The Mediapolis, Iowa to Tiskilwa, IL Tornadic Supercell- Paul’s look back

As I was browsing through the historic data for this day in weather, I came across a post from the NWS Quad Cities on one of the more influential days in my weather life.  This day marks the 20 year anniversary of a day that helped mold me in to the weather geek that I am.

I was in my freshman year of high school.  I was going through the day just like many others, but I had noticed that the temperature and humidity that day were well above normal.  It had rained the night before, so the humidity was expected, but it was (and still is) a bit abnormal to see that combined with temps in the mid 80’s this time of year.

I was participating in my high school’s track team that year, and we had a meet scheduled for Galva, IL that evening, so as soon as school let out, we loaded up and headed over to Galva High School’s track, which is located on the northwestern part of the city, with an open view to the west at the time.  We started out the day like we normally did, with field events and the longer distance races.  I threw my three puts with the shot-put and then moved to the 3200m race.  I also ran the “Heavyweight” relay, which normally came at the end of the meets, so I had some time to kill between my 3200m race and my next event.  I went to concessions and grabbed a quick small meal and a drink, and headed back toward the infield to rest.  At this time (around 5:30 pm), I noticed some large towering cumulonimbus building to the SW.   It turns out that this was the distant towers from the cell that started a long track of tornado warnings, Near Mediapolis Iowa.

As this cell continued to grow, it moved east-north-east.  This made for a bit of shade at my location around 6PM, which was welcome after the sweltering heat of the day and the 2 events that I had already participated in.  At around 6:10 PM, The coach of my track team was called via loudspeaker to the press box, along with the other coaches for the other teams.  I didn’t know what was going on, but went about business as usual, warming up for the last race of the meet, scheduled to start around 6:45PM. As I was getting ready to start my stretches, I looked to the southwest and noticed a neat formation: there was a needle sticking out of the bottom of the cloud.  Turns out, this needle was the tornado from the cell, and was located about at the Knox/Henry/Mercer County line merger area, about 12 miles ssw of my location.  About that same time(6:38PM), the tornado sirens blared.  Everyone else quickly headed for the safety of the basement of the middle school, but I was enamored with what I was witnessing: A perfect cone shaped tornado, backlit by a bright orange background.

I was pulled into the middle school building by my mother and coach, and was actually quite lucky that they did.  The tornado entered Galva at 6:58PM, and went 2 blocks to the south of the track.  There was minor damage done to the building we took shelter in, which I now know was caused by rear-flank downdraft winds.  There was also a ton of wood and steel debris thrown on to the very track where we were supposed to have been.

If it were not for the very early warning that we were given on this storm by the NWS Quad Cities, I know for sure that there would have been many serious injuries, and possibly even loss of life.  The fact that we (in the city of Galva) received 20 minutes of advanced notice on this storm was a testament to the forecasters and crews working that day.  I hope one day to actually be able to meet and thank them.

The tornado stayed on the ground for about 20 miles after it hit Galva, finally dissipating near Tiskilwa, IL. The town of Galva was the worst hit, with damage done through the center of town, and rated at F3.

Slideshow put together by Morgan Nelson, Met Major at Northern Illinois University when she presented this, and lived in the damage path of the tornado in 1996, age 4. Used with permission:

NWS QC drawing of the path of the tornadic cell from 4-19-1996

NWS QC drawing of the path of the tornadic cell from 4-19-1996

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