In the aftermath of the tornado last month that devastated the community of Fairdale, about…
When Thursday evening’s nasty weather system began taking shape west of DeKalb County, NIU police officers quickly staged in the residence halls, ready to move students and staff to safety.
They’d trained numerous times for this situation through various types of exercises, including “tabletop” scenarios that twice have included the university president and his cabinet. Another drill is already on the calendar for Friday, May 1.
Meanwhile, monitoring the situation from the field, NIU meteorologist Gilbert Sebenste remained in constant contact with the Department of Public Safety.
“As Gilbert saw things develop, he notified us,” said Don Rodman, division commander for police operations at NIU. “Once he saw the rotation in the storm, he notified us.”
Police dispatchers were prepared to broadcast an emergency message through the campus loudspeaker system, Rodman said, when Sebenste called again to report that the tornado’s track had shifted away from campus.
“We never actually had to put that plan into action because Gilbert was giving us updates,” Rodman said. “Our officers remained in the residence halls until we learned there was no longer any viable threat.”
Their night was just beginning, however.
Rochelle police soon requested mutual aid in tiny Flagg Center while the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department asked for support in the small Route 72 community of Fairdale, which had sustained profound devastation.
NIU dispatched two Huskie Safe Line vans to Fairdale, where the vehicles served as warming stations and transportation for families who had lost their homes.
At the same time, Chris Gilbert, assistant transportation manager for NIU Transportation Services, drove a 56-passenger charter bus to the eastern edge of Fairdale. Two buses originally had been requested, Gilbert said, but DeKalb’s Voluntary Action Center sent its TransVAC bus.
The NIU bus provided a warm space and shuttled people to the shelter set up at the nearby Kirkland Fire Station.
“I did speak with one man who said, “I’m OK, but there are a lot of others who aren’t as well off as I am,’ ” Gilbert said. “He didn’t want to say any more after that.”
The NIU officers who responded to Rochelle’s call formed a caravan of nine vehicles; the squads in front and back ran lights and sirens through the dark, country roads.
Rodman’s crew helped to set up a perimeter around the Flagg Center wreckage and provided traffic control while local fire and street personnel continued to clear the roads and search for survivors.
NIU officers also responded to Grubsteakers, the restaurant on the northeast corner of Routes 251 and 64, where a dozen people were trapped in the cellar. All were rescued, however, by the time NIU reached that scene.
The veteran NIU police officer won’t easily forget what he experienced Thursday night.
“Stop signs were completely leveled. A silo was torn in two; one part on one side of the road and the other on the other side of the road. There were full fields of trees that were completely gone. Individuals who had equipment were out there trying to clear the roads themselves,” Rodman said.
“It was amazing to see the people stepping up and helping each other, taking each other in,” he added. “They were just supporting each other, which was incredible to see under the circumstances.”
NIU meteorologist: ‘It was going to be a beast’
NIU meteorologist Gilbert Sebenste had a good inkling Monday of the weather that lie in store Thursday – a “favorable environment” for tornadoes – and duly alerted top university administrators of his forecast.
By Thursday afternoon, Mother Nature was proving him right.
Warm moist air surging north from the Gulf of Mexico. A warm front draped across the area, providing wind shear to make the storm rotate. A center of low pressure approaching Illinois to add to the lift. A powerful jet stream aloft that would create more wind shear.
“Twenty-six years I’ve been chasing storms,” Sebenste said, “and this was the biggest one.”
At the end of his shift Thursday, with nothing imminent on the radar, Sebenste zipped home to the north side of DeKalb for a quick dinner. He kept one eye close on the system, and when he saw the strong rotation begin to develop, he grabbed his camera and jumped in his car.
“I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s the storm, and it’s going to latch onto this warm front. I don’t know what it’s going to do, but I need to be on it,’ ” he said.
“When I got to Bethany and Annie Glidden, even though the tornado was 18 miles away, I could see it. That’s how big this thing was. I knew right then and there this wasn’t going to be a slim, rope-shaped tornado. I knew right then and there that it was going to be a beast.”
Sebenste turned his car toward Malta; when he reached Willrett Road, he watched as the storm “blasted” north.
Maintaining constant contact with public safety officials from NIU and the DeKalb police and fire departments, he relayed to each agency the good news that the fast-moving twister would pass northwest of the city.
“I just kept saying how big it was and, ‘Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh,’ ” Sebenste said. “It was traveling at almost 50 mph, and it was very difficult for me to catch up, especially on gravel roads.”
Reaching the pavement of Esmond Road finally gave him a chance to match the tornado’s pace.
“The earlier tornado that went near Rockford and Belvidere actually laid out a blast of cold air right on the warm front just north of Rochelle and enhanced the warm front. It made the air very turbulent,” he said.
“The next storm that came up rode along that boundary which had extreme wind shear from Rochelle to Fairdale. The storm latched on and spun like a top. The rest is history.”
And NIU’s meteorologist had a front row seat.
“I watched it hit Fairdale right in front of me. It was just a surreal sight,” he said. “I zigzagged and got onto Irene Road and doubled back west into Fairdale. That’s when I saw that the western side of the city was destroyed.”
Coming from the west on Route 72, Sebenste steered carefully around arcing power lines that “were flashing and doing all sorts of crazy things. I have to admit I was a little nervous. The road was wet, and I was not sure if the road was electrified as well.”
Driving into the small community unveiled a nightmare.
