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Power of tornadoes comes into focus

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
This aerial view Monday shows homes that were destroyed by a tornado that hit the western Illinois town of Washington on Sunday. It was one of the worst-hit areas after intense storms and tornadoes swept through Illinois. The National Weather Service says the tornado that hit Washington had a preliminary rating of EF-4, meaning wind speeds of 170 mph to 190 mph.

CHICAGO – The power of the tornadoes that tore across Illinois on Sunday was coming into clearer focus as weather experts reported at least 11 twisters touched down in the state, the most devastating of which spun at 190 mph and stayed on the ground for 46 miles.

As aerial images in newspapers and on TV showed the devastation, the National Weather Service and state officials were reporting what many in these towns had been saying since Sunday: Illinois had not seen an outbreak of tornadoes this strong – or this deadly – in November in the decades since the weather service began keeping records.

The tornadoes killed six people in Illinois, the most to die in tornadoes on a single November day in the state. Two of the twisters, including the one with a 46-mile path that devastated neighborhoods in the central Illinois community of Washington, received a preliminary designation of EF4.

The state has never seen an EF4 – the second-strongest rating given to twisters, indicating wind speeds between 166 to 200 mph – in November, according to weather records.

The tornado that hit Washington gained strength as it approached the town, hitting 190 mph at almost the exact time it arrived before losing speed as it left town, meteorologist Chris Miller said.

Not only that, Miller said, the twister also grew in size.

“It had been two to four football fields wide, (but) when it got to Washington, it rapidly increased to a half-mile wide,” he said.

On Tuesday, Washington Mayor Gary Manier said more than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Sunday’s tornado and storm, and some residents will be allowed back into their damaged homes to retrieve belongings ahead of more rainy weather forecast for today.

He said the community was coming together to help each other.

“We’ve been knocked down, but we’re going to get back up,” he said during a televised news conference.

The mayor has said so many people have offered to help that officials are asking them to stay away for a while. In the meantime, help is coming in other forms.

At Illinois State University in Normal, the school was asking fans planning to come to a Wednesday night basketball game to bring bottles of water to send to Washington or money to buy water.

“We asked what they need the most, and they said water,” said Mike Williams, the sports information director at ISU.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday boosted to 13 the number of counties designated as state disaster areas, but it was not immediately clear whether or when he might submit a request for federal disaster aid.

Federal Emergency Management Agency agents were in Illinois and other states hit by Sunday’s severe weather to determine whether the states can seek a federal disaster declaration.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said that the widespread damage will require local, state and federal resources, and that he was ready to help see that Illinois receives federal funding.

Quinn, who has been touring the affected areas, said the priority is to make sure people left homeless in southern and central Illinois have roofs over their heads as colder weather settles in. Officials must determine which homes are safe enough to re-inhabit and which ones aren’t.

The lack of housing is “going to be a big, big issue for us coming up in the next few days,” the governor told WLS-TV in a phone interview. Quinn singled out the small community of Brookport in the far southern end of the state. The storm struck a trailer park, and Quinn described those left homeless as “very, very poor.”

Manier, the Washington mayor, addressed a concern common in communities hit by a natural disaster: that the residents’ plight would fade from memory.

“We’re going to be here for a while, needing assistance and help, so please don’t forget about us,” he said.

Another issue is power outages. While power has been restored to tens of thousands of homes in the state, thousands more remain in the dark. Officials on Tuesday morning pegged the total number of homes and businesses without power at about 13,000.

Most of those, about 9,000, are Ameren Illinois customers in the Peoria area, with other outages scattered in central and southern Illinois. In northern Illinois, Commonwealth Edison Co. said about 4,000 of its customers were without electricity.

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