By Mary Wisniewski
A fast-moving storm system triggered multiple tornadoes on Sunday that killed at least five people and flattened large parts of a town in Illinois as it tore across the Midwest, authorities said.
The storm also forced the Chicago Bears to halt their game against the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL fans at Soldier Field to seek shelter as menacing clouds rolled in. Chicago’s two major airports briefly stopped traffic while the metropolitan area was under a tornado watch.
A National Weather Service survey team confirmed preliminary EF-4 tornado damage in Washington County in southern Illinois, with winds of 267-322 km per hour.
A small farmhouse there took a direct hit, according to the NWS survey team report. “The homestead was totally destroyed with only the foundation remaining,” the NWS report said.
A total of 80 tornado reports were received along with 358 reports of damaging winds and 40 reports of large hail, according to Rich Thompson, a lead forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
The storm moved dangerously fast, tracking eastward at 97kph and Thompson said the bulk of the tornado damage from the storm occurred over a period of about five hours.
“We’ll still have a wind damage threat across Pennsylvania and New York into the overnight hours,” Thompson said late on Sunday.
The town of Washington, Illinois, 233km southwest of Chicago, was hit especially hard by the tornadoes that Thompson said had ripped through Indiana and Kentucky as well as Illinois and a small corner of Ohio.
“It’s a sad day in Washington. The devastation is just unbelievable,” said Washington Mayor Gary Manier.
“I can’t imagine people walked away from these places. Some people were sitting in their living rooms. They stayed but their house left,” Manier later added.
Manier said hundreds of homes had been destroyed in the town of 15,000 people.
The state Emergency Management Agency said one person was killed in Washington.
“It wiped out homes, mobile homes,” said Charles Taylor, deputy director of the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency in Massac County. “It downed trees, power lines. We have gas leaks, numerous injuries whether they were in mobile homes, or outdoors, even in the motor vehicles, people have been trapped.”
“We have reports of homes being flattened, roofs being torn off,” Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the health department of Tazewell County, Illinois, where Washington is located, said in a telephone interview. “We have actual whole neighbourhoods being demolished by the storm.”
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed in the town of Washington, where State Police spokesman Dustin Pierce said there had been looting amid gas leaks and downed power lines.
The American Red Cross worked with emergency management officials to set up shelters and provide assistance to displaced residents, even as rescue workers searched for more people who might have been caught in the storm’s path.
The Washington tornado came out of a fast-moving storm system that originally headed toward Chicago as it threatened a large swath of the Midwest with dangerous winds, thunderstorms, and hail, US weather officials said.
By Mary Wisniewski