This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Plainfield Tornado, a violent F5 tornado which struck Chicago's southwest suburbs (Plainfield, Crest Hill, and Joliet) on August 28, 1990, killing 29 people and injuring over 300.
The day of the storm, temperatures were around 90 and the air was very humid. The tornado started as a severe thunderstorm in the early afternoon in the Rockford area, and was a heavy rain producer as it moved southeast. By the time it got to the Aurora area, the storm was producing intense 90 mph winds, causing damage at the Aurora airport. By the time it got to the Oswego area around 3pm, it dropped a tornado which rapidly grew into a monster F5, taking people by surprise on Route 30, where several were killed in their cars. Students practicing for fall sports at Plainfield High School rushed inside and took refuge in a hallway, the only part of the building that remained standing. A janitor and teacher were killed in other parts of the building, as was a person in the administration building, and more people in the local catholic church & school. Several new subdivisions were completely obliterated, causing more deaths and injuries. The storm just missed the Joliet Mall, but proceeded to kill several people at apartment complexes in Crest Hill before finally disippating on the north side of Joliet. Bill Kurtis, Elizabeth Vargas, and Lester Holt were all local Chicago news anchors at the time that reported extensively from the scene of the disaster. They all went on to become national reporters.
The storm was rain-wrapped, making it difficult for anyone to see that it was a tornado until the damage had already been done. Additionally, weather technology at this time was ancient, dating to the 1970s or before. No Tornado Watch or Warning was ever issued for the storm. The Chicago NWS office, at the time, was responsible for a very large workload, having to cover the entire state of Illinois, instead of just the northeastern part. In the wake of the storm, doppler radar technology was significantly improved, more weather offices were created and re-organized, and warning detection improved substantially. Due to what is known as "Plainfield Syndrome", forecasters are now more likely to issue warnings rather than not, so as not to miss warning for a life-threatening storm such as this.
After the tornado, Plainfield's population skyrocketed, going from about 5,000 to almost 30,000 today. Other small towns in the region have also sprawled out and grown tremendously, including Oswego, Naperville, Joliet, Romeoville, Crest Hill, Yorkville, Montgomery, and Sugar Grove. The Geography department at my alma mater (NIU) estimated that due to all the suburban sprawl, if the same storm were to happen again, the death toll could be double what it was in 1990, in spite of the improved weather technology. Scary stuff to think about. Plainfield continues to be one of those benchmark tornadoes. It's rare to have a killer F5 tornado in August, but it happened, and it could happen again. Besides the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the Plainfield tornado remains the most devastating natural disaster to afflict the Chicago area in the past 40 years and is still fresh in the public consciousness. I was only 3 when the disaster occurred, but the disaster was talked about so much while I was growing up in the 1990s, that it still seems fresh in my mind.
So, what say you? Anybody have any memory or connection to Plainfield? Also, New Orleans has Katrina, Miami has Andrew, San Francisco has Loma Prieta, Chicago has Plainfield, what is the recent benchmark disaster in your neck of the woods? And what are your thoughts regarding urban sprawl (or the "built environment" in general) and natural disasters? Is your area ready for "the big one", whatever that might be?