Sunday, April 9, 2017

Two Years Later: Remembering the Rochelle/Fairdale Tornado

It's hard to believe two years has passed since a deadly EF 4 tornado tore through so many quiet communities that Wednesday evening.  In the days leading up to that afternoon, I had a feeling like I've never had before as a meteorologist.  It was a feeling like I knew something big was going to happen that day.  It's a feeling I never want to experience again.

Below is the blog post I wrote as we approached the one year anniversary of that deadly day.  This tornado is a reminder of how quickly things can change in our lives, and how important it is to be prepared! 

April, 2016

This Saturday marks one year since an EF-4 tornado roared through Northern Illinois, disrupting so many lives, destroying so many homes and businesses, and forever changing the lives of those affected.  I remember thinking to myself, "This is what you see on TV, this can't possibly be happening in my backyard".  Nearly every storm that developed that afternoon began rotating.  I remember very vividly when the tornado watch was issued earlier in the day, and saying "Okay, this is it.  We need to be on our guard".  I just knew deep down in my gut something very big was going to happen that afternoon. 

Crest Foods
Meteorologist Kristin Cwynar and I were watching storms in eastern Iowa that had tornado warnings with them, hoping those storms wouldn't cross over the Mississippi River.  As the atmosphere began to shows signs of becoming more unstable in Northern Illinois I thought to myself it's only a matter of time, and shortly after 6pm is when we had our first tornado warning for Ogle, Winnebago and SW Boone counties.  Many more warnings were to follow that night, but the most devastating storm was the one that developed near Dixon and moved towards the Franklin Grove/Ashton area.

Near Rochelle, IL
"A confirmed tornado was located near Ashton or 9 miles west of Rochelle, moving NE at 40 mph" 

Local storm chasers were all over that storm, relaying valuable information to forecasters at the National Weather Service.  We were able to keep in constant contact with the forecasters as well.  Kristin was monitoring the information coming into the NWS chat room, as well as storm reports, while I was on air doing continuous coverage.  Very often she would cut-in with new information that we had been receiving: where the tornado was, if there was any damage and where it was moving next.  I can remember at one point stepping off camera to go to the radar and looking into the NWS chat and seeing the words "large wedge tornado" and thinking this can't be real.  We didn't have much time to process what was going on because at that point the adrenaline had kicked in, and I knew we had a very dangerous situation developing.  It was our job to remain on-air, remain calm and provide the most detailed information we could on where the storm was heading to keep people in it's path safe.

Steve Hoeksema
Kristin and I worked like clockwork together and I couldn't have picked a better partner to be with that night.  We both knew what had to be done...get the information out...and that's exactly what we did.

"If you can hear my voice, you need to get to shelter NOW"

At one point that night, we had multiple tornado warnings over Northern Illinois.  It seemed as if Mother Nature didn't want to give up.  A total of 11 tornadoes occurred in Illinois - with 7 of those in Northern Illinois.  What's even more impressive is out of those 7, 6 tornadoes occurred from the same supercell thunderstorm! 

By now, the main tornado had formed into the massive EF-4 that trapped people in a restaurant, tore through farms and nearly leveled the town of Fairdale.  We had pulled up LIVE streaming coverage from a local storm chaser who was headed north on I-39.  The video wasn't something we could rebroadcast, but it gave us an idea of what we were dealing with.  I can still picture the tornado nearing I-39 between IL 64 and IL 72.  In the back of my mind I was thinking 'how can people survive this?  There is no way.  When will this storm end?'

Savannah Moore
"The town of Fairdale is gone.  There's nothing left"

That was the phone call Kristin took in the weather center after the tornado went through Fairdale.  She remembers saying "What do you mean it's gone?  It can't be gone.  How does a town just disappear?"  But it was.  The once quiet, rural community that so many had called home nearly leveled in under 10 seconds.  How does that even happen?  Even after that storm had passed, there were many other storms to the west that were headed in that same direction.  "My goodness, what else could happen to those residents?"  But, we didn't have much time to think about that because there were still numerous storms that had tornado threats. 

"People are trapped in Grubsteakers"

Carol Hare
That's what Mimi Murphy came into the weather center to tell us as the newsroom was continuously receiving information.  Again, my thought "This is something you see on TV in Oklahoma, not here in Northern Illinois".  Immediately I began to think of possible injuries or fatalities.  And to me, it was heartbreaking.  Never before had I been in a weather situation where towns were gone and people were trapped in their homes or restaurants.  Immediately I felt as if I had failed.  But a good friend of mine at the Chicago National Weather Service told me that with a tornado of that magnitude, you can do everything you're supposed to do, and sometimes tragedies just happen.

Kristin and I were on the air for almost 3 hours that night.  Three hours that seemed to fly by so fast, but at the same time seemed like an eternity.  We ended shortly before our 9pm newscast, giving us only a little time to recoup and gather our thoughts.  When we went off the air, I walked out of the weather center and down the hall trying my hardest not to cry.  But by that time, I had to go back on air.  Once the 10pm newscast was finished, I knew our work wasn't done.  That night, I stayed as long as I could to help out wherever I was needed.  Whether it be gathering information, shifting through storm information or trying to inform as many people as possible what had just happened.  That night will stay with me forever.

Sissy Ziech
Hillcrest, IL
And now, as we're nearing the one year anniversary a new video has come out from a former Fairdale resident.  I'm sure by now you've probably seen it.  The video Clem Schultz took as the tornado came straight for him.  He spoke with the Daily Herald - his interview (with video) can be seen here.  He thought the tornado was going to miss his house, but instead came right towards him.  Clem was on the second story of his home, getting camping lanterns thinking him and his wife, Geri, would likely lose power.  By the time he realized the tornado wasn't going to miss him, it was too late.  While Clem was upstairs, his wife Geri was downstairs.  Unfortunately, she did not survive.  Their neighbor, that Geri had become best friends with, didn't survive as well.  And while the video may be hard for many to watch, it serves as great teaching tool.  And in Clem's interview, that's what he knows his video is doing.  It's being used to teach.  We stress the importance of, no matter what, taking shelter whenever a tornado warning is issued for your area or town.  Sometimes you may only have a matter of minutes to get to shelter.  Never assume that the storm is going to miss you.  I've seen it mentioned in another posting that if the storm is moving left to right on the horizon, it's likely less dangerous than if a storm looks like it's stationary.  And while true, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't take shelter.  You see a tornado, the warning is issued, you need to take shelter!  Even if you don't have a basement - get into an interior closet or bathroom.  Put as many walls between you and the outside as possible.  Your chances of survival will be higher than if you do nothing.

I truly believe that it was by the grace of God that Clem Schultz survived that tornado.  He was on the second floor, falling to the first floor tangled up in debris after the storm had passed.  I know there are many other stories of sadness, but also triumph from those affected by the tornado.  In a way, it has brought the communities closer together.  I drive through Fairdale often on my way into work, and I think about how the town was before the storm.  But I also think of how much stronger the town will be in years to come.  

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