What we need to learn from the deadly tornadoes this month

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The severe storm and tornado outbreak of April 9, 2015 was the worst to affect Northern Illinois in a quarter century. A half-mile-wide EF-4 tornado tore up the countryside of Ogle and DeKalb County, barely dodging the communities of Ashton, Franklin Grove, Rochelle, Kings, and Monroe Center. The small community of Fairdale, Illinois was the hardest hit where two women lost their lives. Had the storm shifted just 15 miles north, it would’ve affected the the more urban Rockford area.

“Only 1% of all tornadoes get this big”

Because I was born and raised in Rockford and spent a decade of my Broadcast Meteorology career there, I wanted to talk with the folks who were on the air for hours on end keeping these hometowns safe.  Morgan Kolkmeyer, my good friend, fellow Rockfordian, and Meteorologist at my former TV station WREX-TV, tells me it was a life-changing experience. Her day began several hours before the sun came up and didn’t end until the next day. I asked her what we need to do to make people safer and she said we need to explain as much as we can to those who will listen. “I think it’s important we explain WHY there is a threat, not just the fact that there is a threat. When people are more educated, I think they are more prone to believe what we’re saying.”

While warning systems need to be reinforced, education is a big part in making sure our population is ready for severe weather. A decade ago, I brought the idea of “Project: Tornado,” an assembly-style educational campaign to the classrooms of Northern Illinois. Over the years, the team of Meteorologists I was a part of spoke to tens of thousands of students about severe weather. And that message was brought to school districts around Rochelle and hard-hit Fairdale. But Kolkmeyer, who toured the damage says “After such devastation and loss of lives, it’s hard to know if anything is “enough.”” WREX-TV’s educational program continues this Spring and I imagine that the auditoriums will be very quiet when this particular tornado is discussed.

Meteorologists discuss their coverage of the deadly tornado

I asked Candice King, Chief Meteorologist at WTVO-TV, whether there’s enough education when it comes to severe weather. “With a tornado of this magnitude, people can still do what they’re supposed to do and fatalities can still occur. I would like to see less stories of people saying they were out watching the tornado before taking shelter and more stories of people who reacted to the warning.” Kolkmeyer reiterates, saying “It’s important we get to a point where everyone heeds the warnings.”

Mark Henderson, Chief Meteorologist of WIFR-TV, is a little more skeptical when it comes to people heeding the warnings. “The reality is, even after this tragedy, folks still believe we’re protected by the Rock River, the Byron Nuclear Plant, etc. There are still people who are angry we cut into their programming for a storm that didn’t hit their house. If it doesn’t hit their house, it didn’t happen, using their “logic.” This kind of ignorance unfortunately persists, and I think will continue to exist despite our efforts to raise awareness.”

When asked about the above video, Henderson says this type of viral video needs to be stopped. The man doesn't appear to understand the extreme danger being this close. "There's too much video out there that's shot by irresponsible amateurs that ends up going viral, and unfortunately inspires other amateurs to go out and do the same." 

But those who heeded the warnings survived. "The fact that lives were spared at Grubsteaker's Restaurant is a prime example," Henderson says. "Everyone went to the basement there. Thank God! The fact that this monster only claimed two lives is nothing short of miraculous, and a testament to the fact the warnings were heeded."

The big question we all need to ask going forward is What good is a warning if no one pays attention to the threat? Hopefully more people are willing to become educated about weather safety after the killer tornado this month and understand the risk. Unfortunately, we won't really know if we are successful in the education and warning processes until the next tornado hits.

Coming up tomorrow, I will wrap up my series on this tornado. My colleagues share some intimate thoughts on the destruction and loss of life. A look at the emotional toll on the people who forecast the weather. That's tomorrow.

-Meteorologist Eric Sorensen

1 Comment

  • Cassandra

    From what I read from the original video, this one is edited, he wasn’t “storm chasing” he was just driving and decided not to outrun the tornado. I never been in a situation like this, and pray I never will, but he probably made the right decision not to. Otherwise it would of probably hit him broadside and he would have been thrown and God knows what the outcome of that would have been. He’s lucky to be here today. I think from movies and TV, amateurs think it’s cool or trying to make big bucks off of “storm chasing” by putting themselves in harms way. I agree there needs to be more public awareness, I know the local meteorologists do a fine job of making folks aware of upcoming severe weather days ahead. Unfortunately with today’s technology, not too many people will watch the news, instead watch TV shows and movies on their electronic devices through Netflix, Hulu, etc. I think there should be more social media awareness too. It’s been decades since I’ve been in school and don’t recall if we learned about weather safety, but I do hope they teach children and teenagers about safety nowadays and they can bring that information to their family as well. So not only do they know what to do during severe weather at school, they can make a plan at home. Outdoor sirens used to be (before TV and internet devices) to take shelter. I think people don’t acknowledge that and nowadays they’re for people that are actually outdoors and when you’re in your car, tune your radio to local radio stations for alerts. Our nearest outdoor siren is 3 blocks away, can I hear it? No. I bought a weather radio for that purpose. Weather radios are a must, you can also bring them with you when you’re outdoors even, and they’re so loud they’ll wake you up when you’re asleep. Anymore it seems tornadoes of a F4 or F5 magnitude are more common than just 1%, more like 10 or 20%. I’ve heard a couple local meterologists say it’s rare for an F3 or greater tornado around here, then why is there an increase in outbreaks and F4 or F5 tornadoes around here? Just because it hasn’t happened here in our neck of the woods, doesn’t mean it won’t. The river isn’t going to stop a tornado, tornadoes that big, the river is just a crack in the road. It will go right over it, or even more so, the water will strengthen the tornado. You don’t know the magnitude of the tornado until it’s on the ground and the damage is done. Best to have a plan in place, whether it’s a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado warning. Severe thunderstorms can produce as much damage as a tornado, straight line damaging winds and derechos are just as bad, not to mention tornadoes can form from ANY severe thunderstorm. Severe weather season is off to an early start and it’s only April, so be safe everyone.

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