Tornadoes, storms beat path of destruction in Illinois

By George Knue

A string of tornadoes and severe storms left a trail of damage and flooding through the Midwest Sunday, leveling parts of a town near Peoria, knocking down buildings in Grundy County and prompting Bears fans to scatter for cover as the game at Soldier Field was postponed.

There were no immediate reports of injuries from the violent storms, which spawned tornado warnings through much of Illinois and northern Indiana. The warnings had expired by 1:30 p.m. for the Chicago area, but wind advisories remained in effect for the Chicago area until 8 p.m.

“There’s still some storms that would have potentially gusty winds but the tornado threat looks like it moved off to the southeast,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Lenning. “The Chicago area is in much better shape than it was earlier today.”

But Lenning cautioned that threats from thunderstorms and heavy winds will continue through the afternoon and evening, with gusts reaching 50 mph.

“There are still thunderstorms out there and even with thunderstorms you get lightning,” he said Lenning. “So we are not out of the woods just yet.”

In the Chicago area, there were confirmed touchdowns in southwest suburban Will County near Frankfort and in Grundy County near Coal City. There were also reports of funnel clouds in northwest suburban McHenry County but no reports of touchdowns there.

Fire officials reported buildings were knocked down west of Interstate 55 near Coal City but no injuries were reported.

Kathy Hoffmeyer, a spokeswoman for the Will County Sheriff’s office, said at about 12:15 p.m., two sheriff’s deputies observed a funnel cloud touch down in the Diamond-Coal City area in unincorporated Will County and neighboring Grundy County.

“That area was significantly damaged,” she said.

Theresa Vancil, 41, of Pekin has been in labor with her fifth child at Pekin Hospital since Thursday.

When the siren on her smart phone went off and flashed a message to take cover, she looked out the window of her 8th floor hospital room and spotted a funnel cloud forming in the distance. She alerted the nurses and soon new mothers and babies flooded the hallways of the maternity ward, she said. Vancil shot a video with her cell phone.

“I do feel so sad for everybody who lost everything,” said Vancil, who said her home was still standing. Vancil, whose favorite movie has always been “Wizard of Oz,” said she had planned to name her new daughter Winter since her due date fell on December 21. But since the baby is arriving early, Vancil is considering another name.

“After this happening, I might even name her Dorothy,” she said. “We could call her Dotty for short.”

A bar called the Crome Rack, 3002 E. Division St. in Diamond, along with the Christian Life Assembly of God, 2960 E. Division St. in Diamond, were “significantly damaged,” after a gas main leak and a propane leak, said Hoffmeyer.

“All people are accounted for, there were no serious injuries. There were people in the church but they are all out and they are OK, they were trapped inside, but they are all out and accounted for and they are fine, scraps and bruises,” she said.

The storm also hit Manhattan, where seven homes sustained major damage, she said.

The worst damage in the northern part of Illinois appeared to be in the towns of Washington and Pekin, two communities in Tazewell County about 20 miles apart near Peoria, and two deaths were reported by the weather service in New Minden, a community about 50 miles east of St. Louis. Whole blocks were leveled in Washington and officials were still trying to determine the extent of injuries.

Kristen Johnson, a spokeswoman for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, said that the hospital treated 37 patients and that 24 of them are still there. There were originally 8 in trauma, though two have since been moved out and their status is unknown. She said the victims had head injuries, broken bones, cuts and bruises.

“We anticipate the worst is over,” said Johnson, who said the hospital is not expecting to get any more patients. She said they had sent emergency crews to both Washington and Pekin.

Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman with the Tazewell County Office of Emergency Management, credited the county’s early warning system. “We hope that contributed to the low injuries that we are having,” she said.

“We have extensive damage, we have homes that have been demolished, we have heard of neighborhoods that have one or two houses left standing that people can go back to, the rest there is nothing left of them,” she said. “We have power lines down, we have phone disruptions, it’s extensive in Tazewell County.”

A television cell tower was knocked down at WEEK-TV in Peoria, officials said.

A tornado touched down about 11 a.m. in the town of Dana, with a population of about 200 people, said Connie Brooks, director of the LaSalle County Office of Emergency Management.

While there were no reports of injuries and all people have been accounted for, the storm damaged between six and eight homes, she said. Of those homes, one or two are uninhabitable, said Brooks. Officials were going door-to-door in the area to make sure everyone was safe, said Brooks.

The National Weather Service also reported large hail with a diameter of 2.75 inches in Normal and Assumption in central Illinois and hail with a 1.75-inch diameter New Lenox.

Wind gusts of 86 mph were reported in Lowell, Ind., along with gusts of 75 mph in southwest suburban Oak Lawn and winds of 70 mph in west suburban Aurora, Roselle and Yorkville, north suburban Northbrook and northwest suburban Crystal Lake. Wind speeds in excess of 50 mph were common throughout the area.

The winds were so strong in Chicago that a metal beam was blown from a construction site near State and Polk streets shortly before 1 p.m., police said. There were no reported injuries.

As of 3:15 p.m., 79,000 customers have lost power from the storm, according to ComEd spokeswoman Martha Arendt.

“We are still in damage assessment mode,” Arendt said, and details are not immediately available as to where the hardest hit areas are.

“We are working to restore as quickly as possible,” Arendt said, adding that public health and safety facilities are their first priority before moving to individual reports of outages.

As of 3:30 p.m., airlines at O’Hare International Airport were experiencing delays of an hour or more for inbound and outbound flights because of the storms, according to the city’s Department of Aviation. There were more than 230 flights that were canceled at O’Hare, according to the aviation department.

The situation at Midway International Airport was less severe, with only about 24 inbound or outbound flights that were delayed 30 minutes or more.

As of 4:15 p.m. the Chicago Fire Department is still responding to reports of “numerous wires down” in all areas of the city, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford, who was on the scene where a tree fell and knocked wires down at 119th Street and Stewart Avenue.

Langford said there were no reports of injuries.

“The city is doing its best to keep up,”‘ Langford said. Police are also on the scene of downed wires citywide to make sure no one comes near them.

Heavy rains closed portions of River, Third and Lake streets and Rathbone Avenue in Aurora, officials said. A part of Sheridan Road in Evanston was also closed by flooding, the weather service said, and streets in Elgin were flooded.

Officials in south suburban Harvey said there were numerous street closures due to downed power lines and power poles along sections of 154th Street between Dixie Highway and Broadway. They also indicated that an entire roof was lifted and destroyed in the 15100 block of South Page street. Residents are being displaced and being sent to local shelters, according to Harvey spokesman Sean Howard.

In northwest suburban Crystal Lake, high winds knocked down numerous trees and power lines, officials said, and about 1,700 ComEd customers were without power.

The heavy weather also tied up Metra’s Union Pacific North, West and Northwest lines, which experienced delays of up to 2 hours and canceled some trains.

The storm, unusual for November, was spawned by a cold front from the west that collided with warmer, meteorologists said. The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center had placed Chicago, along with a large swath of the Midwest, in an area with high potential for severe weather.

“We’re very concerned,” weather service meteorologist Gino Izzi said early Sunday. “We’re definitely stressing that this is not your run-of-the-mill tornado watch.”

The weather prompted the weather service to issue a “top tier” of tornado watches that Izzi called “extraordinarily rare.”

As the storms hit Chicago, the Bears-Baltimore Ravens game at Soldier Field was postponed. It started to rain around kickoff time and, around 12:30 p.m., players were pulled off the field and fans were evacuated to shelter inside the stadium. The game resumed about 2:30 p.m.