Remembering The Fairdale Tornado 5 Years Later
It’s been five years since a deadly tornado struck northern Illinois. The storm killed two people in Fairdale. The recovery took years. WNIJ’s Susan Stephens and Jenna Dooley recall the impact of the storm and its immediate aftermath:
April 9, 2015. We had Lincoln on the brain--Abraham Lincoln. We had recently taken a road trip across northern Illinois to find the places where there was a connection to the 16th president. We were working late to piece it all together when the police scanner began to chime in. We knew even days before that severe weather was possible, what we didn’t know that night was just how destructive the storm would be.
Seven tornadoes tore through our area that night. The worst fired up at 6:39 near Franklin Grove. It roared northeast, growing into an EF-4 tornado as it mowed a 30-mile path across rural homes, farmland, Interstate 39, and the tiny town of Fairdale.
200 mile per hour winds. 700 yards wide at its worst. Thirty miles in 41 minutes. When it dissipated at 7:20 p.m. a few miles north of Kirkland, it made its way into history books as the biggest tornado on record in DeKalb and Ogle Counties. Darkness fell as a long night of rescue efforts began. Two women were killed. 22 people were injured. And a town of 150 was destroyed.
The top story the next day was a visit to DeKalb County by former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner:
“My wife and I are going to help them fundraise for the Red Cross for their services here today," Rauner told the devastated communities. "I want to say thank you to everyone and encourage everyone to rebuild. God bless and thank you.”
The day after the tornado, Northern Illinois University’s former meteorologist Gilbert Sebenste also tried to put into words what he saw as he chased the storm.
"Hoo boy," Sebenste said in the immediate aftermath. "I have a story about this that's probably best told over a campfire, but I will say that of all the storms I've ever chased, this one was definitely the most scary, the most intense, and the most frightening of any of the ones I've ever seen and I have seen literally hundreds of storms and tornadoes. This was just this was just an amazing event. As a storm chaser, as a meteorologist, and as a human being, I can just say is, 'Wow, just wow.'”
Chad Connell was the Fire Chief of Kirkland in 2015. One week after the storm, he told WNIJ at the time, he was hopeful about recovery.
“The advantages, I think, are that we do have a personal connection with the people of Fairdale," Connell said.
Fairdale resident Geraldine Schultz died in the tornado. The video her surviving husband, Clem, took that night was given to researchers who study severe weather. Six months after the tornado he showed the video to former Fairdale neighbor Joe Wiegand.
CLEM: About two minutes into this, my house came down and knocked the phone out of my hand and it kept recording.
JOE: So now you are still standing up taking video right now?
CLEM: Right about now is when I realized ‘uh-oh.’
JOE: See the shaking? Your house is shaking apart right now, isn’t it?
Despite the challneges, many did start re-building. In 2015, Fairdale homeowner Dave Novotny told WNIJ how the surrounding community came together:
"We were standing right here in the driveway one day, maybe two or three days afterwards, and all of the sudden, hundreds of people walked up," Novotny recalled in 2015. "They had chainsaws and they were ready to work…[chokes up] It still gets to me now. It was an amazing experience.”
On the first anniversary, Shari Novotny reflected on the progress.
“It was a little town. People could have just moved away and gone away and taken their insurance money and went off on their merry way," Novotny said, "and could have just left things a mess, but they didn’t.”
Five years ago, Northern Illinois University professor Walker Ashley sat in his car in a parking lot in DIxon, grading papers and keeping an eye on the storms that started showing up on the radar. That’s just what atmospheric sciences professors do. Then they drop everything and follow the storm.
"It was shocking how quickly the storm evolved from kind of a run of the mill severe storm to tornadic," Ashley said. "It was on the order of about three to five minutes."
Ashley praised the quick work of the National Weather Service in sounding the tornado warning. And still, five years later, he says the best way to protect yourself during tornado season is with information: Listen to meteorologists, who can spot severe conditions days in advance. Sign up for weather alerts on your phone and
"Keep an eye, keep an ear out," he advised. "And particularly pay attention to watches. Watches are kind of like our 'Are you ready?' And then when you get a tornado warning or severe thunderstorm warning, it is time to take action. So we have to be thinking and be proactive. And at the end of the day that might save your life."