WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - 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 game.
A former Wirt County resident was near the Washington, Ill., area that was hit by the tornado on Sunday.
Nick Bush, who works as a political science professor at Illinois Central College, is now a resident of Germantown Hills, Ill. He, his wife Mary and their son Max had to take shelter in a Wal-Mart store near Washington about 10 miles from their home on Sunday.
They had gone out to pick up supplies so they would be prepared in case severe weather hit. When they headed out a tornado watch had been issued, Bush said Sunday evening by phone with The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
"Watches are pretty common here," he said, adding the family was not too worried about it initially.
However, five minutes after arriving at the store, the watch was changed to a warning.
"I knew then that we needed to shelter down," he said. "In West Virginia, I had never been in a tornado."
The Bush family made their way to the store's restrooms where they were placed in a family restroom with another woman and her small daughter. A short time later, they were moved to the storage area.
Bush said he heard winds but it wasn't as loud as he had expected, but found out a short time later that they were around a mile from where portions of Washington were being leveled. After everything was over, they went home to Germantown Hills. There was a little water in their basement, but no real damage that was visible, he said.
Mary, a registered nurse, was planning to volunteer at a nearby hospital as a triage nurse, but they found the facility was fully staffed. Classes were cancelled today for Bush at ICC.
The storm systems which struck Illinois and other states were scheduled to move through the Mid-Ohio Valley at reduced strength on Sunday night and the early hours of today.
The National Weather Service in Charleston had issued a tornado watch for Washington County, Ohio, and the surrounding areas until after midnight today. A severe thunderstorm watch was in effect until 1 a.m. today for the Parkersburg area and a wind advisory was in effect until 4 a.m.
According to the NWS, winds were reported coming in from the south to southwest direction at 10-20 mph with gusts to 30 mph, shifting to west overnight. Brief wind gusts to 50 mph were expected.
In terms of the forecast, the rest of this week is expected to clear off. Today, it is expected to be mostly sunny and breezy with highs in the mid 50s. West winds are expected to reach 15-20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph. Tonight, it will be mostly clear with a low around 30, the weather service reported.
It is expected to be sunny with highs in the mid-40s on Tuesday and clear overnight with lows in the 20s. It is expected to be sunny again on Wednesday with highs in the lower 50s.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Michael Perdun spoke by cellphone from Washington, Ill, where he said his neighborhood was wiped out in a matter of seconds.
"The whole neighborhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," Perdun said.
"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 in the rural southern Illinois community of New Minden, 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. She did not provide details.
With communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people were killed or hurt as of Sunday evening. 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, 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.
"Just completely flattened - some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes."
Among those who lost everything was Curt Zehr, who described 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.
By nightfall, Pierce 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.
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."
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. 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.
The storm followed warnings by the weather service that the storm was simply moving too fast for people to wait until they saw it to get ready.
"Our primary message is this is a dangerous weather system that has the potential to be extremely deadly and destructive," said Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Get ready now."
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.
"This is a very dangerous situation," said Russell Schneider, director of the weather service's Storm Prediction Center. Some 53 million people in 10 states were "at significant risk for thunderstorms and tornadoes," he said.
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.
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.
According to agency officials, parts of Illinois, Indiana, southern Michigan and western Ohio were at the greatest risk of seeing tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds throughout the day Sunday.
Strong winds and atmospheric instability were expected to sweep across the central Plains during the day before pushing into the mid-Atlantic states and northeast by evening. Many of the storms were expected to become super cells, with the potential to produce tornadoes, large hail and destructive winds.
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," he said. "That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes."
In fact, tornadoes this time of year happen more often than people might realize, he said, pointing to a twister that hit the Rockford, Ill., area in November 2010.