Category Archives: Families and Communities

Derecho — Weather Wednesday

July 13, 2015 derecho radar image from NOAA.

Early this week, on July 13, a possible derecho, or at least what the National Weather Service is currently calling “a Derecho-like event,” raced across the middle of the country. It began in Minnesota and swept mostly southward through Wisconsin, Illinois, parts of Indiana and into Kentucky.

The Weather Service describes a derecho as “a widespread, long-lived storm. Derechos are associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines or quasi-linear convective systems.”

The “bow echo” refers to the characteristic appearance of a linear storm on weather radar when that storm bows out due to high wind. Storms represented by bow echoes are not always derechos unless they last for a long time which is rarely the case. In fact, large derechos are relatively unusual. Generally there are only one or two a year in most of the country.

The Weather Service has an extensive derecho page.

Weather Underground
Weather Underground

Derechos can be extremely damaging. By definition a derecho must travel 240 miles and include wind gusts of at least 58mph along much of its length and several gusts of over 75mph. Many are much stronger. A derecho that crossed Illinois from northwest to southeast in the late 1990’s included winds measured at over 100mph at the Clinton nuclear power plant and caused extensive damage to a marina at the associated cooling lake.

Effects can be long lasting. On July 4th and 5th in 1999 a derecho crossed the Boundary Waters Canoe area in northern Minnesota/southern Ontario. It devastated a forest there. Wildfires in more recent years have been fueled by the debris from that storm.

Because of their length and the intensity of the straight line winds, derechos can be an extremely costly event. Casualties are rare, but do occur, usually caused by falling trees or other debris and occasionally by watercraft caught by the rapidly moving storms.

Weather Wednesday – Killer Heat

NOAA Archives
NOAA Archives

The July issue of Chicago Magazine serves as the inspiration for today’s post on killer heat. It features a recap, told in the words of residents, first responders, morgue workers and politicians of the July 1995 heatwave in the City of Chicago…twenty years ago next week. I recommend it.

Heat remains consistently the deadliest natural disaster in most years in the United States. The National Weather Service estimates that about 175 people die of heat related causes during an average year. Some years are much worse. The official total of dead attributed to the 1995 event in Chicago stands at 739. Officials argued about which deaths belonged in the count at the time and continue to do so today, but in any event the extent of the disaster cannot be denied.

On Wednesday, July 12, 1995, the temperature in Chicago reached 95-degrees. Certainly not uncommon. But on Thursday the 13th, the high was 104 at O’Hare Airport and 106 at the more urban Midway Airport. To compound the stress, the dewpoint at times exceeded 80-degrees which is rare. That would make the heat index between 120 and 130-degrees.

Chicago Tribune

By Friday, July 14, with a high of 102, paramedics and police officers knew there was a major problem. The number of fatalities rose to the point that the system was overwhelmed. Refrigerated trucks were brought to the morgue and mortuary students worked non-stop for two days assisting the morgue staff in handling the bodies of victims.


Chicago Tribune

The urban heat island effect was in full operation. Buildings and pavement held the heat at night, especially in the humid air so there was no relief. Many of the victims were elderly, young and those with existing medical issues. The situation was especially dire in poorer neighborhoods where residents either had no fans or air conditioners or were reluctant to use them given the cost of electricity. In addition, some victims were fearful for their safety and kept windows closed and locked. One of the city’s major hospitals lacked air conditioning in most of the building even in 1995! Surgical staffs were rotated frequently.

Since the effects of extreme heat tend to be cumulative, people continued to succumb for days after the heat began to subside on Saturday when the high was “only” 98.

heat_1The Chicago Heatwave of 1995 was a well-documented event, but similar heatwaves are common. Just this past week much of Western Europe had unusually high temperatures and in June perhaps as many as 1,500 people died of the heat in Pakistan. In May of 2015, 2,500 people died in a heatwave in India.


The National Weather Service has a number of safety tips, including:
Avoid the Heat. Stay indoors and in air conditioning as much as possible
Check on neighbors and the elderly.
Wear loose fitting clothing. Light colors reflect heat and sun.
Drink plenty of water and natural juices. The body loses water faster than it can absorb it. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Avoid large meals. Eat smaller portions and more frequently.
NEVER leave children or pets in a vehicle even for a few minutes.

