JOLIET – Feb. 20 typically is a date in northern Illinois when folks are concerned about frigid temperatures and snowstorms.
This Feb. 20, Mother Nature had different plans, as a series of severe thunderstorms passed through the region.
It’s unusual to see thunderstorms in February, but not during March, April and May. As the start of spring approaches, the likelihood of thunderstorms rises, said Ed Fenelon, the lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Romeoville.
But weather experts and first responders practice and prepare for the worst throughout the year. They work hand-in-hand to keep the community aware and safe.
Although weather is an inexact science, the response to it can be much more controlled and cohesive. It’s what they strive for.
This week, the NWS is running through mock scenarios at its headquarters near Lewis University. The team of meteorologists will respond to simulated severe weather events and practice their techniques, procedures and strategies for notifying the public.
“We practice our warning system through three parts,” Fenelon said. “We look at the atmosphere and what it’s capable of producing, the radar data, and observations in the field.”
Together, the three factors determine the various watches and warnings the NWS gives to different parts of the map. Nothing replaces the eyes in the field, Fenelon said, when it comes to forecasting warnings as storms approach.
“You look for things such as the velocity of winds elsewhere, and type and size of precipitation,” he said. “Such as inch-diameter hail.”
Firefighters are training for the unknown as well.
Last week, the Joliet Fire Department was scheduled to do disaster drill training in the area of Black Road and Glenwood Avenue, but it was canceled because the bitter cold returned. They’ll give it another shot this week.
On that February evening, people in Will and Grundy counties were given advance warning that several thunderstorm cells were traveling toward the area. The threat became real when a tornado ripped through the small town of Naplate and southern Ottawa in LaSalle County.
Will and Grundy first responders were on the radio, communicating and getting resources positioned in case disaster struck.
Most storms come in from the west, so when one is on the horizon, Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District Chief Tracey Steffes goes out to the Grundy and LaSalle county line to try to get eyes on it.
“We want to see how hazardous they can be,” he said. “We’ll radio back to headquarters and coordinate our response to prepare for what we have coming in.”