WASHINGTON, Ill. – When a cluster of violent thunderstorms began marching across the Midwest, forecasters were able to draw a bright line on a map showing where the worst of the weather would go.
Their uncannily accurate predictions – combined with television and radio warnings, text message alerts and storm sirens – almost certainly saved lives as rare late-season tornadoes dropped out of a dark autumn sky. Although the storms howled through 12 states and flattened entire neighborhoods within a matter of minutes, the number of dead stood at just eight.
By Monday, another reason for the relatively low death toll also came to light: In the hardest-hit town, many families were in church.
“I don’t think we had one church damaged,” said Gary Manier, mayor of Washington, Ill., a community of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago.
The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of Washington to the other and damaged or destroyed as many as 500 homes. The heavy weather also battered parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.
Back in Washington, Daniel Bennett was officiating Sunday services before 600 to 700 people when he heard an electronic warning tone. Then another. And another.
“I’d say probably two dozen phones started going off in the service, and everybody started looking down,” he said.
What they saw was a text message from the National Weather Service cautioning that a twister was in the area. Bennett stopped the service and ushered everyone to a safe place until the threat passed.
Forecasting has steadily improved with the arrival of faster, more powerful computers. Scientists are now better able to replicate atmospheric processes into mathematical equations.
In the last decade alone, forecasters have doubled the number of days in advance that weather experts can anticipate major storms, said Bill Bunting of the National Weather Service.