In addition, the weather service has a heatwave brochure available for download.

Washington Wildfires Wreaking Woe

The Sleepy Hollow fire near the north-central Washington State city of Wenatchee started in the afternoon of June 28, 2015. The cause is unknown but natural causes have been ruled out, leaving intentional or accidental human-origin causes to blame. Unseasonably high temperatures, early drought conditions, and high fuel loads have elevated fire risk in the area much earlier in the summer than normal. The fire started outside the city, but wind drove it into residential areas of this city of 33,000. Hundreds of residents were evacuated. It has burned 2950 acres and has destroyed 29 primary residences. Embers blew into the commercial business district and subsequent fires destroyed four businesses; some were large agricultural processing or storage warehouses, raising concerns about hazardous material involvement. Those areas have been secured and hazardous materials contained.

The Chelan WA County Commissioners have issued an emergency declaration of the area as a high danger area, banning all outdoor burning and the use of fireworks. Some roads are restricted to local resident and emergency use only. The evacuation center has been moved from a high school to a church.  The BNSF rail line (a major NW transportation corridor) was closed but has been re-opened.

The number of firefighting personnel involved with this fire is 336; they are primarily volunteers. They have incurred a few injuries including heat exhaustion; no injuries to the public have been reported. With limited numbers of firefighters available, four days of firefighting already, and new fires reported in the area, firefighting personnel is stretched to the limit. With the Sleepy Hollow fire 47% contained as of the evening of June 30 evening, some are being re-deployed to other emerging fire situations.

The majority of efforts have switched from response to recovery, assisting those who have lost their homes and businesses. A local footwear business is offering free shoes to all fire victims. A fruit packing business offered its facilities to a competitor whose fruit packing facility was destroyed, thereby helping the business continue operating during fruit harvest season. These responses demonstrate that even during periods of drought and wildfires, human hearts can contain bottomless wellsprings of compassion and hope.

–Submitted by Susan Kerr, WA State EDEN Delegate


Weather Wednesday – When the Smoke Gets in your Skies


For the past several days the media has been showing images of a smoke plume reaching from wildfires in Saskatchewan  across the Midwest and farther south.   From the ground the smoke appears as a haze high in the sky and may filter the sun.   Sunrises and sunsets in the areas where there is smoke in the atmosphere have been more colorful than usual.

While such events occur fairly frequently, this one has garnered additional attention because of the vast area that is reporting at least some smoke.  It is expected the area will shift to the east as the weather pattern changes over the holiday weekend.

IMG_1097Here’s what the sky looked like in central Illinois at about 11AM on Wednesday, July 1, 2015.  The darker parts of the image are clouds, put the sun is seen filtered in part by the smokey haze.

At the current time most of the smoke is high in the atmosphere and is not likely to be able to be smelled nor is it a particular threat to those with breathing difficulties.   However, the situation is different in parts of Alaska where a Dense Smoke Advisory has been issued near some wildfires. There people have been cautioned not only about limited visibility but the possibility of health impacts.

Nearly all of the wildfires have been caused by lightning.

As we approach the July 4th holiday, please keep those fireworks under control and don’t contribute to any new wildfires.

Weather Wednesday — Lightning Safety — Special Monday Edition

We’ll keep things short this week as your author needs to hit the road for visits to our Chicago-area Extension offices.

In some parts of the country, this is Lightning Safety Awareness Week.  The following passage is from the Peoria Journal Star on Monday, June 22, 2015:  … the motorcyclists were traveling side-by-side when lightning hit a taxi van and then the motorcyclists. The driver of the van was injured, but survived, after going into a ditch, but the motorcyclists, who were burnt and suffered heart attacks, died at the scene.  This freak accident occurred in Decatur, Illinois and points to just how unpredictable and dangerous lightning can be.

–Douglas Berry via NOAA

Severe storms are forecast in a large part of the Great Lakes region and points east early in the week, so I’d like to share a National Weather Service link that tells you just about everything you need to know about lightning safety.

