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Tornadoes in Chicago: A matter of when, not if

May 21, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

There’s a notion that it can’t happen here.

Tornadoes are creatures of the plains. They lurk in cornfields--not cities. Not Chicago.

Those jaw-dropping pictures snapped in the wake of the deadly tornado that tore through the Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday is a tragedy that we Chicagoans are blessed to avoid, right? Wrong.

That’s a myth.

It can happen here. It has happened before. It will happen again.

As Tom Skilling said, it’s a matter of when, not if.

“One could argue that we’re even overdue for a tornado,” added Skilling, WGN meteorologist.

For years, Skilling said, Chicagoans have been coming up with hundreds of geographical reasons as to why their hometown is safe from tornadoes.

That’s simply not true.

Sure, Chicago does have some small geographical advantages. There’s the cool lakefront updraft that lifts into the jet stream or the heat of the city buildings that Skilling said could reduce the power of a lesser tornado. But a tornado with the gusto of the one that killed 24 in Oklahoma would touch down anywhere.

As evidence, Skilling points to a gloomy day back in 2008.

The skies turned gray. A tint of green followed. A storm was developing over Batavia.

And it was kicking out a TVS--or a tornado vortex signature, a rotation algorithm that indicates a storm is in some stage of tornado-genesis. Basically, the storm could turn into a tornado at any moment.

The storm was tracked. A collective breath was held.

The budding storm, still spitting a TVS signature, scrapped along the Tri-State Tollway in gridlock, rush-hour traffic. It meandered across two hospitals, found its way to the main terminal of O’Hare airport and cruised over the Loyola University campus.

But still there was no damage, other than a few startling cracks of thunder and some rather unpleasant winds.

Finally, a twister touched down. But at the shoreline, thankfully.

The tornado sailed a mile east in the harmless waters of Lake Michigan and dissipated.

“Had that tornado touched down earlier, it would have been disastrous,” Skilling said. “We escaped that one by the skin of our teeth.”

So, what would happen if a tornado similar to Monday’s was brought to our backyards?

What would damage would it inflict? Would the city be prepared? Would the skyline as we know it be forever changed?

Believe it or not, even a tornado that whipped with winds of more than 200 mph would not bring down a skyscraper--at least not the ones built following practiced standards.

Skilling said that engineers, such as the ones who constructed the Willis Tower, test and build buildings to withstand the strongest of winds.

But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear.

All the windows, glass and fragile façade within an arm's reach of this theoretical storm would be shattered, snatched and carried into the city.

As Skilling put it, imagine a tower of knives flying at you. Or an endless wall of bullets.

Tall buildings may hold their ground, but schools, hospitals and other smaller buildings aren’t reinforced like skyscrapers. Those would be left in ruins just like the images seen in Oklahoma on Monday.

“Now’s the time to talk about this topic,” Skilling said. “You have people’s attention now.”

One of the biggest tornadoes the greater Chicagoland area has experienced in recent memory was on April 21, 1967. It formed in the Belvedere area.

According to Skilling, that storm killed 55, tossed a school bus a half mile, killing 12 children, toppled a semi truck and peeled asphalt off the roads like an old Band-Aid. That storm was an EF-4. Monday’s twister was confirmed as a top-of-the-scale EF-5. And Chicago’s lesser EF-4 never trotted into the city.

The last tornado to hit the loop was in 1876, before all the buildings were there.

Again, Chicago escapes disaster. But for how much longer? How would the city respond to such a disaster?

Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), an organization that’s primary responsibility is to prepare the state for natural, manmade or technological disasters, said the organization has multiple resources at its disposal.

Alongside state-wide law enforcement personnel and IEMA’s multiple equipment resources--such as generators, mobile command vehicles, portable lights, communication equipment and more--there are 17 Technical Rescue Teams (TRTs) stationed throughout Cook and DuPage Counties and Joliet. These TRTs are highly trained in an event of a search and rescue operation.

Also at IEMA’s disposal? Inmates.

Yes, inmates.

In the event of a natural disaster, Thompson said IEMA often phones various correctional departments to receive aid from low-risk inmates to help with everything from debris removal and clean up efforts.

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