Illinois, otherwise known as the Land of Lincoln, is recognized by having some of the tallest skyscrapers in the nation and being the home of the tallest person in the world! What also makes the Prairie State stand out is that 80% of its land is dedicated to farmland— that’s more than any other US state. Illinois boasts beautiful rivers, over three hundred state parks, and two national parks.
Since the elevation of the state is under 1,235 feet, you can find many low-lowing areas where flooding is common after storms. On the upside, Illinois is ranked as the 5th most prepared state for natural disasters, so that should be an encouragement for you.
What natural disasters does Illinois have?
Illinois’ most common natural disasters include severe storms, floods, tornadoes, winter storms, and power outages. Other less significant disasters include wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, and seiches. Between 1953 and 2019, Illinois declared 61 major disasters, of which severe storms and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
1. Severe Storms
In Illinois, you can expect severe storms to present themselves in the form of heavy precipitation, lightning, hail, and strong winds. The spring and summer months are the most common months for these types of storms because of the atmospheric climate. An analysis of severe weather in the state shows that Illinois experiences an average of 50 thunderstorms each year, with the majority of them occurring in the afternoons or evenings.
Lightning deaths in Illinois are unfortunately some of the highest amongst the rest of the United States. Sometimes people underestimate the potential that lightning has to reach a specific distance— I know I was guilty in the past for not seeing them for the risk that they really are. Lightning can travel up to 10 miles ahead of the storm, so even if it’s not raining or you’re not standing below the clouds, you can still get struck.
Hail is also a threat to your safety. Imagine 1-inch balls of ice falling all over the place. If one of those hits you, or your car, you’ll immediately feel the pain or see the damage. The largest hail recorded in Illinois measured 4.24 inches!
Becoming prepared for severe storms is very important if you live in Illinois. Finding a safe and sound structure, such as a building with closed doors, is one of the best places to wait the storm out. Taking shelter in your car is the next best place, perhaps, but still risky because of the damage that hail can cause and the probability of a thunderstorm to turn into a devastating tornado. If you’re able to get inside a house, I recommend hanging out in an interior room of the home, such as a closet. Windows and doors are vulnerable places for lightning to strike through, and strong winds to break in. Many storms pass quickly, so if you had outdoor activities planned, resume them once the threat of the storm has passed. For extra storm mitigation and safety tips, take a look here!
Side note: Many people wonder if hurricanes happen in Chicago or anywhere else in Illinois. Neither tropical storms nor hurricanes happen full force in Chicago, but Illinois has experienced the remnants of hurricanes on multiple occasions. The remnants may feel much like severe storms, minus the thunder and lightning. Expect a lot of rain, wind, and the possibility of flooding.
Floods affect every state and Illinois is no exception. A report revealed that between 2000 and 2018, the Prairie State experienced a total of 1,537 flood events. If you do the math, it comes to an average of 1.5 floods every week!
One of the worst floods in Illinois occurred after significant amounts of rain fell over the northern and central parts of the state in a two-day period. The combination of saturated soils and already high river levels from previous snowfalls, caused the Illinois River to overflow. The result was widespread flooding that affected many parts of the state.
I can’t stress enough the importance of becoming prepared for a flood. Getting to higher ground will be one of your initial safety priorities. If you live in an area with a moderate risk, make a decision now on how you plan to evacuate when heavy rainfall is forecasted. Sometimes flooding can be the result of several days of rainfall, giving you a little more time to make evacuation plans, but that’s not always the case. If heavy precipitation is expected, find a safe place where you can take refuge until the threat passes. Crossing flooded waters can be extremely dangerous and life-threatening, therefore it’s not recommended. Moving waters that are over a few inches deep can be strong enough to sweep you away, not to mention that they are likely to be contaminated. Avoid putting yourself and your family in further danger and determine an action plan that you can stick to. Also, remember to keep an emergency kit with you at all times. For more information on flood awareness and preparedness tips, check out this article.
There are no official boundaries to the region of Tornado Alley, but some sources include Illinois on their map. Illinois experiences approximately 54 tornadoes a year. Twisters can occur any time that the atmospheric conditions favor it, they generally occur between the months of March, April, and May, with the peak month being April. While the majority of them occur in the Central and Southeast region of the state, Chicago has been known to experience a few deadly twisters from time to time.
