30 Years Later: The ’91 Lemont Tornado

Today marks 30 years since an F-3 tornado carved a path through Lemont. I was seven years old and lived on Cass St. at the time and had just come home from school before the siren went off. I remember the day. My father nearly pushed my brother and me down the stairs into our basement as he stood at our door watching outside (which is certainly not advised, but we all do it!).

The tracks of all F-3 and stronger tornadoes from 1950-2017

It was a rough two years in terms of weather. Just a year earlier an F5 tornado devastated Plainfield killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Thankfully, the Lemont tornado of 1991 didn’t kill anyone (unlike the twister in ’76), but about a hundred homes were destroyed which is enough for people who lived there to remember it!

It was a defining time for me as it instilled a healthy fear of storms! Then in 1992 I watched a WGN tornado documentary from my hero Tom Skilling called It Sounded Like a Freight Train. I learned so much about tornadoes and severe weather from that program, and it started a lifelong interest understanding how weather works…something I continue to pursue. Fear really only lives when there is a lack of understanding, and Skilling’s program is what started to replace my fear of storms with an understanding of how they work!

Here’s footage of the 1991 Lemont Tornado:

Here’s the story of how Lemont reacted to the tornado that lives in the memories of all that lived in town at the time, as remembered by Bob Porter and shared on the Longtime Lemonters Facebook group.

While having a sandwich at Nicks today some guy mentioned the tornado in Lemont past. Time has eroded the memory of the two tornadoes of Lemont. The first one came in 1976 and second one came in March 27, 1991. It was the second one that really caught all by surprise as tornadoes normally don’t appear in the early Spring. I think a Snippet on the 1991 tornado is in order for it’s 30th anniversary.
The storm hit the community in the late afternoon. The recovery response only had a few hours before darkness came and would limit recovery efforts. The storm was more of a surgical cut through the town verses the grinder tornado in 1976. Police and fire did a great job on getting injuries dealt with the first few hours. There was fortunately no deaths.
Police Chief Don Wiegand came out to the Centennial Park Community Center that evening as darkness fell to find me. He looked exhausted already with the major job of work ahead. He asked me if I would step up by taking point to coordinate the community in organizing for the recovery. The village did not have an administrator nor did the Lemont Emergency Management Association existing at the time. The village and township did not even have a formal emergency plan in place. He felt our combined experience in dealing with the 1976 storm, our community background in knowing all the players and how to get it done would be beneficial. The Mayor, Joe Forzley had agreed to this plan idea.
Don & I spent time prepping notes and getting a check list made for a meeting that was scheduled for 9:00pm at the bowling alley (emergency power was brought in by Comm Ed for the building to hold the meeting). We had all the players present – utility companies, public works, fire district, police, state police, county officials, state officials, and the needed elected officials.
All sat down in the bowling lane seats and folding chairs while Don & I stood on a lane facing them to get the ball started. The previous 1976 storm gave us great insight on the initial steps needed to get the recovery moving. We went right down our check list for preparing for the recovery stage. The police were directed to seal the town and only let in residents (sight seers would clog the streets & the sealing the town would reduce looting). The Fire District was tasked to be first responders to check buildings for injuries and fire related needs. The public works department was tasked to determine the safety of any damaged homes and businesses. Utility companies were assigned staging areas for their equipment and needs. The Jaycees would help coordinate volunteers for clean up being assigned from the park district building. The decision was made not to accept donations of clothing (took 5 months to get rid of the 1976 donations following the storm). The determination was made that sewer and water systems were functional and safe. Water & gas were sealed at break points. Bottle water was to be collected and distributed by the volunteer corp. The mayor was assigned to keep the state and federal politicians and media out of our hair by touring the damages with them. The village hall was not assigned as the command center as parking and its location was a negative hinderance. Police and Fire were the prime task groups with all following in behind them. There was no confusion or arguments of authority or chain of command. The park center was the command station even with it’s major construction in process of the building expansion. Centennial Park had the room for meeting space, parking, utility company storage, showers, and other logistics needed.
The Lemont Clergy Association under Reverend Glen Bergmark was asked to deal with the dispersement of cash donations for those of need. Their decisions were final with no interference by government agencies. Thousand of dollars came in. The pastors and priests did a great job getting the money out to the folks of need.
We were able to get the Governor to declare the town an emergency to access state resources. FEMA took a pass on the most part as many of the damaged homes had insurance. The local insurance offices stepped up with field agents helping the claim process to be handled on the scene for the property owners.
The area park district emergency plan was activated with dozens of park districts sending their experienced maintenance personnel with tools and trucks needed. The park districts send dozens of trained men and women to help. These experienced park district personnel knew how to deal with the issues of clean up and recovery.
A tire changing/repair station was established as the 1976 storm taught us the need for service for tire repair from broken glass and nails. We made sure all streets were clear of major debris that first night for the coming sunrise attack plan for the recovery.
Decisions were quickly made where the recovery trucks would take the destroyed property items for waste dumping. The village and township stepped up with their trucks. Residents and volunteers were to get the waste to the street for the trucks and volunteer crews to remove it.
The Jaycees and park employees managed assignments for volunteers to go the first few days for the recovery. Lemonters stepped up and volunteered by the hundreds. We had an army of Amish folks arrive and jumped in the clean up. We asked Norb Lesnieski and others who spoke affluent Polish to help calm down our elderly Polish residents when the volunteers walked up to their homes to clean.
The challenge was keeping pace with the massive surge of help pouring in. Accommodations were made for the insurance adjusters to help the financial recovery for the residents. The township held an emergency meeting and created funds to help pay for immediate recovery items. Red Ordman walked in asked what can I donate. His grocery store made a lot of deli sandwiches for the workers. It started the snowball of many local businesses stepping up to help. Citgo Refinery sent a large crew of workers, trucks, equipment and supplies to help out.
It seem chaotic to some looking in, but the actual process of recovery went smoothly as we had the prior experience in dealing with it. The 1991 storm had a broader size of damage area of some homes being all but destroyed while the house next to it barely had a scratch. The tornado did a long surgical damage swipe of the town and township area. The heavy lift of the recovery was accomplished in 36 hours following the storm.
The Red Cross and the Salvation Army came with their resources. The two Boy Scout troops had their scouts doing tasks to allow others to help clean. The Girl Scout units were not to be outdone by the the boys with showing up in force, too. The churches all came to offer what they could plus counseling for those of need.
There was no individual to be praised more then as the collective number of people who came to help in the recovery. The town came together to make sure their neighbors were taken care of. Lemont will always stand up when the need arises.
What do you remember from that tornado? Our new residents and local government leaders in the past 30 years have not had to experience this type of damage. Few of the recovery players are still around. Age, retirement, moving away and passing of death have dented our experienced folks for this type of emergency. Lemonters will regardless step up and help no matter what if such an emergency should again occur. Our Emergency Management group now have training for these types of disasters.
A formal disaster plan was approved years ago by the village and township governments.