The 1990 Plainfield, IL Tornado
NEW! Please visit the Plainfield IL Tornado information page for some new information on the tornado, including Plainfield IL Tornado Videos.
I wrote this research paper in 1990 as a sophomore at Illinois State University. I grew up in Plainfield, IL, many years before 50,000 others moved there...
On the afternoon of August 28th, 1990, a killer tornado struck parts of Will County in northeastern Illinois. It was, in the words of Governor Jim Thompson, "The worst natural disaster I have seen in my fourteen years as Governor, simply incredible"(Yohnka 17). While the survivors of this storm were climbing out of the rubble that used to be their homes, many were wondering why they were not warned. In the days following the storm, meteorologists debated, citizens wondered, and the National Weather Service sent a special team to ponder the question-why was there no warning? It is the purpose of this paper to argue that no one could have warned the citizens in the tornado's path of what awaited them.
The tornado is labeled by some as the most violent storm on Earth. It is small in size and doesn't last as long as compared to the hurricane, but over the last fifty years tornadoes have killed 9,000 persons. This number is equal to the amount killed by hurricanes (4,000) and flash floods (5,000) combined (Whipple 119). The formation of a hurricane can be spotted weeks before the time when it does damage; a person in the path of a tornado usually is lucky to get 10 minutes to find shelter. The utter unpredictability of tornadoes is aptly described in the excerpt: "Most forecasters would rather deal with a hurricane than with a tornado. A hurricane moves relatively slowly. It is easily tracked and there is plenty of time for forecasters to issue warnings. Tornadoes lurk like snipers inside severe thunderstorms and leap swiftly out of hiding. Only the general location of their hideouts can be known. Often they dissipate before they can strike (Fuller 156). The quick development of the tornado is the cause of its unpredictability.
The ultimate formation of a tornado starts a few hours earlier, when a mass of warm, moist air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico meets a cold air mass from Canada. As the warm air mixes with the cool, it inevitably rises, being denser than the cool air mass. As this warm air rises, billowing cumulonimbus clouds form, reaching heights of up to 70,000 feet (Fuller 156). Air that is heated by the ground continually rises upward while the cold air forces downdrafts, causing a churning motion throughout the thunderhead. Ultimately, a spinning column develops in the middle of this thunderhead, and a funnel may drop out of this spot (Whipple 127-131). Early estimates of the speed of tornadic winds were set at 700 miles per hour, but recent studies have brought that number down to an average of 300 M.P.H. (Whipple 133). However, it is impossible to be very accurate in any studies of tornadoes. According to Edwin Hessler, director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a tornado "is so violent and so ephemeral that until recently it didn't lend itself to study. The tornado is perhaps the ultimate meteorological phenomenon" (Whipple 132-133).
There are numerous accounts of tornadoes dating back to the beginning of time, but because of the lack of communications of those eras, there was no warning of the potential of danger. During World War Two, radar operators noticed that the device also picked up the shadows of rainfall on its screen while they were tracking enemy planes. For this reason it was decided to put it to use in weather forecasts after the war. This primitive equipment helped in the tracking of thunderstorms, but there still was no network to warn citizens or tie in the national forecasts. So in 1954 the National Weather Service established the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, located in Kansas City, Missouri. This center's job was, among other things, to issue tornado forecasts (Whipple 136). Ten years later, the National Severe Storms Laboratory was set up in Norman, Oklahoma to further study the dynamics of tornadoes and severe storms (Whipple 136).