Weather Wednesday – Tropical Depression Bill and Flooding

It’s often said in areas of drought in the southern U.S. that it takes a tropical storm to reverse the situation. This year, as we know, the Texas-Oklahoma drought was fairly well broken by a lingering storm system over Memorial Day weekend which resulted in more than 30 deaths.

BILL_qpfNow comes what is left of Tropical Storm Bill, already as of this morning, reduced to a tropical depression. Some parts of Texas into Arkansas may see 2 to 5-inches of rain in the next day. While these rain totals don’t match some from the Memorial Day storms, they are excessive and flash flooding is a possibility.

fill_94qwbg_smAs the remnants of Bill move slowly to the northeast across the next several days the heaviest rain will eventually spread into southern Illinois and on to Indiana by late Friday night into Saturday. Here’s the latest hydrological forecast discussion.

In fact, the remnants of Bill will interact with a stalled frontal system which has caused periodic heavy rain for more than a week as it waffled up and down across Illinois and nearby states.flood map Flood warnings have been issued for several rivers in Illinois and extend into portions of the Mississippi River bordering the state. Flooding in Illinois ranges from major to minor and areas of heaviest precipitation have varied daily.

On Monday, tornado warning sirens sounded in downtown Chicago, a relatively rare occurrence. A funnel cloud was observed east of Midway Airport and another near Millenium Park which is just east of Michigan Avenue in the heart of the city. No touchdowns were reported, but some photos taken at the time show an unmistakable wall cloud.

Weather Wednesday – The Family Go Kit

From time to time on Weather Wednesday we will step away from purely meteorological topics to address preparedness. This week we’ll discuss one of the most basic preparedness items, a personal or family Go Kit.

A Go Kit should be assembled and customized according to individual needs following some general guidelines from FEMA. Be sure to look under the tabs for additional suggested items.

AP_fairdale_tornado_14_sk_150410_16x9_1600Let’s look at some of the items which should be included:

Water, one gallon per person per day for three days for drinking and sanitation. For long term storage the crystal clear containers hold up better, but water and food stocks should be rotated out regularly.

Food, a three day supply of non-perishable food. If using canned food, be sure to include a can opener. Specialty meals designed for use by campers are also a good option. Check preparation instructions to be sure you have all of the necessary equipment.

Battery powered, hand cranked and/or solar powered radio capable of receiving NOAA All-Hazards Weather Radio and standard broadcast. Carry extra batteries.

Flashlight and extra batteries. Batteries will generally last considerably longer in LED flashlights.

Washington, DC, July 22, 2008 -- A Red Cross "ready to go" preparedness kit showing the bag and it's contents.  Red Cross photograph
Red Cross via FEMA

First aid kit. A good basic kit will suffice unless special needs are involved.

Whistle to signal for help. A small air horn is also a good addition, but you can’t beat a whistle for convenience. It takes less volume of air to blow a whistle than to yell which can be important if one is trapped by debris. A whistle or horn also has a better chance of being heard over heavy equipment.

Dust mask.

Plastic sheet and tape if asked to shelter in place.

Local maps. Remember, familiar landmarks may be destroyed in some disasters.

Cell phone with chargers, inverters, solar power, charging packs, etc. Note, avoid using accessories such as the built in flashlight which tend to run down the battery rapidly.

Prescription medications and glasses. Setting aside medication can be problematic so work with your physician and pharmacist to see what can be done.

Cash and change. If the power is out or communications lines down, ATMs will be out of service.

Copies of insurance papers, account numbers, etc. Do keep these in a special place in the kit so you can keep track of them.

Infant formula, diapers, pet food, etc if applicable. Include a leash for your pet and count their water needs as well.

Change of clothes. Err on the side of warmth and waterproof items.

A couple of items recent experience has shown to be very valuable. Sturdy shoes or boots. Sandals and flip flops are not at all useful when walking through debris. If you have identified a shelter area in your home, you might want to keep the spare shoes/boots there.

Bicycle helmets or hard hats may also be useful if easily accessible to your shelter area.

