Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims look over the east side of Fairdale, IL.
One of the things that makes an Emergency Manager or a meteorologist want to bang their heads against a wall about is one phrase, explicitly said or implicit in one’s behavior:
“It can’t happen to me”.
I work behind the scenes on nights and weekends here at AllisonHouse, grabbing new data sources, and making sure the ones we have now are stable. But here’s a confession, which my boss Tyler probably could easily have guessed, but here’s a public confession:
With only a few brief exceptions until April 18, I haven’t been on duty at AllisonHouse. Why? Am I a lazy slacker? Hardly.
9 days ago, I watched people die in front of me. I didn’t see people die, but I had a very strong hunch at least one did. Based on the tornado I saw…it left me with little doubt.
At my main job at a major University, I was protecting them from a large, violent tornado. None had happened since 1990…and the prevailing attitude around here to a large extent was…it won’t happen again. August 28, 1990…that was a fluke. Even among some emergency folks, it was almost unthinkable that something so bad could happen here, or nearby.
But April 9, 2015 changed all of it, in an hour of rampage.
That’s when a supercell thunderstorm formed late in the afternoon near Annawan, in north-central Illinois. Moving northeast, it followed a warm front, but one that was reinforced by a previous supercell north of it that caused even more wind shear along the front. And then the sun came out, making the atmosphere more unstable. For me, it was like April 20, 2014, when a strong tornado hit Utica, IL, as the storm “rode” along a warm front. It was deja vu all over again.
I notified my employer of the tornado developing over Franklin Grove, and then took off from my house. 20 miles away, just after I left my subdivision, I could see it. I get on the phone with my employer, and I notified them about the tornado. I notified my city. Then, I blasted west, going behind hills and dips until finally, west of Malta, IL, I could see it 7 miles away to my west-northwest. It was big. One of the biggest I had ever seen…now nearly a half-mile wide, and growing.
It had just hit Kings, IL, and a restaurant called “Grubsteakers” at the northeast corner of state route 64 and U.S. Route 251. And now, it was making a beeline for either Kirkland, or Fairdale. At first, it looked like Kirkland would take a direct hit. But as I headed north to Esmond Road, and got north of Esmond, I watched Fairdale largely disappear in front of me, with some of the fastest, most violent rotation I had ever seen in 26 years of storm chasing.
I reached Fairdale less than 2 minutes after it hit. The scene was shocking to me, even though I have seen towns devastated by tornadoes before. The overwhelming smell of broken pine and other trees, mixed in with a little propane or natural gas odor, is one that is repeated in every town just hit by a tornado. I hate that smell. I hate it even more today.
I blocked off the road as aloof travelers were trying to get through. I called 911, offered to help those who were emerging from a collapsed shed, and then called my city to let them know what happened. A few minutes later, as EMS personnel began to arrive, I let them do their work. As volunteer fire crews were arriving in Kirkland, I let them know Fairdale was mostly gone.
I now know that one of the fatalities and several of the 22 injured were preventable: they ignored the warnings they received, or didn’t act on them properly.
A week later, after working late into the night every night, answering phone calls, emails, media interests…it struck me again. You can have GRLevel2, 3, Analyst, Earth, RadarScope, PYKL3, and AllisonHouse Maps…or other products we produce or serve…and ignore the warning. Or, you see it, you call friends and family, and they blow you off. Can I give you a little advice?
Take care of that issue RIGHT NOW.
Use our products to help you understand what’s going on, to pass to your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your city. And make sure YOU understand it. Because when it comes to weather, the atmosphere could care less about you. It just needs to equalize the imbalances in the atmosphere. When that happens over you or those you care for, be ready.
Because you never think it’s going to happen to be you…until it’s you.
My prayers continue to go out to the injured and the other victims of this terrible day in northern Illinois.