Tornado Warning Systems
Today's severe storm warning system consists of several steps on the national, local and private level. It all starts early in the morning at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center. Scientists and researchers look over the morning's weather maps, charts, satellite images and radar screens. As temperature readings and condition reports come in from throughout the country, the forecasters get a good idea of where conditions may be most favorable for the development of severe weather. The men and women keep a twenty-four hour shift at the center, and because they track only severe weather conditions, some call them "the keepers of the gates of hell" (Fuller 155). The meteorologists at the center, upon observing alarming conditions, will first issue a severe thunderstorm watch. This simply means that conditions are ripe for the development of severe thunderstorms. If conditions on the radar screens indicate that the storms are actually occurring, they will upgrade the watch to a severe thunderstorm warning. When these storms actually strike, the weather is usually also favorable for the development of tornadoes, so the forecasters will issue a tornado watch. The bulletin read with the watch will usually state: "TORNADO WATCH #--: BULLETIN- IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED…TORNADOES..LARGE HAIL..DANGEROUS LIGHTNING POSSIBLE…PERSONS IN THE THREATENED AREAS SHOULD BE ON THE LOOKOUT (Fuller 157). After the tornado watch is issued by the center, the responsibility is passed on to the next level, which is the network of local weather stations across the country. When the weather stations receive this data, they will then broadcast it over all available media.
The last level of the countrywide warning system lies on the ground in the affected area. The bulletins first come out over National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's weather radio. After this, fire and police departments, amateur radio operators, the media, and area Emergency Broadcast Systems spread the word. This then alerts the National Weather Service's Skywarn network. The network is made up of police officers, retirees, and any other person who feels concerned enough to be on the lookout for those who can't. When a tornado does from threatening skies, it is first spotted in one of two ways. If the local weather station has good radar equipment and the operator is experienced, a "hook echo" will appear on the monitor, and he will issue an immediate tornado warning. Hook echoes are fishhook patterns caused by rapidly rotating precipitation; this signals that the motion is present for a tornado to descend from the sky (Fuller 156). The other way is for someone to actually spot the tornado on the ground, but this is often too late to save its first victims.
August 28, 1990
Somehow, this system broke down on August 28, 1990. The forecast for northern Illinois on that afternoon called for "a little change, with some rain and a little cooler temperatures" (Yohnka 2). At about 12:30 p.m. that day, a strong thunderstorm began its buildup near Janesville, Wisconsin. Skies were still clear in Illinois, but the storm set out on a southeasterly path soon after it formed. At 1:42 p.m., a report came in from the Illinois State Police that a tornado was on the ground at Pecatonica, IL, fifteen miles west of Rockford. No tornado warning was issued. It was not until 2:32 p.m., when golf ball size hail was hitting DeKalb, that the first severe thunderstorm warning was issued for northern Kane County. More than three fourths of an inch of rain had fallen on the city of DeKalb by 3:23 p.m., which is when the National Weather Service issued its second severe thunderstorm warning. This time it was to warn the residents of southern DuPage County, where persons think a tornado was responsible for the destruction of more than 30 planes at Aurora Municipal Airport. But they still issued no tornado warning. Sometime between that severe thunderstorm warning and 3:30 p.m., a tornado touched down in Wheatland Plains subdivision on the Will-Kendall County line.
Most of the residents of Wheatland Plains were away from home when the twister struck. One resident of the subdivision that was first hit described it as: "It was like a mass of black coming from the west. Then it got eerie. The sky turned a greenish color and it was calm. Then the greenish mass appeared to collide with another storm front that materialized from the north and the storm broke with swirling rain and hail" (Yohnka 4). The tornado damaged 50 and destroyed 12 homes in the complex before moving to the southeast. As it left Wheatland Plains, it moved across rows of ripe corn and soybeans, destroying several farms and ensuring there would be no harvest that fall. Jim Chaplin, who owns a farm on 135th Street west of U.S. Route 30, arrived home shortly after the twister hit. When asked to describe the scene as he returned home, he remarked that there was "absolutely nothing left" (Chaplin). At Plainfield High School, about two miles directly southeast of the Chaplin farm, football practice continued despite of the lightning that was flashing to the northwest. Using his better judgement, Coach Wayne DeSutter ordered the 107 members of his football teams inside to the smaller of the school's two gyms (Cohen 120). In the main gym, the volleyball team was setting up their nets; their opening match was scheduled to begin at 4:00. Just as the volleyball team's coach Cathy Cartwright was ordering her girls to start practicing, the lights in the school went out. She headed to the foyer to try to see what was happening, but she had an eerie feeling that something was very wrong. She said that "it was like something was tapping me on the shoulder telling me to get the kids out" (Cohan 120). Suddenly, everyone's ears started popping as the school's fire alarm let out a piercing wail. Cartwright ran back into the gym shouting "get out of here right now! Everyone!" (Cohen 120). Both the football and volleyball players immediately began pouring out of the gyms and into what turned out to be the only hallway left standing in the school. To the students in that hallway, the few minutes they spent there seemed like forever. Upon walking outside, one football player remarked "We didn't know where we were, there were no trees, no houses, no landmarks" (Cohen 121).
