In Pursuit of the Eye of the Storm
A tragic tornado sparks a career seeking to increase future preparedness
Former Warrenville resident Victor Gensini loves the views around his new home in Sugar Grove. “Further west in Kane County we can see a lot more sky — the sunsets are gorgeous.”
The assistant professor of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences at Northern Illinois University has kept an eye on the horizon since he was a kid, who, whenever a storm was brewing, ran outside to watch rather than to the basement to take cover.
A native of tiny McNabb, located in Putnam County, Illinois’ smallest county, Gensini left his home town to chase storms from south Texas to central Canada.
In 2015, while teaching at College of DuPage, he and his team found a way to predict tornado activity — weeks in advance.
Whether a storm will produce a tornado is one of the toughest events to forecast, so the team’s research findings were remarkable.
Gensini remembers being a bit overwhelmed seeing his name on national television news crawls. “Life’s just like a tornado in some ways,” he says. “It’s unpredictable regarding where you’re going to end up.”
Where, and how quickly? Because, oh yeah, Dr. Victor Gensini is all of 31 years old, the youngest professor at NIU. He was a teenager on April 20, 2004 when a tornado blew through Putnam and LaSalle counties. “It was a day you never forget, that terrible Tuesday in the Illinois Valley,” recalls Gensini. “It hit my high school and killed eight people in Utica.”
During the community’s post-storm clean-up, Gensini became fascinated with the physical damage he witnessed, as well as the mental scar it left on residents’ psyches.
“The tornado was a defining moment in their lives — they talk of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the tornado,” says Gensini.
The questions sparked by that day — How did the storm occur? Will there be another one? — inspired the then teenaged Gensini to find answers. First stop was Illinois Valley Community College’s math and science courses. “I wasn’t necessarily good at those topics, but I had good teachers,” he says.
Gensini went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NIU then headed to a well-regarded PhD program in atmospheric science at University of Georgia.
He then taught at COD for four years before returning in a quick full-circle to NIU, having already changed the field that fascinated him as a teen.
“Back in 2004, there was a tornado watch, then a warning. But there was no outlook in the days before the event that would have let someone know it was coming,” says Gensini. “That was a major driving force for me. It’s extremely difficult to forecast a small phenomenon — your house could be hit and the neighborhood could be fine.”
It didn’t stop Gensini from trying. Every May and June he spent time in the tornado belt to learn the mechanics and dynamics
of storms and how they behave.
At COD, Gensini led groups of residents through 10-day, three-credit, on-the-road storm chases — “a great opportunity for people interested in storms” — that continue each spring at in-district tuition costs for west suburban residents.
The 2015 breakthrough came while researching historical events. Like crime scenes, weather events leave fingerprints of conditions present in the atmosphere. When they tested the model they’d created, “my jaw hit the floor — we got some really strong relationships,” recalls Gensini.
The research was published in a scientific journal and picked up by the Associated Press. The story ran in newspapers across the country, including on the front page
of the Chicago Tribune on March 4, 2016.
So far, their tornado forecasting methodology (available at atlas.niu.edu) is holding up. Gensini believes eventually conditions ripe for tornadoes will be forecast two to six weeks ahead of time.
“Our forecasts say whether there is an above or below average chance for increased tornado activity in the United States. We are testing regionally this year to see what we can say with any sort of certainty regarding the Midwest or Illinois.”
But even states with an increased probability shouldn’t panic. “For the day-to-day weather consumer, the longer-range forecasts don’t mean anything. If you’re in FEMA or an insurance company or a storm chaser, you’re interested.” And it’s relevant for anyone planning anything outdoors.
Gensini’s team is always looking for donors to help fund research for tornado forecasting. But to him, it’s not a job.
“I wake up every day and say, ‘I don’t really work, I just research tornados.’ It doesn’t seem like work at all.”Edit Module