PLAINFIELD – Plainfield today is a different world compared to the small village Dawn Kelly grew up in.
It has certainly changed from the time before the 1990 tornado that destroyed her home on Ottawa Street in downtown Plainfield – the same reconstructed home she lives in today.
“Everybody marks Aug. 28, 1990,” Kelly said.
In 25 years, the population of Plainfield has risen from about 4,500 to more than 40,000, according to U.S. Census data.
The population explosion is just part of the changes the winds brought forth. The identity of the village has changed from a small town to one concerned with remaining among the fastest-growing, high-quality communities in the Chicago area. Many attribute that change to the tornado.
On the map
The tornado cost the Kelly family more than $250,000 to rebuild their home. That rebuilding cost was about $160 million for Plainfield, Crest Hill and Joliet.
Larry Kachel, a former Plainfield village trustee who served on the Planning and Zoning Commission in the years after the tornado, said the tornado undoubtedly sparked a new age for the village.
The tornado took Kachel’s brother, James Kachel, as its 28th victim.
“Nobody paid attention to Plainfield, out here,” Kachel said. “After the tornado, everyone came out. They saw open, flatland and developers went wild.”
The media blitz and coverage of the tornado was a major reason why people found out about Plainfield, Kachel said.
Development started coming to downtown Plainfield and several other locations along U.S. and state routes 59, 30 and 126 two to three years after the tornado hit.
“There was only one blinking light at the corner of Route 66 – Route 59 – and Route 30,” Kachel said.
It wasn’t just developers who saw the open land. So did volunteers and contractors who helped rebuild Plainfield and found an opportunity to move in, Kachel said.
Don Bennett, who served as Plainfield police chief during the time of the tornado and retired 15 years after, said the cleanup was an example of the cooperation that brought in people from other cities, but that it also advertised the village and its opportunities.
The residential expansion meant a large growth for Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202.
According to district data, the 3,324 student enrollment in the 1990-91 school year rose to 7,712 seven years later. Enrollment steadily increased the next 10 years to 28,660 in 2007-08, just before the housing market crashed. Last year’s enrollment was at 28,117, making District 202 the fifth-largest school district by enrollment in the state.
“Between 1990 and 2008, we built 25 schools,” said Tom Hernandez, district director of community relations, adding the district only had one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools before the tornado.
Hernandez, who is helping organize the 25th anniversary commemoration, said it was a combination of the tornado publicity, housing market and other economic factors that helped the push for more schools.
Kachel said that while the influx of capital and development was good to grow the village, it made efforts to preserve the village’s identity and character.
“The historical groups have done a great job trying to keep the historic feel, but developers often want to just tear down the buildings,” Kachel said.
As with any town that goes through a growth spurt, more residents migrated into the village. Today, a small percentage of Plainfield residents had direct contact and experience with the 1990 tornado.
“After that, the growth was just bang-bang-bang,” Kachel said. “The 25 years seems like just yesterday.”
Plainfield Police Commander Kevin Greco, a patrol officer at the time of the tornado who has witnessed the village’s expansion, said the tornado took Plainfield off the map and put it on the map at the same time.
“We lost homes, we lost lives in the tornado,” Greco said. “However, once the construction and rebuild started, it didn’t stop for 15 years. It was definitely in my humble opinion what started our boom here.”