Washington, Illinois tornado kills 1; 5 dead farther downstate

The tornado that hammered Washington hit with enormous force and was on the ground for an estimated two to three miles flattening everything in its path leaving entire neighborhoods looking like refugees from theaters of war.
December 17, 2013 11:32:40 AM PST
Six deaths have been confirmed in Sunday's storms in downstate Illinois.Washington, Illinois tornado damage, suburban Chicago storm damage

Two people died in Washington County near St. Louis, one in Washington, Illinois, near Peoria and three were killed in downstate Massac County, which is located along the Ohio River near Paducah, Ky.

ABC7 has received reports of debris, such as pictures, W2s and checks, from downstate Washington and Pekin, Ill., being found as far away as Shorewood and Countryside in the southwest Chicago suburbs.

A curfew is being enforced in Washington from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday. Checkpoints stood at the main entrances to the town where drivers had to prove they lived in the town to enter. Other roads were blocked completely due to severe damage.

As of 7 p.m. Sunday, approximately 140,000 Ameren Illinois customers are without power. While damage is severe all over central and southern Illinois, the hardest hit areas are in the Washington, Pekin, Danville and Bloomington areas.

A Washington resident says a tornado wiped out his house and his entire neighborhood in a matter of seconds. One person was confirmed dead in that town.

Michael Perdun tells The Associated Press that when he heard the sound of the tornado bearing down on his neighborhood Sunday morning he only had time to run downstairs, grab his 10-year-old daughter and crouch in the laundry room until the tornado swept through. He says when he walked up the stairs only the wall of his fireplace was standing.

A Washington alderman said several people were injured and hundreds of homes were damaged.

Tornadoes were reported in several central Illinois communities but it remains unclear the extent of the damage there.

The Illinois National Guard is dispatching 10 firefighters to the central Illinois community of Washington to search for survivors of a powerful tornado.

A news release by the National Guard follows reports that people were trapped in buildings after Sunday's severe weather.

Area hospitals were also trying to set up a temporary emergency medical care facility in Washington. One official in a nearby hospital says it remains unclear how many people were injured or the severity of those injuries. Steve Brewer of the Methodist Medical Center of Illinois in Peoria says a few people have come to the hospital and about 15 more had gone to another area hospital.

A tornado or a series of tornadoes hit several central Illinois communities. Washington appears to be the hardest hit.

Further southwest, near St. Louis in Washington County, a coroner says two people were killed when a tornado hit their home in rural southern Illinois.

Washington County coroner Mark Styninger said the elderly man and his sister died Sunday afternoon in their farmhouse in the town of New Minden, about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis.

The storm that struck New Minden was part of a series of intense thunderstorms and tornadoes that swept across the Midwest on Sunday, causing extensive damage in several central Illinois communities.

Three people are confirmed dead in one southern Illinois town.

A tornado hit Brookport in Massac County. It tore through two mobile home parks and destroyed dozens of homes.

The Illinois National Guard is helping crews with search and rescue efforts.

A curfew is in effect for Brookport from 6 pm to 6 am. Anyone who does not live in Brookport will not be allowed into the town at this point.

Dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms swept across the Midwest on Sunday, causing extensive damage in several central Illinois communities, killing at least five people, injuring dozens more and prompting officials at Chicago's Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and delay the Bears game.

"The whole neighborhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone from the hard-hit town of Washington, where he said his neighborhood was wiped out in a matter of seconds.

"I stepped outside and I heard it coming. My daughter was already in the basement, so I ran downstairs and grabbed her, crouched in the laundry room and all of a sudden I could see daylight up the stairway and my house was gone."

An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home around noon in the rural community of New Minden, said coroner Mark Styninger. A third person died in Washington, while two others perished in Massac county in the far southern part of the state, said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. She did not provide details.

By mid-afternoon, with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people were killed or hurt by the string of unusually strong late-season tornadoes. In a news release, the Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.

Several blocks of houses had been erased from the landscape in the rural community of 16,000, where Illinois State Police Trooper Dustin Pierce said the tornado cut a path from one end of town to the other, knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and rupturing gas lines.

"I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn't even tell what street I was on," Washington Alderman Tyler Gee told WLS-TV.

"Just completely flattened - some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes."

Among those who lost his home was Curt Zehr, who said he was amazed at the speed with which the tornado turned his farmhouse outside Washington into a mass of rubble scattered over hundreds of yards. His truck was sent flying and landed on a tree that had toppled over.

"They heard the siren... and saw (the tornado) right there and got into the basement," he said of his wife and adult son who were home at the time. Then, seconds later, when they looked out from their hiding place the house was gone and "the sun was out and right on top of them."

At OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, spokeswoman Amy Paul said 37 patients had been treated, eight with injuries ranging from broken bones to head injuries that were serious enough to be admitted. Another hospital, Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, treated more than a dozen, but officials there said none of them were seriously injured.

Steve Brewer, Methodist Medical Center's chief operating officer, said that doctors and other medical professionals were setting up a temporary emergency care center to treat the injured before transporting them to hospitals, while others were dispatched to search through the rubble for survivors.

By nightfall, Trooper Pierce said there were reports of looting in Washington.

About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the storm darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area, officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.

Earlier, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications had issued a warning to fans, urging them "to take extra precautions and ... appropriate measures to ensure their personal safety." NFL games in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also could be affected by the rough weather.

Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear Sunday afternoon. According to the National Weather Services' website, a total of 65 tornadoes had struck, the bulk of them in Illinois. But meteorologist Matt Friedlein said the total might fall because emergency workers, tornado spotters and others often report the same tornado.

