ROMEOVILLE – Despite reports of funnel formation and weak tornado touchdowns earlier in the afternoon in Rockford, there was no warning before the tornado of Aug. 28, 1990, hit Plainfield, Crest Hill and Joliet.
The National Weather Service concluded the storm that produced the Rockford tornadoes was part of the same system – but not the same rapidly-developing storm – that spawned the tornado with winds faster than 300 miles per hour that killed 29 people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 homes in the Plainfield area, according to Herald-News reports. All meteorologists could see on their radars were severe thunderstorms over Kendall and Will counties.
Many agree that with today’s technology, that loss of life could have been significantly reduced or eliminated.
Weather predictions, advanced warnings and emergency management have come a long way in the last 25 years. And while the advancements may have come anyway, the Plainfield tornado still is viewed by weather and local officials as the catalyst and benchmark for the improvements in these critical services.
The NWS in the Chicago area has changed drastically since 1990.
“Tornado science and forecasting is a relatively new science,” said Mike Bardou, a warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS office in Romeoville.
It wasn’t until 1965 when weather bureaus officially started issuing advanced tornado warnings.
Also, there were limited computer capabilities that hadn’t advanced much as of 1990.
One of the big changes during the past few decades was the introduction of Doppler radar that can “hear” motions within a thunderstorm.
“That tech came about in the late ’80s,” Bardou said. “But that radar didn’t come here until 1991.”
The Doppler radar emits microwaves, which bounce back to the radar. The changes in the microwaves when they are received reveal information about the storm.
There’s a stark contrast between a 1990 radar image depicting the storm that produced the Plainfield tornado and the radar showing the EF3 tornado that hit Coal City on June 22.
The one from 25 years ago shows a rough circle in black and white that was the storm. The one from a two months ago shows a widespread storm, its severity indicated by different colors.
Unlike 1990 Plainfield residents, people in Will and Grundy counties had ample warning of the possibility of severe, tornadic-producing storms several days before the Coal City tornado hit. Those impacted by the 1990 tornado had no advanced notice, with an official warning coming 13 minutes after the storm had passed.
Bardou said he cannot overstate the importance of Doppler radar’s effect on the tornado science field. Not only can meteorologists see movements within a storm, the radar can reveal air motion in a storm, how moist and unstable it is, and the differences in wind speed and direction, referred to as the wind shear profile.
“You put all those pieces together, and you can determine if the storm is rotating,” he said.
Those readings and weather technology were refined in the past 25 years to give meteorologists better resolution, frequency and details, including where hail is falling and if debris is being kicked up by a tornado that touched ground.
That refinement includes advancements in data collection and modeling simulations.
But even today, weather technology isn’t perfect.
On June 30, 2014, an EF1 tornado touched down behind the Reserve subdivision off Route 126 in Plainfield, and crossed Interstate 55 into the Lakewood Falls subdivision to Weber Road in Romeoville. There were no reports of injuries, but 21 homes were damaged and hundreds of trees were flattened.
Some Plainfield residents asked village officials why a tornado warning wasn’t issued, or a siren sounded, until after the tornado had passed into Romeoville.
The tornado wasn’t strong and didn’t register on radar. The National Weather Service confirmed the next day a tornado had hit, based on the damage that occurred.
The 1990 tornado doesn’t just set the benchmark for the severity of a tornado. It is also an example that emergency management officials reference today to train and prepare.
The impact of the tornado on the community can be seen in the affect it has had on the Plainfield Emergency Management Agency.
“Our weather spotting network has really expanded,” said Plainfield Police Chief John Konopek, who also heads PEMA. “We’ve highlighted areas where we think spotters can see storms approaching.”
In addition to more volunteer spotters, Konopek said the introduction of basic and advanced weather spotting courses by municipal and county agencies gives spotters better training.
In 2011, the village underwent a full-scale simulation of another tornado of a similar size and scope to the one that tore through Plainfield in 1990.
“Everyone participated,” Konopek said. “We opened up the emergency operation center, the mayor was here, Public Works, the Red Cross and Will County Emergency Management Agency.”
Konopek said the exercise led to PEMA officials identifying areas of improvement and strengths.
First responders also stay prepared by helping other towns touched by tornadoes and other natural disasters. Plainfield sent personnel to Coal City, Diamond, Streator and Washington after tornadoes during the last two years. They even went a decade ago to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re not just going [in order to] help them, but to learn from them as well,” Konopek said.
Perhaps the flow and ease of communication is the greatest source of improvement in providing warning and aid for severe weather in the last 25 years.
Weather spotters can relay information to emergency management command centers almost instantly through smartphones. Social media also has been a major help when it comes to warning of tornadoes.
When a low-hanging, rotating cloud developed Aug. 18 over northwest Joliet, residents shared photos and warned others to be safe on several community Facebook pages. Tornado sirens went off in the area.
The NWS can also broadcast tornado warning messages to most cellphones.
Bardeau said one of the key improvements has also been better coordination with local emergency management agencies and media.
“I think every year we’re increasing our [outreach],” he said. “Hopefully, people will actually respond to these alerts that there is a threat and keep themselves and their families safe.”