The arrival of spring also signals the beginning of our severe weather season in East Central Illinois.
The weather gods do not always adhere to the timetables of mere mortals. Just ask the residents of Gifford, IL, who saw hundreds of their village’s homes and businesses damaged or destroyed on Nov. 17, 2013, by an EF-3 tornado a half-mile wide. More typically, however, tornadoes in Illinois tend to occur from March to June.
While Champaign-Urbana is not located in Tornado Alley — that unlucky area lies generally west of us and east of the Rocky Mountains — the state of Illinois does rank in the top 5 states with the most tornadoes per square mile per year, according to Wikipedia.
The start of March — especially if it comes in “like a lion” — is a good time to educate our community’s newcomers about tornadoes and other severe weather events. Even those of us who grew up in tornado country (anyone else suffer through tornado drills in school? protect your neck, children!) can use a refresher.
An especially welcome piece of weather news for Champaign County in 2021: our local NOAA Weather Radio station WXJ-76 has finally resumed broadcasting after having been off the air since February 2020. (Our friends over at Smile Politely take a deep dive here into the reasons for the prolonged outage.) After almost two whole tornado seasons without a weather radio station broadcasting alerts for our county, it’s definitely a relief to have WXJ-76 back on the air. We can once again highly recommend buying a weather radio to any new residents of our area.
Meteorologist Andrew Pritchard is the brains behind Chambana Weather (@chambanawx on social media). His site is a year-round source of information about the fascinatingly varied weather we encounter in East Central Illinois. He also provides an important voice for weather outreach: from a 3/4/20 Facebook post, he gives instructions for enabling the severe weather alerts on your smartphone:
While tornadoes may be most likely during the afternoon and evening hours, damaging tornadoes can and do strike overnight while many of us are asleep. The best way to make sure you and your family are never caught off guard is to have multiple methods of receiving important weather alerts. In addition to downloading the FEMA app and enabling its alerts, your smartphone has built-in emergency alert features. I’ve outlined the process on an Android phone, and the steps are very similar on Apple devices.
1) Visit your settings app
2) Select “Connections”
3) Select “More connection settings”
4) Select “Wireless Emergency Alerts”
5) Make sure you’ve got EXTREME ALERT enabled, and make sure the vibrate setting is enabled. That way, if you silence your phone at night (like I do!) it will still alert you if a warning is issued.
For more general storm preparedness, probably the most important piece of information for newcomers to keep straight is the difference between a weather watch and a weather warning.
- WATCH — the conditions are right to develop severe weather, and you should pay attention to official news sources to monitor any developments.
- WARNING — dangerous weather is imminent and you should take appropriate shelter as soon as you can.
Another helpful piece of information for newcomers? All municipalities in Illinois conduct a test of outdoor warning sirens on the first Tuesday of each month at 10 a.m., so don’t panic when you hear them! If you are unsure of the role that these outdoor sirens play in overall weather preparedness (hint: they’re not foolproof), here is a good summary of how the decision is made to activate them in Champaign County. Remember that damaging weather can occur even when the sirens are not sounded, and that sirens are not designed to be heard inside buildings — that’s why weather radios and phone alerts are necessary as well.
The City of Champaign recommends the following precautions to take during a Tornado Warning:
- Monitor a weather radio, radio, television, weather app, or reliable social media outlet for the latest weather information.
- Go immediately to your predetermined shelter, such as a storm cellar, basement or the lowest level of the building away from windows. Stay there until the danger has passed.
- If in a mobile home, get out and seek shelter elsewhere, well before the storm arrives. If there is not substantial shelter nearby, go to a low-lying area and shield your head with your hands, but be aware of the potential for flash flooding.
- If outdoors, go inside or to a low-lying area.
To educate yourself in more detail about severe weather in Illinois — which includes severe thunderstorms, hail, lightning, high winds, and flooding as well as tornadoes — bookmark a helpful official source. Our favorite is the National Weather Service, both for its expertly vetted information as well as its cool infographics. Stay safe everyone!
For more newcomer information check out Moving to the C-U Area? Start Here.