‘Derecho’ storm, 2023

Crews clean up damage from the derecho in July 2023 (William Cellini Jr.)

The storm that hit Sangamon County on June 29, 2023, wasn’t, by definition, a tornado. But you couldn’t tell that from the destruction.  In a tornado (or a hurricane), winds circulate in a spiral. The 2023 damage was caused instead by straight-line winds associated with thunderstorms – a “derecho” (pronounced “deh-REY-cho”) in weather terminology.

Forecasters issued a weather bulletin for 35 counties, including Sangamon, that predicted a line of severe thunderstorms for mid-day June 29, 2023. The incoming weather sounded typical for a summer storm in Central Illinois.  The report mentioned the possibility of a tornado, but did not specifically include a tornado watch.

Whatever the storm was called, residents weren’t expecting the wrath of damage that followed. Wind-blown debris from the derecho smashed homes and cars.  Telephone poles and power lines came down and blocked streets.  Fields of crops were flattened, and hundreds of thousands of residents from the Central Plains to Indiana were without power for over a week.  In the aftermath, the local devastation was compared to the damage caused by the infamous Easter Ice Storm that coated Sangamon County in 1978.

A derecho typically carries winds of at least 58 mph and gusts of 75 mph or greater. The winds that blasted Sangamon County on June 29, 2023, at times were clocked at 80 mph.

The derecho entered the Springfield area about 12:30 p.m. Because of the straight-line nature of the wind, some parts of the county received full impact while other areas saw no wind damage at all.  In Springfield, for example, sections of the far west end received no destruction.  However, many telephone, internet and television cable lines were knocked out by the storm, making overall communication extremely difficult in the aftermath.

In terms of speed, the derecho crossed Sangamon County in about an hour. It had traveled eight hours and roughly 460 miles from southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas. After it moved into Central Illinois, it continued on to Indiana.

The derecho was accompanied by rounds of rainstorms. The first round occurred before sunrise in western Sangamon County.  Storms continued into the mid-morning hours bringing “supercell” thunderstorms and hail as they rolled east-southeast. A third round of storms (south of Interstate 70 in Illinois) affected Clay and Richland counties.

Power outages on July 3, 2023 (CWLP)

Locally, much of the derecho’s damage consisted of uprooted trees, fallen branches and downed power lines.  Also damaged were power transformers and equipment vital to electric service across the county.  City Water, Light and Power said that about 40,000 customers (half of all those CWLP serves) in 63 outage areas were without power at times during the storm.  After the derecho, between 7,000 to 20,000 customers were without electricity at varying times.  Springfield Mayor Misty Buscher declared a local state of emergency and a city-wide curfew due to the widespread damage.

As late as July 3, 8,700 residents still had not had their power restored. Officials said crews were repairing relatively easy jobs first – “…if not, then they have to back off and bring in other people or crews, more material.”

“It isn’t like a tornado that hits one particular area,” commented Mayor Buscher. “It’s city-wide.”  The Bank of Springfield Center served as an emergency accommodation for people needing food, water, and even sleeping accommodations.

In addition to the derecho, weather radar also spotted some tornado activity. An F2 tornado was recorded near Curran. Damage ensued near Curran Road and Spaulding Orchard Road, and sections of a roof were blown off a home in that area.

Ten minutes after the Curran tornado, an F1 tornado was recorded in Lincoln that brought down electrical poles on Interstate 55 and  passed within two miles of the National Weather Service office at Logan County Airport.  That same afternoon, three other tornados of low intensity were recorded in nearby counties.

CWLP workers toiled through 17-hour shifts to restore power, and aid workers had to come to Sangamon County from as far away as New Jersey to assist with the clean-up.   Full electrical service wasn’t restored to the city until after July 6.

The storm and its damage also prompted the city of Springfield to improve its disaster planning. “One year later,” the State Journal-Register reported on June 27, 2024, “the city now has an emergency operations coordinator, a crisis communications plan and an earmark for an emergency operations center. It also considering implementing smart meter technology.”

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