“Mr. Roberts” was Central Illinois’ first television personality. He did his best to predict weather for about 30 years, starting in 1953. In the early years, I’ve been told, he would visit a Champaign truck stop to gather information from eastbound truckers about the weather they’d driven through, then hurry to the WCIA-TV studios to incorporate what he learned into his nightly “weathercast.”
Fast forward to last month’s Central Illinois tornado outbreak and consider how technology has more than changed lives — it has saved them. Despite peak winds of 190 mph, the twister that cut a 46-mile, sometimes half-mile wide, path through Tazewell and Woodford counties and beyond claimed only two lives. Tragic, I know. But it could have been much, much worse.
Because of National Weather Service advancements in predicting, detecting and warning of dangerous weather and, for the most part, our willingness to pay attention to those warnings, lives were saved.
Consider how things unfolded, leading up to the late Sunday morning, Nov. 17, tornado outbreak.
About 72 hours earlier, on Thursday, the NWS issues a statement saying there is a 30 percent chance of severe weather in the area the following Sunday. Saturday morning, the probability was bumped to 45 percent, and NWS officials hold an unusual conference call with government agencies, hospitals and media to make sure they realize the danger potential.
The phrase “high risk” is included in NWS statements early Sunday morning, and at 8:40 a.m., a tornado watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., saying this area is in a “particularly dangerous situation.” That’s when the 24-hour NWS Forecast Office in Logan County staffs up.
The 24-hour operation, which serves 35 counties in Central and eastern Illinois, typically has two or three meteorologists on duty. Now there are nine, plus an information technology specialist and an electrical engineer. At about 10:50 a.m., the on-site Doppler radar detects rapid rotation inside a thunderstorm near Pekin.
The Lincoln center issues a tornado warning for south-central Peoria County, northern Tazewell County and western Woodford County. Across the area, in churches and restaurants, on nightstands and in coat pockets, cellphones chime, vibrate and thrum the warning to many already-alert residents to take cover. Television and radio stations broadcast the warning. Sirens sound. The tornado strikes Washington nine minutes later.
At 10:57 a.m., a second warning — this one mainly for western Woodford County — is issued. Fifteen minutes later, a dire third warning is put out for northern Tazewell and all of Woodford: “You are in a life-threatening situation … Complete destruction possible … Flying debris will be deadly.”
These alerts came from the same office that, with an annual budget of $2.8 million, warns us of blizzards, flooding and early frosts, and issues routine forecasts — part of a wider network that also tracks hurricanes and provides data used by for-profit weather forecasters.
Most every government program benefits somebody. This one benefits almost everybody. For my money, some of the best tax dollars are spent on the National Weather Service and its ever-improving ability to predict the weather and warn us of potential trouble. Our job is to pay attention.
Vogel, of Bloomington, can be reached at email@example.com.