‘The devastation is just unbelievable’

By Chicago Tribune

The scale of Sunday’s deadly storms became clearer this morning: Six people dead in Illinois, hundreds of homes flattened and splintered, 81 tornadoes sighted through the Midwest, 358 reports of damaging winds, 40 reports of large hail.

Since 1986, there have been 194 tornado warnings issued in the month of November in Illinois: More than half of them, 101, were issued Sunday, according to the Chicago Weather Center.

As crews fanned out from the National Weather Service to assess the storm’s impact, WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling said it may go down as one of the most powerful to hit the region in decades.

“It appears the storm may have produced the most powerful Illinois November tornado on record outside of St. Louis (and possibly elsewhere) and may be one of the four most intense Great Lakes storms of the past five decades,” he said.

Hardest hit was Washington, a town of 15,000 people east of Peoria hit by an EF-4 tornado packing winds of 170 to 190 mph. Whole blocks were leveled, prompting the Illinois National Guard to send a 10-person firefighting and search and rescue team. Officials were still trying to determine the extent of injuries Sunday evening, but at least one death was reported and nearly 80 people injured.

The one person who died was identified Monday by the Tazewell County coroner as Steve Neubauer, 51, of Washington, who was found near his home on School Street in Washington.

“The devastation is just unbelievable,” said Mayor Gary Manier, estimating as many as 500 homes may have been damaged in his town. “I can’t imagine people walked away from these places.”

Farther south, a powerful tornado ravaged Washington County, obliterating farms and livestock and killing Joseph Hoy, 80, and his sister Frances Hoy, 78, according to Coroner Mark Styninger.

Joseph Hoy’s body was found in a field about 100 yards east of his farmhouse. His sister’s body was found inside the home beneath debris, he said. “(Joseph Hoy’s) house was blown away by a tornado,” said Styninger, who knew the siblings personally. “They were just very nice people.”

The National Weather Service said an EF-4 tornado slammed into the county with winds of 166 to 200 miles per hour.

Three other deaths were reported in Massac County at the southern tip of the state. The small town of Brookport was hit hard, with hundreds of homes damaged, officials said. Buildings were smashed into piles of rubble. Power lines were strewn through the town. A curfew has been issued from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“We opened the door and started looking around. My friend had come over and a tree had landed on top of his car, broke out a couple windows. The house next to us, a tree fell through their roof,” one man said.

Closer to Chicago, in Grundy County, an EF-2 tornado touched down in the Coal City area near Joliet with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, the National Weather Service said. Hundreds of homes were damaged, and a subdivision in the community of Diamond was ordered evacuated.

Lisa Glisson rushed to a dance studio to check on her two children in Diamond. Then the tornado sirens went off. She said one teen at the studio invited everyone to her house to seek shelter in its basement, so about 30 children piled into cars and sped off for safety.

“You could feel the change in the air,” Glisson said. “You could hear the wind going over and it just felt heavy, surrounding you.”

Cleanup efforts were underway in Coal City and Diamond, Coal City Fire Department spokesman Nick Dorfler said Monday morning.

Much of the damage was confined to Diamond, a town of 2,500 residents, Dorfler said. Four people were injured in the storm, including three people who were trapped inside a damaged house on the corner of Berta Road and Spring Road and had to be rescued by firefighters, Dorfler said. The three were taken to a hospital in Morris and information on their conditions was not immediately available, Dorfler said.

The Red Cross set up a shelter in the Coal City High School gym and at a local church Sunday night, but had no visitors overnight, Dorfler said.

“Hopefully that means everyone was able to find someplace to go,” he said.

Power outages were still widespread in the area, and fire department was operating on generator power, Dorfler said.

“The tornado actually came right across the back of our firehouse,” he said. “Fortunately, it didn’t do any damage.”

Gov. Patrick Quinn has declared seven counties disaster areas: Champaign, Grundy, LaSalle, Massac, Tazewell, Washington and Woodford counties.

Quinn plans to visit the communities of Washington, Diamond, Gifford, Brookport and New Minden, according to a statement from his office.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency is coordinating efforts with other state agencies to help affected areas, according to Quinn’s office.

About 19,000 customers still lack electricity following the storm, according to ComEd. Only 1,300 of those customers are in Chicago. The rest are mostly in the utility’s southern region — 11,200 — with about 1,000 down in the north region and 5,400 in the west region.