Remember a Go kit should be able to do just that, pick up and go, should the need arise. It is important to temperate the desire to plan for all contingencies with the practical need to perhaps carry the kit for some distance. Kits are also available from retailers, but make sure to customize to your needs.

Weather Wednesday — The Week That Was

It’s been an eventful week on the weather front, so let’s highlight a few points.

-Damage near Van, TX — KSFY

What started out as a very quiet first quarter of the year as regards the number of tornadoes has become much more active since mid-April. There have been several widespread, damaging and deadly outbreaks, especially over the last ten days or so.

The organization U.S. Tornadoes has begun to compile a rolling list of the highest incidence of tornadoes in 2015. One can see that May is headed toward reversing the early year trend of below normal activity.

storm-thumb-051015In addition, the storms over the past weekend (May 9 and 10) included extremely high rainfall rates in some areas which led to flash flooding and necessitated swift water rescues. Some of the rescues were broadcast live by television stations in Dallas and retransmitted to the entire country via The Weather Channel.


And if that wasn’t enough, a late season snowstorm on the same weekend buried parts of the Rocky Mountains into the Dakotas. The heavy, wet snow damaged buildings and had to be shoveled out of Coors Field before the Colorado Rockies could host their Sunday afternoon game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

tropical-storm-anaAnd to top it all off, Tropical Storm Ana, brought gusty winds and copious amounts of rain to the Southeast.

Weather Wednesday – May through July Outlook

The Climate Prediction Center recently issued its 90-day outlook for temperature and precipitation for the U.S. It also updated the drought monitor tool.

off01_tempIn general the outlook calls for the next three months to feature above normal temperatures in the western third of the country and in the far southeastern states. Alaska and the Pacific Northwest will also be warmer than usual. Below normal temperatures are confined to much of Texas and areas of adjoining states. Most of the country will see an equal chance for above or below normal temperatures.


off01_prcpMuch of the nation may experience above normal precipitation from the southeast through the gulf states to the western plains and Rockies along with a good portion of Alaska. The above normal rainfall may bring drought relief to Texas and the four corners area. The Great Lakes states will see below normal precipitation and the potential of a developing drought. Lake levels and fire danger may be impacted.


drought 90The drought monitor shows little change in the near term for the hardest hit areas of the west, parts of Texas, and parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Over the 90 day period of the outlook, the drought may ease in Texas and areas northwest of there. However, drought conditions may expand in the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, little or no relief is seen for California.  Just this week water use restrictions of from 8% to 36% were enacted for some municipalities.

Late breaking news.  Tornadoes in Germany!

There was a fairly broad outbreak of severe weather including tornadoes in Germany on Tuesday, May 5.  Here’s coverage from the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Weather Wednesday – First Tornado Captured by Radar

62 years ago this month, April 9, 1953, about 3 miles from where I am sitting, a tornado was caught by radar for the first time. Scientists and electrical engineers at the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had modified a former WWII airborne radar for use in estimating amounts of precipitation falling from storms.

Don Staggs, an electrical engineer, was preparing the radar for later field tests. He started to notice what we now call “hook echo” returns in the scans of the storm. As afternoon turned to evening, a strong thunderstorm developed just north of Champaign, about ten miles from the radar site at the university-owned Willard Airport. The storm image included a pronounced hook on the bottom rear flank much as we see hook echoes on modern Doppler radar.

first radar image of a tornado
Illinois State Water Survey via The News Gazette

Still photos and a 16mm film of the images on the scope captured that moment. A team of meteorologists and technicians were able to study the image capture. Later, Dr. Ted Fujita the creator of the tornado strength measurement scale that bears his name, sketched over 200 of the frames of the film in his own hand. All of this can be seen in a terrific article from Colorado State University.  Note especially the photos of the tornado and the well-developed wall cloud.

We now know that the radar captured the early stages of an F3 tornado that eventually traveled about 160 miles and dissipated near Albany, IN. There were two fatalities and about $4-million in property damage in Illinois. The path of the storm took it across mostly rural areas.

Next week, we’ll discuss current use of radar and what may be the next generation of this important forecast tool.