October 24, 2001 – High risk chase in Central Illinois

Well today certainly had the makings of a widespread outbreak of tornadoes and straight-line wind damage. The Day 2 outlook on Tuesday suggested that most of the activity would be in Indiana. They had placed a moderate risk over the entire state of Indiana and a sliver of Illinois. (it was 15 miles SW of Champaign!) As I looked at some of the forecast models, I had a hunch that just maybe IL would have more of a chance that this was indicating. I’d received two separate invitations to go to Indiana with other chasers, however, something told me to stay put and see what would happen right here in my neck of the woods.

When I woke up at 6:00am CDT, my first plan of action was to check the new Day 1 outlook. Not only had the threat shifted west a bit into IL, but the SPC had labeled this threat a ‘high risk’! I repeatedly pinched myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. I said to myself: “Self… This is Illinois, in late October, and you’re telling me that I am in a high risk? No way!!! Way….”) I had decided at that point to make the weather my main and only focus for the remainder of the day. I flipped on TWC and was again shocked to hear them really emphasizing this ‘high risk’ and telling people to keep a very close eye out on the weather.

As I checked my e-mail, I noticed a very ominous public severe weather statement issued by the SPC. They rarely issue these, but when they do, you know something huge is probably going to take place. Around 10:00am, the first MCD was issued. It definitely sounded like things were heating up at this point. Just 45 minutes later, a second MCD was issued. I knew that a tornado watch couldn’t be too much further away from being issued. The new late morning Day 1 outlook had been released half an hour early and it definitely put more of Central IL in a high risk. Finally, at 11:28am, the SPC issued a special PDS Tornado Watch that included parts of Central and Southern IL.

I began watching radar and noticed a pretty nifty little cell just north of St. Louis moving to the northeast. This little cell decided to go severe and even prompt the NWS to issue a tornado warning for it. It continued its way NE towards the Springfield area, which prompted another tornado warning. It seemed to really gain strength once it reached the Decatur area. Spotters over there were reporting golfball-size hail and a tornado was reported on the ground SW of Decatur at 1:07pm. I flipped on our local ABC affiliate WAND-TV (17) out of Decatur and they were showing the cell on radar. They brought up their tracker mode and the arrow of that particular cell was pointing right at Champaign.

At that point, I had seen enough and decided to load up the gear. Not wanting to take any chances, I took my dad and our dog with me just in case. We headed south on Rt. 45 to the Monticello Road and went west. We heard on the spotter net that a tornado had been spotted near Cerro Gordo and was moving at a speedy 40mph to the NE. As we continued west, the sky began to get real dark and lightning was starting to pop. At 1:42pm, the weather radio went off and informed us that a tornado warning had been issued for Champaign county. A tornado had been sighted 3 miles east of Monticello and it was tracking NE at 45mph. (I found out later it had hit Monticello pretty hard, luckily no one was seriously hurt or killed)

We stopped on CR 300 E just 1/4 mile south of CR 600 N to take some pictures (1:51pm). With the amount of rain between our location and the storm, it was hard to make out many of the features. We weren’t there more than 30 seconds when the wind decided it wanted us out of there, so we complied with it and bailed. 🙂 I turned around at some farm house and headed east to get out of the way of the storm. We made another stop on CR 600 N just 1/4 mile east of CR 1200 E. (2:06pm) Once again, after standing outside for just 30 seconds or so, the wind said hello and told us to leave. 🙂 We proceeded to head east on CR 600 N and then ran across a spot that looked like a scene from the plains. I stopped again on CR 600 N, just 1/8 mile west of CR 1900 E to take more pictures. Mother nature decided to let us stick around for a few minutes this time before dropping the temperature and blowing an estimated 50-60mph winds in my face. I ran back to the car and as I was getting in, the wind almost ripped the door out of my hands which is no easy task considering the angle that we were parked at and the weight of the door.

Once again, we continued east on CR 600 N all while I encountered some really strong winds blowing tons of leaves and cornstalks across the road. Once I hit Rt.49, I jogged south a mile and then back east on CR 500 N where I decided to just stop and wait out the rest of the storm. (2:34pm) The winds were probably a sustained 40-50mph for 10 minutes or so. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the windows were starting to fog up. The wind and rain finally let up enough for me to start heading west again and eventually returning home. On the way back, I encountered some tree limbs in the road that I couldn’t drive over, so I got out and removed them from the road. (wasn’t the smartest thing to do while wearing a t-shirt and shorts, brrrrrr!) We listened to the reports of damage on the scanner and learned that the NW part of Champaign had sustained a lot of damage from an 80-85mph downburst, not a tornado. I was kind of worried that whatever it was that did the damage might have also damaged our home which is just 1.2 miles SE of the area that was hit. Luckily we returned to find just a few twigs and leaves blown against the place. Whew!

Final thoughts:
Well, I have to say I’m glad I stuck around the area to chase rather than going to Indiana. I didn’t get to see any tornadoes, but the ominous clouds and high straight-line winds were good enough for me. The town of Monticello, IL got nailed pretty hard but thankfully there were no fatalities and very few injuries. The same cannot be said, however, about some of the storms in Indiana. 🙁 It was really cool though to be able to chase right here in IL in late October. I happened to check the barometer reading from the airport just south of Champaign and we had a reading of 29.29″ at 1pm! I would love to know if it got any lower as the storms slammed the county. I will post updates and damage reports as they become available.

Special Thanks:
I have to thank all the spotter nets out there for doing a superb job today. I’d also like to commend WAND-TV (17) out of Decatur for their quick alerts and radar updates. Good heads up also by the NWS for getting the warnings out when they were needed.

Total Chase Time: 2.5 hours
Total Chase Miles: 80 miles

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