The 2017 severe/tornado weather season has gotten off to an ominous start.
That tornadoes have descended from late February skies here in northern Illinois—as ten of them did just weeks ago, unleashing a devastating and deadly EF3 twister on the Naplate/Ottawa, IL area— is unnerving to say the least. While February and March tornadoes occur with some regularity downstate, it’s typically April, May and June which constitute “prime time” in terms of severe weather here in the Chicago area.
We mark a somber yet seminal event this April in the Chicago area’s severe weather history: this area’s largest and most devastating tornado disaster. Horrific tornadoes have swept northern Illinois in the years since–among them the deadly storms which have so horribly impacted Plainfield, Utica, Washington, IL, Fairdale, IL. But what happened on the afternoon of April 21, 1967 remains, to this day, the Chicago area’s most devastating and deadly tornado disaster since detailed records began here in 1950. It serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of this area to severe weather. And it must be remembered that the population here has soared since; communities, homes and businesses now sit on what were once cornfields. Superimposing any of our past tornado outbreaks on the more heavily populated tracts of lands which now dominate the area suggests the potential for a disaster has only grown.
Ed Fenelon, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Chicago warns “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ the next major tornado disaster will occur; it’s a matter of ‘when’!”
The key to mitigating injury and loss of life is understanding the threat, having a plan and being ready to act on a moment’s notice. It’s to this end we’ve dedicated our Fermilab Tornado and Severe Storms seminars in the 37 years since Brian Smith and I started them back in the early 1980s.
The outbreak which occurred April 21, 1967 hit just three months after this area’s heaviest snowstorm–the infamous “Blizzard of ’67”.
While many of you may not even have been alive when the savage April 21, 1967 tornado disaster took place, those who WERE AROUND have memories of that day and aren’t likely to ever fade.
I was playing baseball with some neighborhood friends on the West Side of Aurora at Jefferson Middle School, just a block from West Aurora High School. It been sunny as we started, but with little warning, sky to the west turned pitch black, something which caught your eye because it was only mid-afternoon–far too early for such darkness to fall over the area. Only moments later our world was bathed in that eerie shade of green which has so often been noted in stories about tornadoes. Never had I seen a squall line bear down on an area with such speed. We were to later learn it was racing along at 60 mph.
You’ve got to remember. Folks didn’t have weather radar images on phones or on home computers in those days. Evaluating the severity of a severe weather threat in those days between television weather programs was not easy.
A tornado watch had been issued but few of us had any way of knowing that the events which were about to unfold in the region around us would result in the loss of 58 lives nor of the more than 1,000 injuries which took place–the most numerous of them in Belvidere and Oak Lawn. The swarm of the tornadoes that squall line was about to spawn was to become the worst ever in the greater Chicago area–a ranking still in place 50 years later.
In a matter of 20 seconds, the scene about to unfold in Belvidere–and later that afternoon in Lake Zurich and Oak Lawn–turned into one one of horror, devastation and of death and injury. Elementary and middle-school young people who had been preparing for their afternoon trip home from school in Belvidere, found themselves trapped in a nightmare of unimaginable proportions as their school buses were picked up like toys by an F-4 tornado and hurled through the air across fields. Thirteen of the 24 who perished in the Belvidere that day were children in those buses. You will hear the stories of some of that day’s then very young survivors, who will look back as adults on the horrifying memories of that day at this year’s Fermilab seminar.
Their stories of survival are compelling and incredibly relevant now that severe weather season is again upon us–and never more so than now with each passing year witnessing the area’s population expansion into once vacant corn fields. It’s this expansion and development which increases this area’s vulnerability to the next serious tornado outbreak.
Among those who watched as the events of April 21, 1967 unfolded were a set of three young people you’ll hear from at the seminar who were to move into influential meteorological careers, citing the April 21, 1967 tornado outbreak as one of the driving–if not THE–driving force behind their career tracks. They either witnessed or followed developments of that day and they will tell their stories and recount for you just how nature put that nightmarish tornado outbreak together. They include Storm Prediction Center Dr. Russell Schneider, legendary storm chaser and structural engineer Tim Marshall and Brian Smith, now Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Omaha, Nebraska. Brian was to pursue meteorological studies at Northern Illinois University and later join famed tornado researcher Dr. Theodore Fujita as a research assistant at the University of Chicago. He was co-founder with me of this tornado seminar 37 years ago in the early 1980s. Tim Marshall will not only recount his experiences and impressions of Apri1 21, 1967, he’ll brief us on a project in which he’s currently engaged which recently position two instrument pods in two different tornadoes yielding a treasure trove of information he’ll tell us about.