Special Report: 2015 the year of the tornado

A record number of tornadoes have struck northern Illinois this year, and experts say even more are likely.

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

An April tornado which struck Rochelle and Fairdale, leaving two dead in the small town, was the only storm responsible for any deaths in Illinois this year, and the strongest tornado seen in the U.S. during 2015.

That tornado, a high end EF-4 storm with winds topping out at 200 mph, highlighted the importance of not ignoring early warnings to area residents.

“You can go through quiet years and then you get an active year,” says Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert with The Weather Channel. “But a storm like Fairdale is rare enough that it doesn’t happen from one year to the next.”

While nationwide tornadic activity is down around 22 percent from the average, northern Illinois has seen 29 twisters already this year, eclipsing the record of 27 set in 2004.

Experts say the random nature of tornadoes makes it appear as though a certain area is being targeted by the storms like the one that devastated Fairdale.

“It was Oklahoma, it was Alabama, and now, after Fairdale, it looks like it could be here,” WIFR Channel 23 meteorologist Aaron Wilson said.

The April 9 tornado tore a path over 30 miles long, from Franklin Grove to farmland just northwest of Kirkland. Experts say had the storm hit a more densely populated area the death total would likely have been much higher.

A legacy of storms
Damage following the 1967 tornado which struck Belvidere, killing 24 people. | NWS

Northern Illinois is of course no stranger to such deadly twisters. The 1967 storm which spawned the Belvidere tornado, before moving on to touch down again near Oak Lawn, saw 58 deaths in one afternoon.

That storm, like the one that ravaged Fairdale, came in April, the peak month for tornadoes across the state.

“Part of it is where we’re building homes now,” says Wilson. “A lot of this used to be open land, but now you’ve got houses there that can end up in the path of something like this, even if it didn’t this time.”

Coupled with the 1990 Plainfield tornado–formed from a supercell that produced a short-lived twister near Pecatonica–which claimed 29 lives, those two storms account for over 75 percent of tornado-related deaths in northern Illinois since 1950.

Now, 25 years on, the twister that struck Plainfield remains the only EF-5 rated storm in the month of August ever seen in the U.S.

“The advantage we have now over then,” WLS ABC7’s Tracy Butler told the Times Tuesday, “is being able to get the message out quicker. It’s not just TV–it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, it’s being able to reach people and let them know much faster that saves lives.”

It’s not just TV–it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, it’s being able to reach people and let them know much faster that saves lives.

All three storms came in the mid- to late-afternoon, the peak time for tornadic activity, and, experts say, the most dangerous due to people leaving work and school.

“In the late afternoon,” remarked Amy Seeley, meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) Chicago Forecast Office, “you have rush hour traffic, you have people coming and going. And you have to stay alert, because this kind of storm can really happen any time.”

Don’t wait to take cover

Meteorologists emphasize the importance of early warnings and seeking shelter in the path of storms that look likely to produce a tornado.

“It’s always a priority to let people know as soon as you can,” Butler said. “You want them to have all the information in this situation that can help them.”

Wilson recounts a story he heard from a survivor in Fairdale.

“This man, he told me how he came home, took off his blue jeans, put on a pair of shorts and grabbed an ice cold beer out of the fridge, and then saw our newscast and went straight to the basement with his family,” he said.

“He found his blue jeans in a tree a couple days later with his wallet still in them.”

The Times talked with a resident just an hour after the storm who stood on his back porch listening to the reports and took cover as the wedge appeared on the horizon, crossing I-39 near Lindenwood Road.

“I could see it coming,” he said the night of April 9. “It was huge. I couldn’t believe it when I heard about it, but I knew it was coming, and I knew we needed to get downstairs right then.”

“One of the biggest advantages since 1990,” says Mike Bardou, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with NWS Chicago, “is the advent of mobile devices, be they cell phones or tablets or computers.”

Radar imagery shows the rapid development of the April 9 storm, from a small shower to a powerful supercell in a short period of time. | The Vane

He says advancements in weather radio transmitters has also played a crucial part for the region.

“At the time of Plainfield, there were only two transmitters in this part of the state; now we have 11.

“The ability to reach just about anybody through a variety of means–you can’t put a price on it.”

“Twenty years ago, you had maybe three minutes,” says Forbes. “Now we can give people 10 minutes, 12 minutes–that can be the difference between someone surviving or not.”

An EF-2 twister which struck Cameron, southwest of Galesburg, July 16 cut off power to the town’s tornado sirens within seconds of touching down, leaving residents who rely on the 1960’s-era warning system helpless against the coming danger.

Just the day before the Fairdale tornado, an editorial in this paper warned against waiting for the sirens to sound–meant only to alert persons outside at the time–before taking cover.

“You can’t rely on any kind of myths about where these things hit,” says Forbes, “and you can’t rely on a siren. If the power goes out, you might not hear it. If you’re in your car or the TV is on in your living room, you might not hear it.”

“It’s tough to gauge,” says Bardou, “but people having access to all this information, it’s night and day from 20 years ago. People share these warnings on social media, so that means it’s coming from a reliable source in their eyes, from a family member or friend.”

“It’s all a matter of how you communicate that information that’s so important,” Butler added. “If you see a situation that’s going to be particularly dangerous you have to let people know that as soon as possible and as many ways as possible.”

Forbes agrees: “You need to have a weather radio, you need to have something on your cell phone. If not, you’re going to be in danger.”

The storm that spawned April 9’s tornado grew aggressively from a small rain shower near Atkinson into a violent supercell southwest of Rochelle in only 30 minutes.

In a little over an hour from its initial formation it produced a half-mile wide wedge tornado that tore through Ogle and DeKalb counties, with countless people trying to record the storm on their phones.

