Tornadoes, thunderstorms rattle states across Midwest

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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.

Illinois took the brunt of the fury as the string of unusually powerful late-season tornadoes tore across the state, injuring dozens and even prompting officials at Chicago's Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and delay the Bears' National Football League game.

The line of powerful storms was expected to sweep through the Pittsburgh region Sunday night and into today, bringing high winds.

Gusts up to 60 mph were reported as the storms swept across Ohio, but the National Weather Service said the storms' energy appeared to be decreasing as the line approached the Pittsburgh region at 9 p.m.

The storms could still produce tornadoes, the Weather Service said, but tornado warnings were dissipating as the cold front moved east.

The front is expected to produce winds up to 45 mph in the Pittsburgh region along with heavy rain.

"The whole neighborhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," said Michael Perdun, speaking by cell phone from the hard-hit central Illinois 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, Ill., 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.

The Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.

In the rural community of 16,000, whole blocks of houses were erased from the landscape and 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.

An auto parts store with several people inside was reduced to a pile of bricks, metal and rebar; a battered car, its windshield impaled by a piece of lumber, was flung alongside it. Despite the devastation, all the employees managed to crawl out of the rubble unhurt, Trooper Pierce said.

"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.

Among those who lost homes 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 an uprooted tree.

"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 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.

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.

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.

The storm also slammed through parts of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky as it made its way east into the mid-Atlantic states on Sunday night. Tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds tore through several communities, leaving thousands without power as emergency crews tried to clear roads.

Mr. Friedlein said 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.


Post-Gazette staff writer Torsten Ove contributed.


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