“My mind was blown,” he said. “The first thing in my mind was, ‘Where are the houses? Where are they?’ My mind, for just a second, blanked. ‘No, there are houses here. There are houses here. Where are they?’ My mind was thinking, ‘Yes, I know what should be there – but there’s not.’ ”
Sebenste parked his car to block the road; no emergency responders were on the scene yet, and some traffic was still trying to enter the devastation but was blocked by debris.
He glimpsed tree trunks standing debarked, their branches strewn across the ground. Wreckage was spread everywhere he looked.
Soon he encountered a couple people emerging from a destroyed shed.
“They were scratched up but OK. I asked if there was anything I could do. They shook their heads ‘no’ and walked away in a daze,” Sebenste said. “People were walking around like zombies, dazed and confused. It was pretty crazy.”
When emergency responders arrived, Sebenste knew there was little else he could do. He returned to his car and drove away, some images imprinted and others unwanted.
“It was pretty dark, and some of my view was impeded,” he said, “but from what I could see, I knew I didn’t want to see any more.”
‘It could have been worse’
NIU meteorology professor Walker Ashley captured a series of stunning photos of the tornado as it developed near Franklin Grove as “a small elephant trunk” and traveled in a northeasterly direction.
The tornado gained in strength and size, became wedge-shaped and then sideswiped the community of Rochelle near Route 64 and Interstate 39.
“It’s what we call a long-track tornado,” Ashley said Friday morning, adding that it was probably on the ground for 50 miles or so, if not more.
An experienced storm researcher, he estimated the tornado was traveling between 45 and 50 mph and said he followed it from a distance in his vehicle for 60 to 90 minutes.
“The thing was moving at a good clip,” he said. “Visually, it was some of the fastest motion I’ve ever seen. I’m suspecting it was a high-end tornado.”
He said the National Weather Service did an excellent job with its forecast and warnings, allowing people to prepare.
“Fairdale took the brunt of it,” he said. “But it missed a lot of the larger communities. It could have been worse.”
Ashley spent his day on Friday with Stephen Strader, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography, which houses the meteorology program, and NIU alum Victor Gensini, a professor at the College of DuPage, as they assisted the National Weather Service in its post-storm survey of the damage path.
The survey will help determine the start and end points of the tornado, along with its width and magnitude.
‘The air was just filled with the smell of ozone’
As Thursday night’s storm bore down on Rochelle, Andy Reiss and his family were racing south to the home of a friend willing to share the safety of his basement. In the meantime, his wife, Kim, was on her cell phone warning Betty and Ray Kramer to get to safety.
The phone went dead around 7:15 p.m.
The next time Andy and Kim spoke with the Kramers, they were media superstars, having been among the 12 people who were taking shelter in the basement of Grubsteakers restaurant when it collapsed.
“My wife called them and they were driving on Route 251, between Routes 72 and 64,” said Reiss, who has worked for Building Services at NIU for 11 years. “She told them they were heading directly into the tornado and to take shelter. They said they would do so right away.”
That is when the phone went dead.
After the worst of the storm had passed, Reiss and his wife went looking for the Kramers, who are both in their 80s. Based on their last known location, they drove toward Grubsteakers. “We didn’t know for sure that they had gone there, but it was really the only place to go.”
When they arrived, their hearts sank.
“It was an absolute disaster. Indescribable. The building had collapsed. There was debris everywhere, and the air was just filled with the smell of ozone from the downed electrical lines. State police made us leave pretty quickly,” Reiss said.
They returned to the home of their friend where they had left their children, still unsure of the fate of the Kramers. They watched news reports of rescue efforts, but did not know the Kramers were safe until sometime after 9 p.m. when the state police called and asked him to pick them up at a gas station near the restaurant.
When Reiss was reunited with the Kramers, they had an amazing tale to tell. It was a story that they already had shared with a reporter from WLS-TV in Chicago. The account quickly spread through other media and online, making its way around the world in no time.
Just after the phone went dead, the Kramers pulled into the parking lot of Grubsteakers.
Ray paused at the doors to take a couple of photos of the approaching tornado when the owner demanded he come inside and retreat to the basement with everyone else. “And no sooner did we get down there when it hit the building and laid a whole metal wall on top of the doors where we went into the storm cellar,” he told the television reporter.
The building shook violently and the noise of the destruction could be heard clearly from the cold storage area of the basement where the Kramers huddled with restaurant employees and customers. “When the tornado hit, we all got a dust bath. Everyone in there got showered with dust and debris falling out of the rafters,” Kramer said.
Then it went dark.
For the next 90 minutes, the Kramers and the 10 others in the basement prayed and waited as rescuers cut and ripped through the debris to reach them. They emerged unharmed and were dropped at the gas station a short time later.
“It was amazing. I was more shook up than he was,” Reiss said of his friend.
When Reiss returned to his own home he was relieved to see that his home had sustained no damage.
How are tornadoes measured?
Tornadoes are not measured on wind speeds but the amount of damage they cause.
Consequently, Sebenste said, Thursday’s twister is likely to rate “between an EF3 and EF5” on the Fujita scale after National Weather Service personnel conclude their investigation.
Meteorologists will review objects hit – houses, trees and telephone poles, for example – and compare the wind speeds needed to achieve such damage with results from previous engineering studies.
“The Fujita scale is a damage scale,” Sebenste said. “We’ve had mile-wide tornadoes out in the middle of Texas that have knocked over a few trees, and that’s it. They missed farmsteads, so the highest ranking we can give those tornadoes is EF1.”
As a result, he added, many tornadoes are “under-rated and under-reported.”
“Fifteen years ago, it was estimated that half of all tornadoes were going unreported,” he said. “Even today, we still miss tornadoes. They’re out in cornfields, or they’re brief, or we don’t see the damage.”