News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 18, 2013

At least 5 dead in Illinois; many areas evacuated

WASHINGTON, ILL. — 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 was 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.

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.

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.

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