With spring comes tornado season in McHenry County

A picture that McHenry County Emergency Management Agency Director David Christensen snapped five years ago of a tornado-damaged downstate home speaks for itself about why people should heed severe weather watches and warnings.

A bare blue room exposed to the outside after a powerful EF4 tornado ripped through the small town of Harrisburg had been occupied by a toddler.

The toddler’s parents were alerted of the incoming tornado shortly before 5 a.m. by their all-hazards weather radio, and the family made it to the safety of an interior stairwell before the twister hit the house. The only casualty from the toddler’s room was the furniture.

Others in town weren’t so lucky – the 2012 storm, part of a two-day tornado outbreak at the end of February, killed eight people in the small town.

“[The picture] to me says everything as to why we should follow alerts and have a communications plan,” Christensen said.

More than half a century has passed since a tornado took a life in McHenry County, when the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado cut a swath from Crystal Lake to Island Lake, killing six.

Newspaper stories since have an abundance of instances in which the county lucked out, most recently with the extremely destructive tornado that smashed unincorporated Fairdale two years ago – it was headed for Marengo, but petered out when it reached the county’s border.

Such a disaster may happen again in McHenry County, and with the return of warm weather, experts are making their annual warnings for families to be ready. And even though McHenry County has gone a half century without a deadly tornado, thunderstorms, damaging winds, flooding and other hazards are commonplace.

Although tornado season in northeastern Illinois typically runs from mid-March to June, tornadoes can strike any time of year.

A freak tornado in January 2008 injured five in Boone and McHenry counties and derailed a train carrying a toxic chemical, forcing the evacuation of more than 100 homes near Harvard. A tornado touched down Feb. 28 in Naplate and Ottawa in LaSalle County, killing two.

Fortunately, being aware of severe weather hazards is easier and more convenient than ever.

Smartphone owners have a wide variety of ways to get weather alerts either based on where they live or based on their particular GPS location. Christensen and other experts also urge every home to have a weather radio that sounds an alarm when the National Weather Service issues a watch or warning for the area.

Also, people should check the weather at least once a day in case forecasters warn that severe weather could be a problem later in the day.

Relying on outdoor warning sirens can be a deadly mistake. Not only is their coverage area incomplete, especially in rural areas, but they also are hard to hear through modern construction – they are designed to warn people outdoors to seek shelter indoors, hence their name.

Getting the alerts is only part of having a plan, Christensen said. People also should know what to do, based on where they are, and families should have a plan to communicate in the event that they are separated when severe weather hits.

Christensen recommended that families have an out-of-state contact, preferably a reliable family friend, so people can check in to confirm that they are all right. In the event that cellphone service is spotty or disrupted, text messages have a much higher percentage of getting through than a voice call.

“Where are you going to go when you get that alert? What are you going to do?” Christensen said. “We’re all over the place as families. How are you going to communicate with them?”

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