Severe storms that spawned unusually powerful late-season tornadoes moved through the Midwest on Sunday, leveling towns, killing at least 6 people in Illinois and injuring dozens more, and causing thousands of power failures across the region.
Illinois took the brunt of the fury as the storm tore across the state, injuring dozens and even prompting officials at Chicago’s Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and delay the Bears pro football game.
Officials warned of a fast-moving, deadly storm system Sunday morning and issued tornado watches throughout the day for wide areas of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
By the time the storm headed east into the mid-Atlantic states Sunday night, tornadoes — scores of them, according to the National Weather Service — had left paths of destruction.
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Homes were leveled and trees shredded in Washington, Ill., and nearby farms were turned upside down, with farm equipment dotting the landscape.
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.
Weather officials were uncertain just how many confirmed tornadoes might have hit the region Sunday. But as of Sunday evening, the National Weather Service website listed reports of at least 77 — most of them in Illinois — although officials cautioned that in some cases there may have been multiple reports on the same storm.
At least six deaths were reported by Sunday evening. An 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister were killed when a tornado struck their farm outside New Minden, Ill., about 50 miles east of St. Louis.
The man was found in a field about 100 yards from the home, and the woman was found under a pile of rubble, according to the Washington County Coroner’s Office.
A third person was killed in Washington, Ill., one of the hardest-hit towns, and three others were killed in Massac County in Southern Illinois, according to Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Dozens of people were also injured Washington, which has 15,000 residents and is about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. At least 35 people were taken to a hospital with injuries, according to a statement from OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
There was also extensive damage in the nearby city of Pekin, which has about 34,000 people.
In Indiana, tornadoes and storm damage were reported in 12 counties, according to Gov. Mike Pence. In Missouri, the utility company Ameren reported that more than 35,000 customers had lost power, mostly in the St. Louis area.
Officials said a tornado also struck Coal City, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. At least 100 buildings were damaged and at least four people were injured, local media reported.
Storms also caused extensive damage in East Peoria, officials said.
Whole neighborhoods in Washington were destroyed, according to Tyler Gee, an alderman on the City Council.
“I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn’t even tell what street I was on,” Gee told radio station WBBM in Chicago. “It just completely flattened some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes.”
There were overturned cars and piles of debris where homes once stood.
In Roanoke, Ill., about 15 miles east of Washington, one family was at church Sunday when a tornado hit their farm.
Tony Johnson, of Germantown Hills, said he arrived at his niece’s farm about 30 minutes after the tornado and found it had destroyed everything in its path. His niece and her husband and three children were not home when the storm hit, he said.
“The house is gone, everything is leveled,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “There is nothing that is usable. Their trucks were tossed around like toys.”
Soon, neighbors started arriving to help the family sift through the rubble, he said.
“You get that in the heartland, for sure,” he said. “There were probably 100 people there to help — it was just amazing.”
Telephone lines in the most devastated towns were not working, making it difficult to get more information, said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
By nightfall, state police 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, and the Bears finished with a victory.
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.”
More than 230 flights were canceled at O’Hare International Airport because of the weather, and many other flights were delayed. Flights were also delayed at Midway Airport in Chicago.
Wind gusts reached as high as 75 mph in the Chicago area, according to the National Weather Service. The storm caused widespread power failures in Chicago and nearby suburbs. There were at least 89,000 reported losses of power in Northern Illinois, according to ComEd, the utility that serves the city.
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.
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, 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,” he said. “That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes.”
Includes information from The Associated Press