Local storm chaser debunks tornado myths

By on July 8, 2011

Photo: Severe storms passed through Elburn June 21 favorable for tornados. The storms ended up producing tornados in the Mount Prospect and Downers Grove area.
Courtesy Photo

By Keith Beebe
ELBURN—True or false: Tornados do not typically strike valleys, and therefore are not a threat to Elburn and the surrounding area.

If you answered “true,” you might be surprised to learn that tornados can indeed hit valleys and cities, travel aross rivers, and hit just about any place thought to be off limits from severe weather activity. Some of these tornados can reach a height of 60,000 feet, so it really doesn’t matter if there is a river or a city building in its way.

Local storm chaser Brad Hruza, an Illinois resident for the last 26 years, believes these tornado myths have caused some residents of towns such as Elburn and Rockford to virtually disregard tornado sirens whenever they sound—a mistake that could turn out to be fatal.

“Elburn has had two tornados hit in the last two years (August 2009 and October 2010); not only that, but also [June 21) there were two tornados that hit Downers Grove, as well as Mount Prospect, which proves another myth wrong that tornados don’t hit cities,” Hruza said. “I think most people have forgotten the Plainfield tornado 20 years ago. That was an F-5 tornado and was very devastating, so they can happen anywhere at any time.”

Hruza was one of several storm chasers who witnessed the harsh storms’ that rolled through the Elburn area on June 21. He said the severe storm was a close call for local residents.

“Elburn seems to be the tornado alley of the Fox Valley. We were lucky they stayed just barely west and north and didn’t rip through downtown,” said Hruza, who pointed to the tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., as proof that tornados don’t discriminate when it comes to valleys and cities.

Those areas down South experienced total devastation and damage in the billions of dollars, and many lives were lost, he said. So we were very lucky two weeks ago that no one was seriously injured here.

When it comes to residents not taking severe weather seriously, Hruza highlights the Rockford area as one of his biggest concerns, and said many residents there believe the Rock River can actually dissipate any incoming tornados.

“(Rockford residents) have become complacent and don’t heed warnings anymore. They believe the Rock River has a big role in storms fizzling out before they get there every time,” he said. “That’s another myth. They call it the Rock River Split.”

Hruza said he’s met with people who have actually seen tornados cross the Mississippi River. And for those who believe tornados are exclusive to flatlands, there’s the tornado that struck Salt Lake City, Utah, in August 1999.

Tornado myths actually go far beyond that of where these storms can and cannot strike. Hruza said many people believe opening the windows of their home during a storm will prevent the house from becoming pressurized and keep the tornado away.

“The last thing you want is the wind to get inside your home. That’s why some houses are left untouched and the neighbors destroyed,” he said. “If a tornado is coming at a home, it does not care if the windows are open or closed. The tornado will take the house if it wants to.”

Hruza recommends that all residents seek shelter immediately upon notice of a tornado warning, even if the sirens haven’t sounded yet. And if you seek shelter in your basement, it’s not safer to stay in the southwest portion of the room. Instead, you want to try and get under the staircase and protect your head and neck. And if a basement is unavailable, use a closet or a bathroom without windows.

Hruza also said residents should avoid taking refuge underneath highway overpasses, which can turn into a wind tunnel for debris during a severe storm.

“Tornados can, will, and have hit our valley areas recently and it is likely to happen again,” he said. “Next time it may be downtown, (so) please be prepared.”