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Lessons From The Past: How A Disaster 30 Years Ago Saved Lives Today

The EF-3 tornado that blew through Naperville on Sunday was one of the worst disasters in the city’s history. Hundreds of homes were damaged, many irreparably so, and several people were hospitalized. But as horrific as the storm was, past events show it could have been worse. Much worse. 

On August 28, 1990, a tornado stronger by magnitudes than the one which struck Naperville hit its neighboring city, Plainfield. There was no warning. The F-5 rated storm just wasn’t there, until suddenly – fatally – it was. It killed 29 people and left over 350 injured. It caused over $165 million in public and private property damage and ruined homes not only in Plainfield, but Joliet, Oswego, and Crest Hill. It collapsed a high school and changed the very landscape it passed over; the worst storm Illinois had seen since the Oak Lawn tornado outbreak of 1967.

“It was unbelievable,” Plainfield Fire Chief Jon Stratton, who lived through the event, said.

Current Plainfield Mayor John Argoudelis echoed the sentiment.

“We’ve had five or six tornadoes in my lifetime [in Plainfield],” Argoudelis said. “None as dramatic as 1990.”

Destruction and Creation

The word “disaster” comes from the Middle French “désastre,” meaning literally “evil star.” If there was any evil in the stars on August 8, 1990, it shone not on what *was* on that day, but on what *wasn’t.* Namely, the region’s – and indeed the state’s – lack of an effective emergency warning system.

“We had absolutely no warning,” Stratton said. “We had no idea.”

But the destruction of the 1990 tornado also brought, as destruction often does, the opportunity for change and growth. Namely, the creation and utilization of wide-ranging improvements to weather spotting technology and alert systems.

In 1990, weather-spotting and warning technology was nowhere near as advanced or ubiquitous as it is in 2021. At the time, the National Weather Service’s (NWS) radar for the Chicago area was located far to the south – in the small town of Marseilles in LaSalle County.

“It was a bit farther away than you’d probably prefer a radar to be to a metro area,” NWS meteorologist Rafak Ogorek said. “Radars basically shoot out beams at an angle, and the farther away that you get… the worse you’re able to see the lower parts of the thunderstorm and see a potential tornado developing.”

Ogorek said it was the 1990 storm, among other factors, that pushed the NWS to move its Chicagoland monitoring systems to their current location in Romeoville. Ogorek also added that in 1990, the radar system the NWS was using had not been upgraded since 1974. They were outdated by more than a decade, despite the fact that more advanced radar systems existed at that point.

Beyond the technology needed to detect and track storms, Naperville Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Coordinator Dan Nelson said that in 1990 most of the area’s emergency alert systems were located in Chicago. Too far from the flat rural areas that tornados like to blow through to be effective, especially when they have to communicate with a weather-monitoring office more than 70 miles to the southwest.

“All of Chicagoland learned from the Plainfield tornado,” Nelson said. “It created the multi-county weather alert system.”

New Technologies, Better Systems

Since the 1990 tornado has come and gone, numerous improvements have been made both to weather-monitoring technology and the emergency alert systems that utilize it. Besides moving to Romeoville, Ogorek said that in 1993 the NWS upgraded to radar systems built in 1988, which could produce more detailed radar resolution and also incorporated Doppler motion-detecting technology. They received another upgrade in 2008, this time using technology which can detect debris in the wind.

Additionally, in the time since 1990, numerous counties and municipalities have remade their emergency warning systems to include more sirens, more tests, and – with the advent of smartphones – direct phone alerts. These are important because they can reach more people than outdoor sirens. If the storm comes overnight – as Sunday night’s did – phone alerts can also wake people who might otherwise be asleep and unaware.

But perhaps most important of all is the inclusion of volunteer corps in municipalities’ emergency response teams, who can monitor dangerous weather situations even when the police and fire departments are occupied elsewhere.

“Whenever we have  a significant event, they’ll come out and assist police and fire,” Plainfield Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Deputy Director (and Plainfield Police Commander) Zach Zigterman said.

He added that the 30 volunteers who work for PEMA attend weekly training sessions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency through Will County. Fire Chief Stratton said he believes that this volunteer corps, which did not exist in 1990, saved lives during last weekend’s tornado.

“We have all the tornado sirens up now, we have the storm watchers activated,” Stratton said. “As soon they saw there was rotation… they were on the horn [to activate the emergency alerts] in less than ten seconds.”

Remembering The Past, Preparing For The Future

As Naperville and other Will and DuPage County residents continue to pick up the pieces – literally – from Sunday’s storm, it bears repeating how much worse it could have been were it not for the area’s robust weather warning systems. How many more lives could have been lost. How much longer it would take to coordinate a response and clean-up. Those who survived the storm because of the warnings they received are beneficiaries of history. They owe their lives to the lessons learned on a dark August day more than 30 years ago.

But the tornado of less than seven days ago will likely not be Naperville’s last. One wonders what lessons this storm will teach us, when we look back 30 years from now.

Naperville News 17’s David Byrnes reports.

Image taken 1990, photographer unknown. Courtesy of Illinois State Police District 5 Lockport via Wikimedia 

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