“That sort of thing is dangerous,” Forbes said. “Here at The Weather Channel, we had a situation with (the 2013 El Reno, Oklahoma) tornado where a team of storm chasers lost their lives. Even people  who do this for a living can be in harm’s way.”

He says that the only safe distance from a tornado is one that provides shelter, and that people should never try to chase after one, no matter how far away it appears.

Early warnings save lives…

More than four days in advance of the Fairdale storm, NWS warnings called for severe weather with a likelihood to produce damaging winds and hail, and the possibility of tornadoes.

On the morning of April 9, a special weather bulletin warned of “significant” (EF-2 or stronger) twisters, using language similar to that issued in the Oklahoma City area prior to a 2013 tornado which struck Moore, killing 24 people.

The current Tornado Warning guidelines, first launched in 1965, have regularly been updated over the years, allowing outlets to target specific cities instead of highlighting entire counties.

“There’s a lot we learned in those 25 years to Plainfield” says Bardou, “and a lot more in the 25 years since. We’re becoming better versed with what the atmosphere is capable of.”

“There’s always going to be skeptics,” says Wilson. “There’s always going to be folks saying you’re trying to scare, or that you’re trying to bump up ratings.

“You just hope that people don’t listen to that and think that we’re trying to cry ‘Wolf!’ on the air.”

You just hope that people don’t listen to that and think that we’re trying to cry ‘Wolf!’ on the air.

By 2:30 p.m. a Tornado Watch had been issued for much of northern Illinois following the first confirmed twister on the ground, an EF-1 just outside Peoria.

At 6:39 p.m. the tornado that would eventually ravage Fairdale was spotted just a mile outside Franklin Grove. At 7:02 p.m.–as it crossed the junction of Highways 64 and 251 north of Rochelle and 10 minutes prior to reaching Fairdale–NWS released this bulletin: “SEVERAL REPORTS OF A LARGE WEDGE TORNADO ON THE GROUND.”

Just moments later it would strike the town, killing neighbors Geraldine Schultz, 67, and Jacklyn Klosa, 69. It injured a further 22 during its lengthy trek.

“Some of these Tornado Emergency messages are really stepping up the urgency level,” said Forbes. “Improvements in those long- range forecasts are better than they have been in the past, than they were when Plainfield happened.”

Many around the country credited effort’s such as WREX’s “Project: Tornado,” a severe weather preparedness program in area schools put on by channel 13, as preventing further deaths from the catastrophic storm.

“No doubt in my mind that the WREX project saved lives during the April tornadoes,” former NBC13 meteorologist Eric Sorensen, now with the Quad Cities’ WQAD, told the Times in July.

“These things are going to happen,” warns Bardou. “It’s a matter of when–not if, so it’s having a plan in place and knowing what you’re going to do with your family or your business.”

“It’s one of those things,” says Butler, “if you teach children at school how to react, how to develop a plan, then they bring that knowledge home to the parents. It’s a very powerful thing.”

Ground scaring northwest of Rochelle from the April 9 tornado. | NWS
Ground scaring northwest of Rochelle from the April 9 tornado. | NWS
…data gathered can save even more

Experts say that changes in climate will continue to bring the chance for more deadly twisters to the area. Six of the top-10 years for tornadoes in northern Illinois have come since 2008.

This year alone, a June 22 outbreak, which saw the Woodhaven Lakes campground and Coal City take heavy damage, produced 10 tornadoes. Another in August produced a series of twisters in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and one near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.

Such outbreaks were seen as rare occurrences in the area prior to the past decade, but some feel that the ability to gather data on the storms has led to the increasing numbers reported.

“That up-tick is perhaps part of more being documented,” Butler said. “Years ago, we didn’t have this kind of information available.”

Scientists say the information collected from each passing event is invaluable when it comes to predicting future storms.

“Meteorology is a fairly young science,” Bardou comments. “We’re still learning why one storm creates a tornado and another one doesn’t. On a day like Fairdale, even a couple days out, you can see the hints for a significant system and as you get closer you can see how and where the threats pan out.”

“In 1990, we didn’t have Doppler Radar to be able to see inside these storms,” said Forbes. “Now, it’s given us a chance to develop new tools like TOR:CON, which takes data from the NWS and breaks it down even further to create more concise warning areas.”

“It’s extremely interesting to study major events like this using radar data,” wrote meteorologist Dennis Mersereau, author of The Extreme Weather Survival Guide and writer for Gawker Media’s The Vane blog, in the aftermath of Fairdale.

“It’s mind-boggling that we’re able to look inside of a thunderstorm and tell what kind of precipitation it’s producing, the size and shape of the objects within the storm (whether it’s rain, hail, or tornado debris), and use the velocity of the objects to determine the wind speed and direction within the storm.”

And he warns that these types of storms should not be taken lightly, even if you escaped unharmed.

“Use the time before the next outbreak to make sure you’re prepared for a natural disaster, no matter what it is or where you live.”

“Let’s face it,” Wilson said, “if that tornado had made it into a series of subdivisions–had made it to Kirkland or Belvidere–we’re looking at a lot higher casualty total than we already had.”

Bardou says the open spaces of northern Illinois is beneficial to identifying these powerful tornadoes via radar, giving them more time to warn persons in their path.

“Different parts of the country, you see terrain–be it mountains or river valleys–that can impact what you see on radar. Thankfully, we don’t have many of those constraints around here, so it’s easier to spot on the screen before someone sees it on the ground.”

“These storms are not some kind of lark you should take on fearlessly,” Forbes reinforced. “A tornado should be feared, and it should be respected.”

For many, the 2015 tornado season will be a warning well-heeded for what is to come in northern Illinois.

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