Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Weather or Not…. (part 1)


My computer beeped at me tonight. 

That’s not an unusual occurrence, especially when I’ve got the spell checker on.  I type about 70 words a minute with about 67 mistakes a minute, so often, the spellchecker sounds more like the telegraph operator on the Titanic sending out a Morse Code message than it does anything else.

But I digress.

My computer beeped at me to let me know about a “Significant Weather Alert” that had been assigned to our area.


It’s a good thing there wasn’t a tornado headed toward my house because I’d have still been sitting here, trying to figure out what the heck a “Significant Weather Alert” was.

I’m not sure what happened to Severe Thunderstorm watches or warnings.  I’m not sure if there are still Tornado watches or warnings.  I may be sitting here some night as Elmira Gulch peddles by my window with Toto in her bicycle basket, while I’m trying to figure out just how significant the weather is going to get.

Galesburg has an excellent warning system in place.  When severe weather approaches, the TV stations out of the Quad Cities interrupt their broadcasts to warn viewers, not only in the Quad Cities, but in all the outlying areas such as Galesburg as well.  The radio stations in Galesburg also suspend their broadcasts to bring breaking weather developments.

Peoria doesn’t do as well.  The four TV stations that serve our area are quick to put up little maps down in the corner of the screen to show weather warnings, but they’re a little slow in getting on the air with a live update.  The radio stations here are a joke.

One night, I scanned the FM dial, looking for weather information.  For the most part, I found music.  When I flipped over to the AM side, I found one AM station that I could get (WMBD), but they were too busy broadcasting a Cardinals’ game to be bothered with alerting area residents that they were about to be blown away.  Instead of broadcasting a warning, they were inserting an annoying beep into the game about every ten seconds. 

The beep allowed us to know that something was going on.  Gee, thanks!  Any flippin’ fool could look out the window and tell something wasn’t right.  We really didn’t need a beep to confirm our suspicions.  We needed guidance.

I live in Elmwood.  For those of you who aren’t up to date on Illinois Geography 101, Elmwood is a small town, slightly smaller than Knoxville, located just a couple miles east of the bustling metropolis of Yates City which is located on the southeastern part of Knox County.  If you’re still having trouble imagining where this is, it’s halfway between Galesburg and Peoria.  If you still can’t come up with an approximate location, I can’t help you.

As far as weather goes, this is sort of a “no-man’s land,” just outside the Galesburg area and not quite in the Peoria area.  This means that even though we’re a modern little town, complete with all the modern technological amenities like a tornado siren, we’re pretty well forgotten when it comes to weather warnings.

A few summers ago, my middle daughter had her boyfriend over for the evening and the weather was starting to turn nasty.  Severe storm watches and warnings were being posted all over the area, and our electricity was trying to decide if it was going to stay on or not.  We sat in the front room, listening to the rain pelting off the windows and the branches of the trees swishing violently back and forth.

The lights went off.  The rain started hitting harder and we realized it wasn’t rain, but hail.  I began to wonder if it might be a good idea to head for the basement.

The tornado siren started wailing and made my decision for me.  We were going below.

This is not a simple thing at our house.  We don’t have inside access to the basement.  We have to go out the back door, around a corner and down a set of cement steps in order to get to the basement.  Doing this in pitch blackness as hail pounded off our skulls while trying to maintain our footing on very slippery cement steps was challenging, especially when trying to do it with some speed.

We huddled in the dark basement, trying to get some news or information from the battery operated radio I’d grabbed on the way, but all we could get was the aforementioned music and ballgame.  Before long, the hail stopped, the sirens stopped, and I poked my head out of the basement to find that the street lights were all slowly coming back on.  There were no feet sticking out from under the house with ruby slippers on, so I figured we were safe.

The boyfriend decided after about an hour that it was time to head home to Abingdon.  We wished him well and sent him on his way.  Fifteen minutes later, he called back on his cell phone, wondering if we could put him up for the night.

It seems that he’d gotten just to the other side of Yates City and found police blocking the road.  An unconfirmed tornado (it was never made official) had destroyed a shed and a few trees, leaving the road blocked by debris. 

Later, I would find out that this “tornado” had hit about ten to fifteen minutes before our sirens went off.  In other words, by the time our warning system had kicked in, the threat was already past us.

I asked one of the firemen about this since they serve also as trained spotters for severe weather.  I was told that our sirens are actually controlled from Peoria and once a front or funnel cloud are within range of Peoria, the sirens are activated.

Unfortunately that means that the front or funnel cloud is already past Elmwood.

More than ten years ago, I was filling in an on air shift on the old Q93 (WGBQ-FM) when severe weather hit the area.  I’d never been formally trained as to what to do during a storm, especially one was accompanied by a string of warnings that needed to read on the air.  The machine that served basically as a teletype kept printing off watches and advisories, and I kept reading them. 

I was a bit concerned because I kept reading a thing that told people to stay away from metal objects and here I was, standing around a whole bunch of metal objects.  Not only that, I was speaking into one which was attached to a really big metal object that extended a few hundred feet up in the air.  Each time I read this, I wondered how smart it was for me to be doing this. 

I didn’t know how to handle the situation and I was by myself, so I decided to handle it the same way I would want it handled if I was on the listening side rather than the talking side.

I spent most of the evening reassuring listeners that everything was okay and that conditions were right for a storm, even though none had been spotted.  I’d put on some music, run to the teletype machine, rip off the latest weather bulletin, then rush back into the studio to read it over the air.  I kept stressing that there was no reason to panic.

Midway through one of the warnings, all hell broke loose.  The weather radio that only went off if the National Weather Service was issuing a tornado WARNING was going off.  The teletype machine was spewing out paper at an alarming rate.  Every phone line in the station was lit up (radio station phones don’t ring – they light up).

This seemed like a pretty good time to panic.

According to the warning that came across the wire, a tornado had been spotted west of Galesburg and was moving our way.  I read the warning along with the list of precautions and actions people should be taking. 

Now here was the problem.  I was alone in the station.  It didn’t look like anyone else was going to be coming in to help out.  I had a warning in hand with the wire service machine in the other room so I had no way of updating the information without leaving the microphone.  I didn’t want to put music back on at such a critical time, nor did I want dead air for the minute it would take to run out, grab a printout and run back.

I threw a cassette tape into a recorder we had on the control panel.  On the next trip through the warning, I recorded what I was reading, then put that on the air.  It gave me the time I needed to run out to the teletype, grab more information, and return to the studio, all without having to leave the air.

Somehow, everyone survived.  The tornado never made it to Galesburg and I got through one of the most stressful evenings of my life without any ill effects.  In fact, the station got several phone calls complementing me on the job I’d done, including one from the employees of a fast food place on North Henderson Street who had taken refuge in the restaurant’s walk in freezer.

Ray Smith who used to work at WAAG had once told me that when severe weather hit Galesburg, he headed for the station.  It was his duty to be on the air, issue warnings, and be a calming influence to his listeners.  That always impressed me.  I think I drew a lot of my decisions that night based on what Ray had told me.

Now, out in the middle of nowhere, knowing that we’re only  going to be warned of approaching tornadoes after the fact, I’ve invested in a weather radio and I keep an internet radar page bookmarked on my computer.

I need to know just how significant the weather’s going to be.  I also need to know if I need to grab my camcorder and head outside.