Behind the Curtain: Our tornado coverage began with a 'Dear God' message and a fire alert tweet

My heart sank when I saw the email shortly after midnight on June 21. An hour earlier, a powerful tornado ripped through Naperville, Woodridge and Darien. So I had sent a message to reporter Katlyn Smith directing her to make calls first thing in the morning and check for damage. But I didn't realize the extent of the damage until I got that midnight email back from her. The subject line was, simply, "Dear God." There was no note - just the screengrab of a tweet by the Tr-State Fire Alert reporting "multiple tornado victims and structure damage/collapse" in Naperville.

We would later learn the tornado touched down at 11:05 p.m. Sunday, June 20, and had a top speed of 140 mph. It traveled roughly 16 miles from Naperville to Willow Springs.

Hundreds of homes were damaged. At least 11 people in Naperville and Woodridge required medical treatment for reported injuries.

In breaking news situations, our first instinct is to send out reporters and photographers immediately. This time, the earliest I could get anyone to the tornado-stricken neighborhoods was at daybreak.

Still, we knew where to go.

Katlyn checked Twitter and found addresses for two severely damaged homes in Woodridge and Naperville. At 12:51 a.m., she passed the information to Director of Visuals Jeff Knox and photographers Paul Valade and Mark Welsh. Paul was the first of our staff to arrive in Naperville around 5:20 a.m. He took dramatic images of a destroyed house on Princeton Circle. I had directed reporter Lauren Rohr to meet up with Paul. I sent reporter Scott Morgan to Woodridge, where Mark was going to be taking pictures.

Lauren and Scott spent the day speaking to tornado survivors and gathering their stories.

Katlyn's job was to speak to National Weather Service meteorologists and write the main story about the tornado. By 6:15 a.m., Paul sent Katlyn comments from the Naperville fire chief, and we had a damage report from the city.

We posted the initial version of Katlyn's story to our website by 7 a.m. Lauren and Katlyn updated the story multiple times throughout the day.

Meanwhile, covering the tornado became an all-hands-on-deck situation. Even before editors gathered for our usual 9 a.m. meeting, Managing Editor Jim Baumann had a list of story ideas that became the blueprint for our coverage. Reporters Jake Griffin, Marni Pyke and Russell Lissau came on to help.

All told, the staff produced nearly a dozen stories - and countless images - on that first day. It was a team effort by reporters, photographers and editors committed to local journalism.

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