Is Chicago Ready for the Next Plainfield Tornado?

Courtesy of Tom Skilling & WGN TV News

Next weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the deadly Plainfield tornado that killed 29 people and caused 165-million dollars worth of damage in Will County. We’ve learned a lot about tornadoes since then. But, as Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling reports, it’s the partnership between the National Weather Service and an informed public that saves lives.

“This video was shot on route 47 just south of I-88 near Sugar Grove airport, ” says Paul Sirvatka, Meteorology Professor at the College of DuPage. 20 years ago he was trying to start a storm chase program at the school when severe weather was threatening an area southwest of Chicago. He grabbed his videocamera and narrates what he shot.

“We start to see some funnels. So I’m kind of looking around at this feature to the south not sure what it is. Notice the power lines above me. Those power lines, soon as I left, came down.”

Sirvatka has the only known videotape of the beginnings of the Plainfield tornado.

“There’s nobody who could even after the fact go and say, “Oh ya- we should have violent tornadoes based on this set-up. It just doesn’t look that impressive.”

The Plainfield tornado struck on a sweltering Tuesday at 3:30 in the afternoon. It’s the only F-5 ever to hit the Chicago area. And is still the largest tornado to hit anywhere in the United States in August. It was wrapped in heavy precipitation – like this storm we chased in Oklahoma in May. So despite it’s size and intensity, no funnel was visible. Survivors describe what happened.

“It was just black and you could feel it, you couldn’t see it.” “Nobody seen the funnels. We had no warning or anything.”

Paul Merzlock is the Lead Forecaster at the Chicago office of the National Weather Service. “I had driven by there about two hours earlier and people were out watering their lawns and flowers and stuff. And when I came back there were no houses or anything left.”

Merzlock grew up in Joliet and remembers the tornado like it was yesterday. Some images he just can’t shake. “This car was actually picked up and in the air airborne for about 300 yards and fell there. And there was a couple of people inside. So that was pretty sobering.”

The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch, and his co-workers at the local office had put out a severe thunderstorm warning. But no sirens were ever sounded for the Plainfield tornado.

Jim Allsopp, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the Chciago office was working in Indianapolis when the Plainfield tornado struck. “There was criticism of the office because we missed the Plainfield tornado. I mean it was the biggest tornado you can have, an F-5, and we completely missed it.”

They saw it as a wake-up call. The Chicago office was reorganized and soon moved from Rosemont to Romeoville. Doppler radar was installed the next year, months ahead of schedule. People like Merzlock, Sirvatka and Allsopp went to work closing the blind spots in the trained spotter network. And ever improving high speed communications allow us to spread the severe weather word faster.

Gino Izzi is a senior Meteorologist in the Chicago forecast office. “Sometimes tornadoes are gonna occur that are just unforcastable… that you’re not gonna be able to see the threat for more than a couple hours in advance. And that’s what we really want to rely much more on doppler radar and having good spotter networks in place to be prepared for the unexpected tornado events that could occur.”

The Chicago forecast office is now considered one of the best in the country. Their detection rate for F-2 or larger tornadoes is 99%. And the average lead time for tornado warnings is up to 18 minutes-five minutes higher than the national average. Compare that to 4-5 minutes in 1990. Here’s Jim Allsopp. “I’m very confident that if we had the same storm today we would do a much better job of getting the warning out in advance to the public.”

Still, Chicago Meteorologist in Charge, Ed Fenelon says it’s the combination of science and common sense that will prepare us for the next Plainfield tornado. “It’s been 20 years since we’ve had a major F3 F4 F5 in the Chicago area, city and suburbs. And that’s essentially a whole generation. We’ve got a lot of folks that have moved to the area that have never experienced a tornado of that magnitude either. And with that comes a lot of complacency.”

We asked COD Meteorology Professor Paul Sirvatka how a tornado like this changes a community. “When a community is hit by a tornado such as the Plainfield, it does change them forever. People never forget the impact that this weather event had on their lives. And so, those are the people who are the most forward-thinking and most prepared in the future. And it’s really up to everyone else to learn the lessons of those who’ve experienced such tragedy.”

Tom says you can start by paying attention to the weather and have a way to receive watches and warnings. There are even phone aps now to alert you to dangers. And make a plan and practice it. There’s also fascinating information about the Plainfield tornado on the National Weather Service website.

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