EMA director on tornado sirens: 'I stand by the decision that was made'

EMA director on tornado sirens: 'I stand by the decision that was made'

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CHAMPAIGN — Despite two brief tornadoes hitting southwest Champaign on Sunday afternoon, the city's tornado sirens weren't activated.

When the tornadoes struck just after 2:15 p.m., the head of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency said he was unable to confirm the funnel clouds.

"You can see rotation on radar, and we saw none. I called the National Weather Service, and they said 'no,'" John Dwyer said. "We had a spotter nearby, and they didn't see anything."

The two tornadoes were rated EF-0, the lowest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale, and each lasted less than a minute, according to a preliminary report from the weather service, which sent a crew to the scene Monday.

"Even the experts couldn't confirm it till today," Dwyer said.

Even if he had sounded the sirens for Champaign, Urbana, the University of Illinois and Savoy, they might not have helped anyone, Dwyer said.

"By the time the siren would've gone off, it was already over," Dwyer said. And "most of the sirens would have sounded at a time when they were not in the warning area."

The tornado sirens suffer from some common misconceptions, perhaps the biggest being that the sirens sound whenever there's a tornado warning.

"There's no sense setting them off if it's not in the immediate area," said Gary Crowley, who controls the sirens in Mahomet.

A thunderstorm watch was upgraded to a thunderstorm warning at 1:41 p.m. that urged people to take shelter.

At 1:59 p.m., the NWS issued the tornado warning for northwestern Champaign County, indicating that a tornado could quickly develop.

When the storm hit Mahomet, Crowley decided not to sound the sirens there.

"It was nothing that we could actually confirm to set them off. There was no radar indication, and there was nothing that we spotted that indicated a tornado or funnel cloud," he said.

The tornado sirens are also only meant for people outside, Dwyer said.

"They are outdoor warning sirens," he said. "The sirens are for people that are outdoors."

And despite not sounding, people were apparently warned enough, as no one was hurt.

"People did receive prior warnings on their phone and their (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radios," Dwyer said. "It's not that the system didn't warn them. It's just that one part, based on the situation, wasn't sounded."

Dwyer said officials held a debriefing meeting Monday to discuss what happened and what could be done differently in the future.

But he said the protocols worked.

"I stand by the decision that was made," Dwyer said.

'Like a train coming'

The warning system worked for Bob and Mary-alayne Hughes, who live in the 2200 block of Strand Drive, a couple blocks away from the worst of the damage.

They were in their basements after receiving warnings on their phones, TV and weather radio.

"There's a potted plant I went out to get, and then all the sudden the wind just came up really quickly, so we both ran into the house," said Mary-alayne Hughes.

"All of the sudden, it sounded like a train coming, and we just dashed to the basement," Bob Hughes said.

He said the worst of it lasted less than a minute.

"By the time we were in the basement, the sound went away. It was very, very fast," he said. "We peered out through the windows in the basement and realized there were tree parts that didn't belong where they ought to belong."

Three pine trees in their backyard snapped in half, a neighbor's table was in their yard and their neighbor's trampoline was mangled. Meanwhile, their grill and backyard furniture barely moved.

That led Bob Hughes to think it may have been a tornado, not straight-line winds, that caused the damage.

"Better the trees than us and the house," he said.

'Good clues' point to tornado

On Monday afternoon, the weather service confirmed two tornadoes touched down after surveying the damage.

"On Copper Ridge Road, roofs were taken off houses, insulation was sucked out and splattered onto siding, siding was ripped off, pieces of wooden fences were driven into the sides of some houses," said Chuck Schaffer, a weather-service meteorologist who looked at the damage Monday. "Those are all good clues it was tornado damage instead of straight-line winds."

With winds of 75-80 mph and a width of 30 yards, the first tornado "briefly touched down in the backyard of a residence on Copper Ridge Road," the weather service determined. "Eyewitnesses stated the tornado dissipated in about 30 seconds or less, about one-tenth of a mile to the east-southeast of where it formed."

The storm then crossed Interstate 57, damaging trees in Zahnd Park along the way.

Then another brief tornado formed near Duncan Road and Rolling Acres Drive, the agency's report said.

"This tornado snapped off the tops of trees and did minor damage to two properties," the report stated. "Similar to the first tornado, this tornado dissipated in less than a minute, about one-tenth of a mile to the southeast of where it developed."

City to pick up debris

On Copper Ridge Road, Mattoon-based Legacy Roofing and Restoration was helping repair roofs for free.

"I was down the road from the storm, saw the tornado, pulled right in, called our owner (Kayleb Burritt) and said, 'I think we need to do something. They need help right now,'" Jeremy Janes said.

After getting the go-ahead, "I called our crew, and within an hour and a half, we had 15 people there till 12:30 a.m. tarping houses and taking care of people."

They returned Monday for six hours with chain saws, helping to cut down trees and branches.

"They've still got a lot to do, but we made a lot of progress this morning," Janes said.

Throughout the neighborhood, driveway basketball hoops were uprooted, trampolines were damaged and at least one chimney was lying in a yard. Other debris had blown into the corn field just to the south.

The city of Champaign said it will be cleaning up natural debris in the area bordered by Windsor Road, Rising Road, Kirby Avenue and Staley Road until Monday, June 18, if it's placed in yard waste bags or bundled with non-metallic twine and placed near the curb.

Residents in other areas with natural debris should contact the public works department to request a pickup at publicworks@champaignil.gov.

For other types of debris, the city recommended homeowners talk with their insurance companies and/or solid waste hauler.

'We are all safe'

The tornado narrowly missed the New Century Estates mobile-home park, just down Windsor Road from the Copper Ridge subdivision.

"We had a lot of tree limbs come down," said James Snodgrass, the park manager.

Some shingles fell off and some of the mobile home skirting blew away, he said.

"A lot of old trees came down in the front section, but there was no real serious damage," Snodgrass said. "We were really lucky. Had it gone through here, it would've been devastated."

The storm affected at least two golf courses in the area Monday, with the University of Illinois' Orange course closed and Legends shutting down its nine-hole course.

"We're closed today due to the wetness, but there was no damage," said Legends' Greg Flesher. "The rain made the grass even greener."

Mattoon saw the most rain from 7 a.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday, according to the NWS, with 6.12 inches.

Danville had 3.15 inches; Tuscola, 2.65; and Champaign, 1.15, as measured at Willard Airport.

At Curtis Orchard, which is just south of where the second tornado hit, some apple trees were damaged.

"So far, there are around 15 trees that have been snapped off at the root, even with the metal poles supporting them," the orchard tweeted. "We are all safe, and will be ready in the fall."

For farmers, the heavy rains should be fine and the corn is expected to bounce back from the wind damage, said Paul Berbaum, who farms just west of Champaign.

"We've got a little more rain than we need, but things look pretty good," he said. "The corn is leaning a little, but that's not going to hurt it, so we're in good shape. It usually straightens up. ... Probably within a week, you won't even notice it."

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