A couple of the worst tornadoes in the history of the state include the Mattoon-Charleston Tornado of 1917 and Tri-State Tornado of 1925. During the Mattoon-Charleston tornado outbreak, 73 tornadoes were seen ripping apart the Southeastern and Midwestern United States in a period of eight consecutive days. Fifteen of those 73 twisters were rated F4 and F5, which means that they were extremely violent in strength. One of the F4 tornadoes traveled across Central Illinois for 155 miles and killed 108 people. The Tri-State Tornado traveled for 219 miles across three states, including Southern Illinois. It devastated multiple cities along the way, killing 695 people, and injuring another 2,000. This remains the deadliest tornado in Illinois history.
Tornadoes can develop and grow within minutes. If you receive a tornado warning, take shelter immediately. The safest shelter would be a basement or storm shelter (underground preferably). If you’re out in the open with just your car, you may not be able to outdrive the tornado but if you see that the sky is clear in a specific direction, you might be able to drive to a safe location. If that’s not possible, start praying! Seriously. Being in a car during a tornado is dangerous because the wind strength can blow a car around like a paper plane. If you’re stuck in this type of situation, park the car and crouch forward— face away from the windows and cover your head and neck. In this guide, you can find more details on tornado preparedness if you’re interested.
4. Winter Storms
Winters in Illinois can be harsh. Illinois gets an average of 14 to 38 inches of snow, depending on the location— Chicago and the Northeastern region typically get more because of lake-effect snow coming in from Lake Michigan. The main problem is not the snow itself, but the extreme cold temperatures which can become dangerous. During the winter months, temperatures can drop below 10°F on average, while some places can get to 0°F! Blizzards are fairly common due to high winds.
The worst blizzard in Illinois history occurred on January 26 and 27, 1967. In just over 24 hours, the city accumulated over 23 inches of snow. The city practically shut down on the 26th as the snow levels kept rising and strong winds kept blowing. People had a very hard time trying to get home as a result. Over 20,000 cars and 1,100 commuter buses were stranded in the snow, 60 people lost their lives, and businesses lost an estimated $150 million (in 1967 currency).
Winter storms can, and do, turn out deadly for some. Make sure to winterize your car, your house, and your emergency kits to prepare for the winter season. In this guide, you can find lots of information on winter preparedness, as well as tips on how to prepare your car, what to store during the winter months, and how to avoid getting stranded. Your emergency kit might become your lifeline, so have it ready and actualized with products that are not expired. Remember to dress in layers anytime you go outdoors and wear the right type of layers to keep you warm. Find more extreme cold preparedness tips in our guide!
5. Power Outages
We have become very well accustomed to using electricity. A major portion of the things we do involve the use of electricity at some point or another. Unfortunately, our high dependence on this means that we have to learn how to live without it, even if for a short time. Natural and manmade disasters make our power supply very vulnerable, and outages should be expected. We always hope that they’ll be short, but realistically they may last a day or more if the disaster is severe.
In order to prepare for a power outage, you must have all the necessary items to shelter in place and take care of your basic needs. If you have medical needs that require electrical equipment, you may consider getting a generator for your safety. A small generator is also beneficial for powering up mobile devices and your refrigerator. Food, water, and hygiene items are also a priority. In this guide, I highlight all the items you may need during a power outage, especially one that lasts a few days. Also while you’re there, remember to grab your free checklist and print it for future access.
Illinois doesn't have a fault line that runs across the state, but Cairo, Illinois lies on the New Madrid Fault Line. The New Madrid Fault Line has been estimated to produce between 7 and 8 shakers every 500 years, with a potential of a magnitude 7.7 quake. This means that any activity that occurs along this part of the fault can cause significant damage to the southernmost area of Illinois, as well as the other states along the fault.
One of the strongest earthquakes centered in Illinois was a 5.5 shaker that occurred on November 9, 1968. The shaker was strong enough to be felt throughout other states but it didn’t cause extensive destruction, other than some structural damage near the epicenter.
In the event of a future earthquake, stay where you are, drop to your knees, cover your head and neck, and if possible, hold on to something sturdy for balance. Dropping to the floor assures that the strength of the quake won’t knock you to the ground. Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, you face the risk of getting injured by falling objects or debris. Once the initial quake stops shaking, find a safe place to take refuge. Strong earthquakes are likely to produce aftershocks that can be felt, so make sure to be prepared to drop, cover, and hold on a second time. For tips on earthquake safety and mitigation, ideas to prevent extensive damage that can be done to your home, check out this guide that has lots of helpful information!
