was coming. We were keeping close contact with the radar.”

Heavy storms, with damaging winds, hail, and possible funnel clouds stormed their way from the Saginaw area southeast through Frankenmuth and continued on it’s path into Lapeer County.

The National Weather Service in Detroit/Pontiac issued a “Severe Thunderstorm Warning for… Lapeer County in southeastern Michigan until 9:45 p.m.”

A weather alert from the National Weather Service said, “At 8:44 PM EDT, severe thunderstorms were located along a line extending from near North Branch to Otter Lake to near Otisville, moving southeast at 35 mph. HAZARD…60 mph wind gusts and quarter size hail.” It went on to say hail damage to vehicles was expected and people should expect wind damage to roofs, siding, and trees.

The warning stated, “Severe thunderstorms will be near… North Branch around 8:50 PM EDT. Brown City around 8:55 PM EDT. Davison around 9:05 PM EDT. Lum around 9:10 PM EDT. Lapeer around 9:15 PM EDT. Imlay City around 9:20 PM EDT. Metamora around 9:25 PM EDT. Dryden around 9:35 PM.”

The alert concluded by saying, “People attending Eastern Michigan State Fair should seek safe shelter immediately!”

Paige Nowicki of Imlay City was one of the thousands of people that were at the fair when the evacuation was ordered. Prior to her leaving, she snapped a few pictures of the storm clouds moving over the fairgrounds.

“It was really scary” she told the Tri-City Times in a phone interview. “It felt like half of the people were not even paying attention to what was happening.”

She described the scene as a little chaotic.

“It got pretty black and people were running to the parking lot,” Nowicki recalled. “Not everyone, but a lot of people were scared. The lightning and thunder was pretty bad.”

Kempf said he had a conversation with Imlay City Fire Chief Rick Horton around 9:27 p.m. and a decision was made to evacuate the fairgrounds due to safety concerns.

“At the time, we had people all over the midway, in the barns, at the grandstand event. The Bump-N-Run had just finished. The Fire Chief told me there was a tornado west of us and it was coming towards the fairgrounds. It was a challenge to get the word out, but we used our radio system and it went pretty well.”

The fair manager said the midway was shut down as word spread on the impending storm and people scurried to their vehicles and exited the grounds.

Kempf, who estimated it took just under an hour to evacuate around 9,000 people, lauded the efforts of law enforcement in helping clear the grounds of people and vehicles, saying the Lapeer County Sheriff Department and Imlay City police were helpful with the evacuation process.