Letter from the Editor: Sunday's tornadoes took me right back to 1990

  • This is what was left of my alma mater, Plainfield High School (now Plainfield Central High School) after a tornado on Aug. 28, 1990. My freshman biology teacher was one of the people killed there that day.

    This is what was left of my alma mater, Plainfield High School (now Plainfield Central High School) after a tornado on Aug. 28, 1990. My freshman biology teacher was one of the people killed there that day. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer, August 1990

  • Melynda Shamie

    Melynda Shamie

 
 
Updated 6/24/2021 4:43 PM

I've been thinking a lot about the tornadoes that wreaked havoc down in the West suburbs over the weekend. While tornadoes, or at least the weather that can cause them, are relatively common in this area, it's probably less common to actually experience the devastation firsthand.

And I guess I have, in a way.

 

Because of that, every time I hear a tornado siren -- like many of us did around the suburbs on Sunday -- I have the same reaction: Panic. I don't even look at my phone or the TV; I get the cat into her carrier, grab my stuff and get myself, my husband, and anyone else nearby to the basement. (Because I'm a journalist, though, I paid more attention to how the storm was affecting all of you in Glenview and Northbrook than to where it was in relation to my home in the Northwest suburbs. SAFE.)

My reaction stems from Aug. 28, 1990: The day an F5 tornado hit my hometown, Plainfield, when 29 people died, including my parents' paperboy, my high school biology teacher, parents of friends from school and a couple of neighbors. The subdivision where I grew up was hit pretty hard, and my high school was leveled. In fact, most of my childhood landscape was wiped out.

Plainfield looks completely different now than it did before that day.

I wasn't actually there the day of the storm. I was a week into classes at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, working at the Daily Egyptian newspaper, struggling with briefs for media law and wondering what possessed me to sign up for economics.

In fact, I was coming home from said economics class when one of the guys from my dorm stopped me outside the TV lounge.

"Hey, Mel," he called. "Come here. You're from Plainfield, right?"

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The TV was tuned to CNN, and while I saw an aerial shot of destruction, it took a minute to register that all those shards were what was left of my high school.

I rambled up the stairs in kind of a daze; my roommate and a couple of friends were waiting for me, all wearing sympathetic looks. Mary, my closest friend at the time, spoke first: "I need to talk to you, right now. Your mom called ..."

"I already know," I said. "About the tornado."

"Yes," Mary said. "You know? Your house is fine. Your grandma is in the hospital. You should call them at (the neighbor's) house."

For awhile, things were scary. My grandma was taken to a hospital in Naperville with serious injuries but was generally OK. My great aunt's house was gone and nobody knew where she was. (My always-feisty aunt was just fine, as it turned out; she had been out running errands when the storm hit, and the closest she came to being injured was her annoyance at all the fussing over her not being injured).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

My parents told me I couldn't come home until they had power again, which took a couple of weeks. And even when I got there, after showing police ID to prove I belonged there, it didn't feel like I did.

I actually got lost going to the home where I'd lived for 19 of my 21 years. My landmarks were gone.

I checked in with friends; we all knew people who had died and were injured, because back then, Plainfield's population was just more than 3,000. (It's more than 40,000 now)

As you might expect, the grief was overwhelming. But there were also lighter moments and plenty of reasons to be grateful.

As I said, my parents and their home were fine. My aunt was fine. My brother's Illinois National Guard unit was called up to help in the aftermath.

My grandma handled the whole thing with a sense of humor. She told me how she had been standing in front of her living room window, watching the storm roll in, when suddenly her couch (she called it a "davenport") got sucked right out that same window.

"I thought, well, that doesn't seem right," she told me. It was the last thing she remembered before being pulled out of the wreckage of her home by first responders, with help from a cardiologist who just happened to be passing by on I-55 while driving home from a conference downstate and stopped to help.

They found her with her dog, a Doberman pinscher named Arnie, rolled up together in the carpeting. Arnie was fine; grandma had a pretty gruesomely broken leg and several other injuries. She also was VERY. ANGRY.

The doctor detailed the rescue for us.

"As she regained consciousness, the first thing she said was 'I just vacuumed this morning. I guess that was a gosh-darn waste of time,'" he told us. (My grandma was from Iowa. Yes, she really probably did say "gosh darn")

She also told him she blamed all of it on buying a cursed piece of orange roughy at the Jewel that morning; she didn't remember saying it later. We teased her about it for years, though.

While she obviously lost a lot of things, including the couch that was sucked out the window, the actually valuable, irreplaceable things -- like her wedding rings, a Bible that had come over with my grandpa's family from Scotland and tons of old family photos -- all somehow survived intact. We even found eleventy billion of my grandpa's canceled checks from as far back as the 1930s, some even written in pencil.

My grandma recovered well and her house was rebuilt; Plainfield also rebuilt.

But it's hard to say whether it ever really recovered.

More than 30 years later, all of us old-school Plainfieldians still occasionally measure time as pre- and post-tornado, and I am certainly not the only one who panics when those sirens go off. And we all have stories we pull out when they do.

So why am I telling you all of this? I guess to help make the story of what happened Sunday in Naperville and Woodridge a little more relatable.

And to let you know that there are people in need, so consider donating to GoFundMes or various charities.

Most importantly, though, when you hear a siren? Go. When the meteorologists interrupt your favorite TV show to let you know about severe weather approaching? Don't get angry; listen. When you get the "take cover" text on your phone? It doesn't mean just check the National Weather Service Twitter feed or mosey over to the window. It means take cover. Now.

• Melynda has worked at the Daily Herald for 21 years.

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