The tornado then continued moving southeast, hitting the school's administration building, a Catholic Church, and a grade school near PHS. It then destroyed Peerless Estates subdivision and threw cars into the surrounding cornfields adjacent to Interstate 55. Its next stop was the new Crystal Lawns subdivision on the other side of the highway. Mark Alstott was returning to his home there after leaving his job at the Plainfield Township Highway Department around 3:15 that afternoon. Quitting time was usually 3:30, but because of the impending storm, the boss had let him out early. "The sky was dark as night in the northwest", he said, but there was "nothing to get worried about at that time" (Alstott). As he went into his house, his mother was busy gathering up their dog and cat so they could head for their crawlspace. Just as he rushed outside to put his car in the garage, the wooden fence around their backyard blew apart. He then decided to go back in the house until the storm was over. Not long after that, the winds died down, and he ventured outside. "Although our part of the neighborhood was OK, all the neighbor's lawns were littered with every sort of item imaginable" (Alstott). Luckily, they lived in the one-third of that subdivision left standing. After striking the Crystal Lawns complex, the storm kept on it southeast path, tearing up the Grand Prairie grade school on its way to its final point of destruction-two apartment complexes in Crest Hill, IL. It then moved on into Indiana as a strong thunderstorm complex. The tornado had stayed on the ground for 16.4 miles in an amazing 15 minutes. Its path was 300 feet wide at parts. It killed 29 persons and injured over 300. It caused over 140 million dollars in property and business damage (Yohnka 2), but there will never be a way to measure the loss felt by those 29 families. Could a tornado warning have saved at least a few of those people? Ironically, the National Weather Service issued its only tornado warning of the day at 3:51 p.m., thirteen minutes after the tornado ravaged Crest Hill (Yohnka 3). Maybe if some of the victims had just a few minutes to take cover, they would not have perished. Stephen Hunt, 43, was in the PHS biology room when a semitrailer was thrown into the building. He died instantly. If he would have had just one minute, he might have been able to go to a more secure area. Howard Hawes Jr., 47, was driving to St. Mary's Catholic Church to check on his mother when the storm picked up his truck and killed him. If he would have known beforehand, he might not have gotten into his vehicle. Dr. Robert Maddox, leader of the nine member NOAA team studying the Will County tornado, tried to describe the events leading up to it. He was questioned as to why the weather service did not issue a tornado warning after the tornado touched down in Pecatonica. He said that while the scientists were tracking the storm near its beginning, they saw it weaken after it passed through DeKalb, and they decided not to issue a warning (Yohnka 4). Meanwhile, Maddox said a "second, very intense storm cell began growing southeast of the first one" (Yohnka 4). He elaborated: "That second storm cell began to develop rapidly, creating strong downdraft winds called a microburst. Unfortunately, radar in use today will not detect downdraft windstorms, but will pick up rain and hail that may accompany such a storm. Thus, the weather observers in Rosemont saw only a pattern of severe thunderstorms on their radar screens (Yohnka 4).
It is easy for one to describe the situation after only looking at a radar screen, but it is entirely different to someone who was actually there. Jim Chaplin first learned of the tornado while driving from his job at a sign company in Burr Ridge, IL. Upon arrival, he had to coax his way through several roadblocks to get to his farm, which was totally destroyed. When asked if he thought a warning could have helped save anything of his, he said "there is not really anything you can do when you are in the path of something immense as this. I'm sure one could get in their car and drive away, but as far as my house, crops, and equipment are concerned, there was nothing anyone could do" (Chaplin). Remarking about several persons that were driving on route 30 when the storm hit, he said "those people had no chance." If they could have heard a report on the radio, they could have ran to the ditch. But as far as and building in its path, no warning could have helped." (Chaplin).
