Seven counties declared disaster areas

By Danielle Gaines

Howling winds and damaging hail from a Springfield tornado could be heard, but not seen, by two University of Illinois at Springfield students as they spent Sunday night hunched in an Olive Garden kitchen.

Graduate student Jenny Spraggs, undergraduate Mary Sexton and the other patrons of the restaurant took cover after Sexton’s husband called her cell phone to warn them of the coming danger.

The diners remained in the back of the restaurant for two hours until the storm, which hit ground in Springfield around 8:15 p.m., passed.

“It was total chaos,” Spraggs said of the conditions when they emerged.

Ed Shimon, a senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Lincoln office, said 10 tornados touched ground in Central Illinois, with 14 total touchdowns in the state. The tornadoes were produced from one storm system that hit between 7:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. across different parts of Illinois.

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    On Monday, Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared seven counties state disaster areas: Ford, Greene, Logan, Morgan, Randolph, Sangamon, and Scott. Springfield is located in Sangamon County. Ford County borders Champaign County to the north.

    Don Mitchell, chief of police for the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the worst of the storm hit between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

    “We were very fortunate here (at the university),” he said. “We have identified no damage so far.”

    The majority of Springfield students are off campus for spring break, but 50 to 60 students were taken into underground tunnels for safety by the police department. Students were informed by the police of the weather conditions through the campus intercom system, e-mail and visits to housing.

    Though action on campus was swift during Sunday night’s storms, Spraggs said she recalled students standing outside and watching the storm during a tornado warning last year.

    “When a warning comes out, people do not perceive it as an immediate threat until they have confirmation; so they go outside to look or turn on the radio or TV before taking immediate cover,” Shimon said. “It takes time to verify and there isn’t always that time because the tornado might be closer than you think.”

    Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, also agreed the most common mistake made by people in severe weather situations is not taking the warnings seriously.

    University students face a number of unique problems during severe weather, said Champaign Deputy Fire Chief Steve Clarkson. Students often watch television stations that are not local and do not run weather advisory information in the corner of the screen.

    Incomplete knowledge of state geography also poses a problem.

    Sarah Murphy, senior in Communications, is from Springfield and paid attention to the weather in both Sangamon and Champaign counties Sunday night.

    “I have family from (Champaign County) so I have a fairly good idea of the different counties,” she said. “Understanding the geography of the area would definitely help students gauge their reaction to weather events.”

    Murphy’s Springfield home was not damaged in the storm, though her family did experience a power outage. Her grandmother lives in the southwestern part of the city, which was hit more severely by the storm.

    “She was hit pretty hard and had to sit in the closet with a candle for a while,” Murphy said.

    Thompson said the most important thing during severe weather is to have plans in place before the storms hit.

    “Planning ahead of time is just not something that people in college will do – I didn’t do it, but you need to know your building and surroundings a little bit better,” Shimon said. “It is better to take caution and be wrong than the other way around.”

    Andrew Bean, senior in Engineering, who is also from Springfield, said his home was not damaged in the storm and no one in his family was injured.

    “Our house was untouched, but there is some major damage just two blocks away,” he said.

    Bean said the recent storms and damage do not encourage him to create severe weather plans or survival kits with his roommates.

    In the event of a severe storm, students in apartment complexes should go to the interior room of the lowest level, putting as many walls between them and the outside as possible, Shimon said.

    Clarkson recommends keeping a weather radio in the apartment or complex to ensure notification of severe weather. The radios can be bought at home improvement stores for as low as $30.

    “Any time you don’t have access to or take advantage of the warning systems in place, you are putting yourself in danger,” he said.

    The repercussions from poor planning can be substantial, Shimon said.

    The storm in Springfield, though not fatal, caused severe damage to the west side of the city. At 5 p.m. Monday evening, Spraggs and Sexton were still without power. A large tree had been uprooted in Sexton’s neighborhood crushing two vehicles and part of her home. Mitchell said the power company had ordered 400 electrical poles, which were snapped in half across the city.