WASHINGTON, ILL.: Dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms swept across the Midwest on Sunday, leaving at least five people dead and unleashing powerful winds that flattened entire neighborhoods, flipped over cars and uprooted trees.
The storms later prompted a tornado watch across Northeast Ohio late Sunday afternoon that was called off by 9:30 p.m.
More than 95,000 customers in Ohio were without power due to the storm as electric utilities began work to repair downed power lines caused by winds that officials said gusted in some places to 70 mph and above. It wasn’t known Sunday night when all of the service would be restored.
AEP Ohio said 29,000 customers, mainly in the western part of the state, were without power. First Energy reported more than 52,000 outages and Duke Energy reported more than 14,500 outages.
Illinois took the brunt of the fury as the string of unusually powerful late-season tornadoes tore across the state, injuring dozens.
“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 Mark Styninger, the coroner of Washington County in southern Illinois.
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 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.
“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.”
Steve Brewer, chief operating officer at Methodist Medical Center of Illinois in Peoria, said 14 people had come to the hospital seeking treatment for minor injuries, while another Washington-area hospital had received about 15 patients.
He said 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.
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.”
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear Sunday afternoon. According to the National Weather Service’s 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 weather service warned 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 afunnel cloud 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.
“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.