The Chicago office of the National Weather Service has been tagged as "having the worst record in the nation" in a recent news report (Mills). The article stated that the office has issued warnings for only 24 percent of severe storms in its jurisdiction over the last three years. Paul Dailey, who took charge of the office in August 1990, states: "Perhaps we've been too conservative. We're going to work on that. In marginal cases, the office issues special weather statements instead of warnings. We want to make sure that when we issue a warning, people aren't complacent because we've put out a warning every time a thunderstorm comes through the area" (Mills). Dailey also said that new radar equipment scheduled to be installed next year could make the difference in the next killer storm.
The technology for this new radar has existed since 1971, but government funding is the major obstacle involved in its implementation. One of the new radar systems is called Doppler, taken from Christian Doppler, a 19th century Austrian physicist. Doppler first noticed that the sound waves from an object approaching the listener increase in their pitch, while those moving away decrease in frequency (Whipple 136). Doppler Radar is based on this principle. It bounces radio signals off the wind-whipped raindrops within storm systems as far as 140 miles away. Receivers at radar stations can detect the higher return frequencies from raindrops blowing toward the antennas and the lower frequencies of those being driven away. High-speed computers analyze the contrasting frequencies and translate them into different color patterns on display screens. Red images indicate frequencies traveling away from the radar, while green images show raindrops traveling toward the radar. Operators can then spot the swirling pattern that is usually present in a severe thunderstorm up to twenty minutes before a tornado actually touches down (Whipple 136). Doppler is not perfect, however. Donald Burgess, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, states that "we missed a few tornadoes, and we issued a few false alarms" (Whipple 136). The effectiveness of Doppler depends on reports given by more than one station in the area, because winds at right angles to the station register as zero velocity. Another system under development is the NEXRAD radar system. NEXRAD stands for Next Generation Weather Radar, which is basically a Doppler Radar system with a computer that tracks and analyzes storms. This system, however, is still in the experimental stages (Miller 715). Even with the new system's imperfections, they would still be greatly welcomed.
These new systems would be effective, but unfortunately they were not present in northern Illinois on August 28th, 1990. Those that cried out about the lack of warning before the storm had good cause to do so, but as far as the more than 1,000 buildings that were destroyed, there was nothing that any warning could have done to save them (Cohen 121). Ike Eichelberger, father of the current chief of the Plainfield Fire Department, and a member himself of that organization, was on the scene immediately after the storm hit. Eichelberger indicated that a warning could have helped persons find shelter, but pointed out an additional interesting fact. Even if a warning was issued at the time the tornado was bearing down on Wheatland Plains, Civil Defense personnel would have had to go to the high school to sound the area's tornado siren. And by the time they became organized enough to do it, the storm would already have ripped apart the high school (Eichelberger). To this day, the wooden pole that once held the siren stands there broken off at a point 20 feet above the ground. In the days following the storm, many people came to the aid of the physically and mentally injured victims. Even as mother nature's highest life form, situations such as this prove how frail we really are. Nothing could have been done to prevent this tragedy. But perhaps the next time any storm of this proportion strikes, we will be more prepared.
Alstott, Mark. Personal Interview. 1 December 1990.
Chaplin, Jim. Personal Interview. 2 December 1990.
Cohen, Charles. "With Rare Courage-And Luck-Coaches at an Illinois High School Bring Their Students Through a Trial by Tornado." People Weekly 34(1990): 120-121
Eichelberger, Ike. Personal Interview. 2 December 1990.
Fuller, John J. "Day of the Killer Tornadoes." Reader's Digest 130(1987): 152-178
Miller, Peter. "Tornado!" National Geographic 171(1987): 690-715
Mills, Marja. "Weather Warnings Called Lacking." Chicago Tribune 3 December 1990: 4.
Whipple, A.B.C., et al. Storm Chicago: Time Life Books, 1982.
Yohnka, Dennis, et al. Will County Winds of Fury. Sun City West, AZ: CF Boone Publishing Company, 1990.