It’s not really possible for a tsunami to hit Chicago, but if you’ve heard of a seiche, that’s the closest thing to it. A seiche is otherwise known as a lake tsunami. A seiche can happen when the atmospheric pressure changes and causes high winds to blow over an enclosed body of water, such as a lake. Chicago is especially at risk here because of its proximity to Lake Michigan.
One of the deadliest seiches in Illinois history occurred on June 26, 1954. This seiche produced waves that exceeded 8 ft. tall and swept more than 50 bystanders off their feet, unfortunately killing 8 of them. There have been several seiches since, but none have caused as many fatalities.
In the event of a seiche warning, stay away from the lake beach and find higher ground. Wait until the winds die down and the threat is no longer prominent to return to the lake.
Landslides occur anywhere in the world where there are peaks, slopes, vulnerable soils, erosion, earthquakes, and man-made projects (roads, bridges, etc) being worked on.
Due to its average low elevation, landslides are relatively uncommon in Illinois, but that does not mean that they can’t or won’t happen— it’s just a less likely disaster. The average elevation of Illinois is 600 ft and the highest point in the state is Charles Mound, with an altitude of 1,235 ft. Any landslide that occurs along this slope could be minor, but some erosion may occur along riverbeds— especially the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers— as erosion carves away at the sides. Rivers that flood can cause mudslides if they’re able to pick up enough debris along the way, so be vigilant if your home is located in a vulnerable area. The majority of landslides in the state have been linked to construction near rivers.
Year after year, Illinois is consistently the state with the lowest number of active wildfires and acres burned in the United States. That’s definitely something to be proud of!! Fires are surprisingly beneficial for maintaining the natural life cycle of the ecosystem, by breaking down nutrients and returning it to the earth’s soil. Notice how everything grows back beautifully after a wildfire caused mass burn scars a year prior. It’s the way this world was created. On the other hand, fires can be extremely destructive to life and property. Luckily, this type of devastation only affects a minor percentage of the Illinois population.
The worst fire in Illinois history can be traced all the way back to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Over the course of three days, this fire burned over 2,000 acres, including 17,500 structures within Chicago, leaving over 100,000 people instantly homeless, and claiming the lives of roughly 300 people.
Since home fires are a much greater threat than wildfires in Illinois, I would recommend installing smoke alarms and retrofitting your home, if you feel it’s necessary. Also, make a home evacuation plan and adopt safety measures in case a home fire traps you from using the most common exits.
Natural disaster resources for Illinois
If you’ve made it this far, you’re awesome!
You may be thinking, “Yea, cool…now I know what can happen in my state, but what’s next?”
Your “what’s next” is to become prepared for the “what if.” What I mean is this— since you know what disasters Illinois is prone to, your next step is to learn about those disasters and become prepared for them. These are some ideas to help you get started.
- I get that our phones are constantly beeping and notifying us of things. If there’s ONE update that you really need to be on top of, though, it’s the NOAA Weather App updates. The National Weather. Service sends out real-time weather updates, as they’re becoming forecasted in your area. Some disasters, like tornadoes, may only give you a 15 to 20-minute warning (if you’re lucky!) So essentially, getting notified of weather changes can save your life. Download the free app and keep the notifications turned on!
- If your community is at risk for several types of disasters (most of them are), then you should know the signs, warnings, safety, and mitigation tips that pertain to each disaster. Doing all that research can be exhausting and overwhelming— I know! That is why I wrote guides for all the disasters so that your research doesn’t have to become long and tiring. Click here and you’ll find a list of natural hazards. Towards the end of each article, you’ll find a free printable guide that you can keep with your emergency supplies for future reference. I hope it helps!
- Learning to prepare on paper is different than in person. We can read a hundred articles about flood preparedness but once the flood occurs, we may still freak out and not know what to do. Hands-on exercises are super important for turning the information you learned (online/ in books) into practice. That is why I recommend joining the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This government organization offers free courses and simulations on various topics of emergency prep. Plus, you get the benefit of meeting like-minded individuals in your community. Find your local CERT here!
- Volunteering after a disaster is tremendously rewarding. If you have resources or skills and want to give back to your state after a disaster has occurred, then I encourage you to get in touch with the Illinois VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. In a nutshell, this organization gathers information about the available resources in a community and allocates those resources as they’re needed to meet the immediate needs a community faces in the midst of a crisis.
- The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) is a government agency that offers resources, including training and exercises, to help the public during all the stages of a disaster.
I hope this article has provided you with valuable information and actionable advice. It’s our hope that you can step into a preparedness mindset and become ready for the future. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it.
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