WASHINGTON, Ill. — As a powerful tornado bore down on their Illinois farmhouse, Curt Zehr’s wife and adult son didn’t have time to do anything but scramble down the stairs into their basement.
Uninjured, the pair looked out moments later to find the house gone and the sun out and “right on top” of them, Zehr said. The home on the outskirts of Washington, Ill., was swept up and scattered over hundreds of yards by one of the dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms that swept across the Midwest on Sunday, leaving at least eight people dead and unleashing powerful winds that flattened entire neighborhoods, flipped over cars and uprooted trees.
“They saw (the tornado) right there and got in the basement,” said a stunned Zehr, pointing to the farm field near the rubble that had been his home.
Entire blocks in Washington were leveled. Other area towns were heavily damaged, too, and officials at Chicago’s Soldier Field evacuated the stands and delayed the Bears-Baltimore Ravens game.
The wave of thunderstorms that brought the damaging winds and tornadoes affected 12 states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.
Six people in Illinois and two in Michigan were reported dead.
Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the storms were part of the same system and would be “moving rapidly to the east and continue east overnight and into the morning.”
Illinois was struck the hardest by the unusually powerful late-season tornadoes. In addition to the fatalities, dozens more injured, though with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people might be hurt or whether the death toll would continue to climb.
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home in the rural southern Illinois community of New Minden, coroner Mark Styninger said. A third person died in Washington, while three 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.
Washington, a town of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, appeared to have the most severe damage. The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of town to the other, State Trooper Dustin Pierce said.
Across farm fields a little more than a mile from where Zehr’s home was swept up, several blocks of homes in one neighborhood were destroyed.
“The whole neighborhood’s gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house,” said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone.
The Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.
As law enforcement officers continued to search for victims and sized up the cleanup and rebuilding job ahead, they kept everyone but residents and emergency workers out. With power off and lines down in many areas, natural gas lines leaking and trees and other debris blocking many streets, an overnight curfew kept all but emergency vehicles off pitch-black roads. The only lights visible across most of Washington on Sunday night were red and blue flashes from police and fire truck lights.
Still, by nightfall Trooper Pierce said there were reports of looting around town.
As Zehr worked with about 75 friends and neighbors to try to salvage anything from his home – dining room chairs and other odds and ends – he said he’d been at church while his wife, Sue, and son were at home when the tornado hit. They had homeowners’ insurance, which he said he hoped was good.
“We’re about to find out,” he said.
A friend, Keith Noe, said the Zehr family still felt fortunate.
“They both walked out of the basement and that’s what counts,” Noe said.
Across Washington, 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.
“The employees were climbing out of this,” Pierce said, gesturing to the rubble behind him. None of them was seriously injured, he said.
At OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in nearby Peoria, spokeswoman Amy Paul said 37 patients had been treated, eight with injuries ranging from broken bones to head injuries. Another hospital, Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, treated more than a dozen, but officials there said none of them were seriously injured.
About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the stormy weather 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.”
Officials on Monday confirmed two storm-related deaths in Michigan.
The Shiawassee County sheriff’s department said 59-year-old Philip Daniel Smith of Perry in central Michigan was found dead and entangled in high-voltage power wires after going outside late Sunday to investigate a noise.
Also in central Michigan, Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand said 21-year-old Ryan Allan Rickman of Leslie died when his vehicle was crushed by a fallen tree Sunday evening.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. Although about 80 reports of tornadoes had come in as of Sunday night, the National Weather Service’s Bunting said the actual number will likely be in the 30 to 40 range. He said that’s because the same tornado often gets reported multiple times.
The White House issued a statement saying President Barack Obama had been briefed about the damage and was in touch with federal, state and local officials.
Weather service meteorologist Matt 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,” Friedlein said. “That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes.”