The National Weather Service looks back at the EF-4 Washington Tornado

Central Illinois Strong: 10 Years Later
Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 6:00 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2023 at 10:35 AM CST
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(25News Now) - National Weather Service forecasters knew ahead of time that the storm system responsible for the Washington tornado and many others across Central Illinois could produce severe weather.

“I think this was a very well forecast event and SPC had highlighted this particular day, several days in advance” says Matt Barnes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Lincoln office.

As the calendar got closer to Sunday, November 17, the forecast showed an increasing severe weather threat.

Ed Shimon, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS Lincoln office, explains. “Slight Risk showed up on Day Three, it bumped up to Moderate Risk in the eastern half of Illinois on Day Two, which is Saturday, and then the morning of the event that ramped up to the High Risk level, which is the highest level.”

Knowing that a potentially significant severe weather event was on the way days in advance gave the NWS plenty of time to prepare themselves and the public.

Shimon says extra staff was brought in to help. “We had a total of 10 people on staff working that severe weather event in the Operations Area, and we have 16 meteorologists. So it was the majority of the people who are here as meteorologists were here on staff that day. This event lasted a long time. You’ve got to make sure that staff that are getting fatigued get swapped out. It’s a big operation and you might have to make sure everybody’s fresh at every desk to make sure that the warnings are going out timely.”

When the morning of the 17th came, they were ready.

Barnes could tell the weather just wasn’t right that day. “You just kind of had the sense just being outside that morning. You could tell how this isn’t right. You know, this is very unusual situation. It was very humid that morning.”

The first tornado warning issued that morning was just before 11 o’clock. Soon after a dangerous tornado was heading straight for Washington.

Barnes saw this first hand as a radar operator that morning. “Initially when I first saw the rotation develop I put the warning out, and then as I followed along you could tell that the circulation was tightening up. And then when it got into Washington, that, of course, was when we began to see the debris ball on radar, and then at that moment, you know without a shadow of a doubt that you’ve got a tornado on the ground, and it’s created significant damage.”

Barnes was one of two radar operators that day. While he said it was hectic, knowing that the environment was conducive for tornadic activity allowed him to get warnings out even quicker.

“I knew the environment was very primed for tornadic development. So I knew ahead of time that I was going to be very quick and liberal with the warnings. Essentially, if I saw something that started to rotate, I was gonna go for it,” says Barnes.

Severe weather and tornadoes continued into the afternoon throughout Lincoln’s forecast area. Shimon and Barnes both credit preparation and teamwork for being able to issue numerous warnings well in advance to help save life and property.

Shimon says “it’s an emotional rollercoaster when you’re in here trying to get tornado warnings out and you know that there are big ones occurring that day where people’s lives are in danger.”

“I’ve been here at the office for 23 years. I think that was one of the best planned events that we’ve ever had,” says Barnes.