Still, when the weather service was issuing its warning that severe weather was bearing down on the Midwest, officials said the last such warning issued so late in the season in November came in 2005, and the result was an outbreak of 49 tornadoes.

The storm followed warnings by the weather service that the storm was simply moving too fast for people to wait until they saw it to get ready.

"Our primary message is this is a dangerous weather system that has the potential to be extremely deadly and destructive," said Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Get ready now."

Hours later, at 11 a.m., weather service officials confirmed a tornado had touched down near the central Illinois community of East Peoria, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Within an hour, tornadoes were reported in Washington, Metamora, Morton and other central Illinois communities.

"This is a very dangerous situation," said Russell Schneider, director of the weather service's Storm Prediction Center. Some 53 million people in 10 states were "at significant risk for thunderstorms and tornadoes," he said.

Such severe weather this late in the season also carries the risk of surprise.

"People can fall into complacency because they don't see severe weather and tornadoes, but we do stress that they should keep a vigilant eye on the weather and have a means to hear a tornado warning because things can change very quickly," said Matt Friedlein, a weather service meteorologist.

According to agency officials, parts of Illinois, Indiana, southern Michigan and western Ohio were at the greatest risk of seeing tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds throughout the day Sunday.

Strong winds and atmospheric instability were expected to sweep across the central Plains during the day before pushing into the mid-Atlantic states and northeast by evening. Many of the storms were expected to become super cells, with the potential to produce tornadoes, large hail and destructive winds.

Friedlein said that such strong storms are rare this late in the year because there usually isn't enough heat from the sun to sustain the thunderstorms. But he said temperatures Sunday were expected to reach into the 60s and 70s, which he said is warm enough to help produce severe weather when it is coupled with winds, which are typically stronger this time of year than in the summer.

"You don't need temperatures in the 80s and 90s to produce severe weather (because) the strong winds compensate for the lack of heating," he said. "That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes."

In fact, tornadoes this time of year happen more often than people might realize, he said, pointing to a twister that hit the Rockford, Ill., area in November 2010.

Severe weather in Illinois has caused minor damage near Illinois State University in Normal. A tornado or a series of tornadoes hit several central Illinois communities on Sunday causing major damage for some communities.

WJBC Radio reports that ISU spokesman Jay Groves says three off campus apartment buildings had minor damage. That includes one building where part of a roof came off. No one was hurt. University officials say there will be class on Monday.

RED CROSS SHELTERS

The Red Cross is mobilizing operations out of the Greater Chicago Region and Peoria chapters to respond. Two shelters are open in the Chicago area, one in southern Cook County and another in Grundy County. In addition, four more shelters are open in central Illinois where the communities of Washington and Pekin were hit hard. Locations include:

  • New Community Church - 14801 Lincoln Ave. in Dolton
  • Coal City High School ? 655 W. Division St. in Coal City
  • Crossroads United Methodist Church ? 1420 N. Main St in Washington
  • Evangelical United Methodist Church ? 401 Main St in Washington
  • First United Methodist Church ? 154 E. Washington St in East Peoria
  • Avanti's Dome ? 3105 Griffin Avenue in Pekin

State-by-state look at storm, tornadoes in Midwest

INDIANA

Severe thunderstorms packing tornadoes and heavy winds rolled across Indiana Sunday afternoon and evening, injuring several people and causing widespread damage.

Gov. Mike Pence said 12 counties reported either tornadoes or storm damage after the initial line of storms had traveled midway across Indiana.

Kokomo police asked residents to stay home and off the streets after city officials declared a state of emergency in the wake of severe storms.

The city police department posted photos on its Twitter account showing buildings with roofs torn off and a destroyed bank branch. City officials also took to Twitter to tell residents to clear the way for first responders.

NIPSCO is reporting 46,000 customers are without power Sunday evening, mostly in Lake and Porter Counties. They say progress is being made, as a number of trees and power lines are down.

OHIO

Storms packing strong winds and the potential for tornadoes were starting to roll into western Ohio on Sunday night.

The National Weather Service had issued tornado warnings and watches for several counties along the state's western edge.

Heavy afternoon rains soaked football fans in Cincinnati where the Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns. Some pre-game activities outside the stadium had to be canceled because of the forecast.

MISSOURI

Severe storms slammed the eastern part of Missouri, leaving tens of thousands without power and destroying a mobile home.

Ameren Missouri reported more than 37,000 outages Sunday afternoon, mostly in the St. Louis area.

The National Weather Service said the storm tore shingles off of roofs and uprooted trees across parts of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

WISCONSIN

Strong winds knocked out power to thousands in the Milwaukee area, damaged buildings and downed trees in Dodge County and sent Sunday churchgoers scrambling into church basements for safety.

In the town of Hustisford, cattle sheds, garages and storage sheds were damaged, said Dodge County Emergency Management Director Joseph Meagher said. No injuries were immediately reported, he said.

MICHIGAN

High winds and rain slammed into the western part of the state. There are no immediate reports of injuries, but Consumers Energy reported thousands of power outages, especially east of U.S. 131 between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

Churches in western Michigan canceled evening worship services.

KENTUCKY

The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for several counties in southern Kentucky.

Forecasters said the watch would be in effect until 7 p.m. Sunday for Trigg, Todd, Christian, and Calloway counties, and until 9 p.m. for Simpson, Logan and Allen counties. A wind advisory was also in effect for Louisville and the surrounding area.

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