Cameras in hand, faculty chase northern Illinois tornado


NIU professor captures tornado in northern Illinois

By Keith Hernandez

Associate meteorology professor Walker Ashley didn’t know he was going to see an EF4 tornado when he drove out on I-88 to observe Thursday’s storm.

The tornado that hit northern Illinois resulted in two deaths and left a trail of destruction from Ashton to Kirkland. Ashley, who is a certified meteorology consultant, said he had known about the approaching weather for a week. He grabbed his camera and gear and drove along I-88 toward Dixon, north of where the storm was starting to form, as soon as he received reports of a tornado watch.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting such a high-end event that day,” Ashley said. “In fact, if you probably had asked me at 5 o’clock if you thought I was going to see a tornado that day I probably would have said, ‘pretty unlikely.’”

Ashley observed what he described as an elephant trunk tornado form about 6:30 p.m. between Franklin Grove and Ashton. The tornado grew into a barrel as Ashley drove east along I-88 and then formed into a wedge as Ashley turned onto I-39 near Rochelle.

“Immediately what I did was call 9-1-1 to report the tornado that was between Franklin Grove and Ashton,” Ashley said. “It’s one of those things where you knew it was going to be moving toward the somewhat populated area of Rochelle, so I was quite concerned.”

While Ashley watched the tornado from I-39, associate history professor Eric Jones sought shelter in his basement with his 12-year-old son and four foster kittens. Jones’ house, located near Kingston, seemed to be in the path of the tornado, he said.

“It’s bizarre how to describe it; it’s like the humidity went out of the air,” Jones said. “It got quiet and then it got much more intense. As it got closer you could hear it and the lightning was pretty frightening.”

The tornado never hit Jones’ house. Jones received a text with the news the tornado had changed direction and he went upstairs and filmed it.

I felt “fear and everything for the people it might hit, relief that it wasn’t coming at us, but then had immediate concern for the houses it must be hitting,” Jones said.

The tornado produced EF3 damage in Fairdale and EF4 damage outside of Rochelle, Ashley said.

“… As a scientist I always realize that the reason we’re assessing these sorts of events and trying to forecast them better is because they do impact people,” Ashley said. “And that direct impact on people we hope to minimize in the future through improving the forecasting of these events.”