Southern Illinois took a direct hit by a powerful freak storm last Friday afternoon, 5/8/2009. My husband Mark was at work on the Southern Illinois University - Carbondale campus, and my girls and I were home in our subdivision 4 miles southwest of town, safely downstairs in the basement bathroom, when we heard the big oak tree fall on the house. The storm turned the neighborhood forest into spaghetti (or maybe matchsticks). There were at least twenty locations where multiple big trees were tangled up together over our street, which is a 1.25 mile circle through our subdivision, laid out like a campground.

I was out working with several crews of neighbor volunteers who were trying to clear the street, while trying for a couple of hours to reach Mark on the cell phone – the land lines were down and cells were almost useless. At some point I finally saw Mark trudging his way down the wreckage of our street, like a soldier coming home from war. Neighbors were coming in from their offices in town, driving most of the way and then walking through back yards because the tree tangles on the road were too high, and you couldn't tell where the road was any more. At that point we were all still in disbelief. People were walking in with eyes like saucers.

I'm calling it Ada May (8 o' May). Others are calling it Hurricane Chainsaw because not a minute of daylight has gone by this week when you couldn't hear one or more cleaning up the mess. We've heard "meso cyclone" and "macroburst." Ours were all straight-line winds (85mph to 105mph), not tornadoes, though there were a couple small tornadoes in the first half of the storm.

Power was out at our house five days, Fri to Weds night, and internet was restored on day 8. There are still about a thousand people without power in the more rugged/remote areas, and it may be a while for them. We were able to keep the fridge fairly cool with ice, and cooked on the gas stove (we have propane out here in the boonies). Other than missing a warm shower after sawing and hauling wood every day for 5 days, we got along all right. Fortunately the weather was beautiful for the initial cleanup effort. We "got tarped" just in time for some 40mph thunderstorms that were part of the system a couple nights ago that spawned those huge tornadoes in Missouri and elsewhere.

Here are some of our photos. My insurance company is going to total the roof, though the damage is mostly on one end.

Now that the region is online again, here is a growing public gallery.

Here is what NOAA says about it – this page has a really cool radar picture of why everybody wanted to call it a hurricane. There had been a tornado through the north part of our county (Jackson) around 11:30 with the outer band. The kids came home during the ~30 minutes between the outer band and the back of the "eye". Our place is south-southeast of Murphysboro and SW of Carbondale – right inside the red circles in the yellow zone on the wind map at the bottom of the link. The clocks stopped about 1:20 and the mayhem was done by 2:00. We were at the western edge of the "event", which plowed eastward for the next hour.

"The system that moved through on May 8 had an unusually large bookend vortex. Numerical simulations completed in the early 1990s and some observational studies documented comma head vortexes were on average 12 nautical miles in diameter. The comma head on the May 8th storm was 30 to 40 nautical miles in diameter. In fact, this is the largest bookend vortex that some experts have seen in their careers. This will be the subject of more in-depth research for years to come."

So there you have it.



P.S. It was also graduation weekend! We had thousands of families in town at the time. Here is an update from a high level official at Housing for the university.

Thank you for the kind words and for the offer of assistance. We are just now coming through this crisis - I've never seen a community as devastated as this one was pull together so well to try and make it through. When it hit, we still had 3000 students living in the halls, no power except for hallway lights and lobby lights in the three towers, and no power anywhere in the city. Downed power lines and trees are all over the place - once the press gets most of their power back up, you should be able to see some of the pictures of the devastation. It's astounding and it really looks like a hurricane came through here. I grew up on the gulf coast of Texas and have lived through several hurricanes, and it's bringing back all of those memories.

The campus landscape has been changed forever. We had 100+ year old trees uprooted and fall over. Others were split down the middle as if lightening struck them. Some gusts of wind here hit 106 mph, and we had a sustained 20 minute period with 84 mph winds which caused most of the damage. People are in shock. Some small buildings on campus were simply crushed under the weight of these huge old trees. 91 windows were blown out of the residence halls, in some cases the end lounge walls were completely destroyed, but those towers are still standing!

We relocated Saturday graduation ceremonies at the 11th hour to the football stadium after cancelling two ceremonies on Friday afternoon/evening, and on Sunday, under threat of more rain, relocated the final ceremony in 2 hours to our Student Center, while electricians hooked up a massive emergency generator. Our dining hall has remained open on generator power and has served 1200 - 2000 people (depending on the day) for the lunch hour, provided water to grounds crews (we're under a boil order right now) and fed staff working on the problem during the evening.

We are now housing 600 Ameren workers from multiple locations in our residence halls. Our custodial, maintenance and residence life staff have been phenomenal - pulling extra shifts, conducting fire watch rounds, handling check out AND check in at the same time. Our family housing area still has no power, so we have a generator hooked up to the common building and a special bus service to get them back and forth to the dining hall to eat. Power has returned to the main campus, which is why I'm able to finally get email and respond to these messages from folks. We still have our family housing area without power, one campus apartment complex without power (Wall & Grand), and one residence hall without power. Satellite campus locations (Touch of Nature, Carterville campus, etc.) are still without power.

The bright spot in all of this - aside from our phenomenal staff - is that no students were seriously injured, which is amazing. There are only three deaths in a four county region associated with this disaster, which is also amazing. I am grateful for our staff, our students, and for our colleagues who reached out during this time. I know I've not even captured the half of it, and I won't be able to until I have time to reflect on the vastness of it all. I'll keep you posted on our progress, and again, thank you so much for your kindness.