It Couldn’t Happen Here! The August 28, 1990 Plainfield Tornado

By Rich Latta – Father of Tena DeGraaf and Husband of Mary T. Latta, the Village President, of Plainfield in 1990.

I was coming home from school at about 3 PM on August 28, 1990 when I heard a weather report that said there was a severe thunderstorm warning and a town about sixty miles away northwest of Plainfield had an inch and a half of hail. I arrived home and yelled at my daughter to hurry up and finish the back grass. By the time she goes there the phone rang. It was my wife, who is the Mayor of Plainfield and also a teacher as myself. She called at 3:20 PM to say she was leaving school to go the Village Administrator to Joliet. As I was talking, I told her there were severe thunderstorm warnings and the lightning has just started here. She knew about the warnings but needed to meet with some attorneys. After I got off the phone, I yelled to my daughter to stop and come in because of the lightning. The phone rang again. One of my publishers from California was calling to discuss a project. As I am talking to him, my mind is drifting to the east and looking a very black clouds. I am thinking to myself those clouds are too dark. Just then I heard shattering glass. I immediately told the publisher I would call him back because we were in the middle of a terrible storm. My daughter and I went on the front porch and watched golf ball sized hail come down for about thirty seconds and fierce wind from the south being pulled toward the east. The Village Hall called about three minutes later saying buildings in the village were “hit.” I assumed hit meant by lightning. Five minutes later an ambulance pulls up and my wife dashes from it with another teacher screaming her school was gone and the high school was gone. My wife looked like she had been blasted. She was covered on her face, arms, hands, and legs with bits of black sand. Days later her skin was beet red where each of those sand particles were blasted. She and about eight others were in the middle of a tornado in their school. She and her administrator were just getting into the car when it started to hail fiercely. She told the administrator that they should go back into school and as she looked northwest she saw a wall of debris rushing toward the school. She yelled at everyone to run for cover and they reached an alcove of brick that saved their lives. Two people did die in the school. She came home to get a quick shower and put on her hat as mayor. I drove her back to the high school and what I saw was something from a movie. The entire high school was demolished. There were cars in fields that resembled round balls of metal with no tires and you could not even tell the type of car it was. The next six days which included Labor Day were a nightmare of work, phone calls, coordination and love. 28 people died in the tornado. 500 homes were destroyed and over a thousand sustained damage. But even this black storm had a warm glow. The volunteerism was phenomenal and the donations from large companies were unbelievable. Not cases of pop but semis fill of pop and ice, food, clothing and anything else imaginable. To show you how much was volunteered and donated on Labor Day which was the sixth day after the tornado I sat in a meeting of the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and about four churches of Plainfield. All totaled from those groups over 10.000 meals were served that day. We had no tornado warning even though we did have a tornado siren, no tornado warning had been issued by the weather service. Treat every storm as if it has tornado potential. Keep your eyes on the sky and get to a basement if hear a tornado siren or spot a tornado. The basement is the safest place in a building. And don’t ever think it can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere!

Mary T. Latta’s perspective on this tragic event, can be found at:

Surviving & Serving

One thought on “It Couldn’t Happen Here! The August 28, 1990 Plainfield Tornado

  1. Tena, I had no idea that much damage was caused by that tornado. Your dad used his words to create images in my mind. It must have been horrific.
    I learned something from your dad’s perspective.
    Thank you for sharing.

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