In the aftermath of the tornado last month that devastated the community of Fairdale, about…
The April 9th tornado that tore through the northern Illinois region claimed two lives, devastated the small community of Fairdale and caused frightening damage in a number of towns.
But NIU meteorology professor Walker Ashley points out it could have been much worse and even more deadly if the EF-4 tornado— with winds of 200 mph and a girth as wide as seven football fields are long—had taken a different path.
Ashley will examine several different scenarios that could have played out as part of a public symposium on tornado and weather preparedness sponsored by the NIU Department of Geography, which oversees the university’s undergraduate meteorology program.
Titled “Gone with the Wind: Providing Perspective on the April 9th Tornado,” the symposium will feature talks by weather and emergency-response experts. It will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 30, in the auditorium of Montgomery Hall.
“The recent tornado was an eye-opener for our region, which hadn’t experienced a violent tornado in quite some time,” said Andrew Krmenec, geography chair. “The truth is that our homes and businesses are at risk from tornadoes and other forms of severe weather. And while homes and businesses can be rebuilt, lives are irreplaceable.
“The symposium is for all community members who would like to learn more about tornadoes and severe weather, the risk of tornadoes and violent tornadic events, what makes us vulnerable, what National Weather Service warnings and watches mean, and how we should respond at home and at our businesses. We’ll also talk about the process of emergency response and conclude with a question-and-answer session.”
Ashley and his Ph.D. student Stephen Strader will be among the featured presenters. The two assisted the National Weather Service in its post-storm survey. Among the almost unbelievable damage they saw: a nearly 100-year-old concrete grain silo reinforced with rebar that had been sent aloft, rolled and destroyed north of Rochelle.
Ashley also had a front-row seat for the main weather event, capturing a series of stunning tornado photos.
“The April 9th tornado went through largely rural areas,” Ashley says. “If the tornado shifted about 12 miles northwest, it would have gone through the Byron (nuclear) power station, posing a significant hazard, or had it been a hair south, it would have run through more populated Rochelle. If the storm tracked even farther south, it might have hit DeKalb and Sycamore, with a population of roughly 100,000 people. And had it been closer to Chicago, the number of homes and people affected would have been immense.
“People have a false sense that tornadoes only happen in rural settings, but nothing could be further from truth,” he added.
As evidence, he points to Minneapolis, Atlanta, Springfield, Mass., Huntsville, Ala. and Raleigh, N.C. Just within the last decade, tornadoes have struck downtown areas in those cities. In Illinois, the 1967 Oak Lawn tornado and the 1990 Plainfield tornado are reminders that the Chicago metropolitan region is not immune to tornado threats.
“The good thing cities have going for them is they take up a relatively small geographic footprint,” Ashley says. “But the probabilities for tornadic events in cities large and small in the same region are just the same. Cities such as Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Joliet and Naperville have been very lucky to this point.”
During the symposium, Ashley also will discuss “tornado basics” along with his research that shows how suburban sprawl over the last half century has increased the potential for severe weather-related disasters, what he terms as the “expanding bull’s eye effect.”
“The point of the symposium is to educate people,” he said. “People nowadays don’t think twice about using their seatbelts. I think that’s how we have to think about weather hazards. It doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare yourself to make life-saving split-second decisions, like moving to the interior of a structure and getting under a sturdy table.”
In addition to Ashley and Strader, the event will feature presentations by:
- Matt Friedlein or Gino Izzi of the National Weather Service in Chicago on severe weather watches and warnings;
- NIU staff meteorologist Gilbert Sebenste on home, business and campus preparedness;
- And Kyle Ullmark, emergency management coordinator for the NIU Department of Police and Public Safety, on the emergency response.
For more information, contact the NIU Geography Department at (815) 753-0631.