Midwest tornado outbreak unusually strong for November

Midwest tornadoes hit Illinois hardest Sunday. The event, which spawned at least two EF4 tornadoes, was 'unprecedented' for November, an Illinois official said.

Jessie Starkey/News-Gazette/AP
A tornado two miles west of Flatville, Ill., moves northeast Sunday. The tornado damaged many farm buildings and homes on its way to Gifford, Ill., where scores of houses were devastated.

With seven people dead and still many unaccounted for, federal and state emergency officials are beginning to assess the toll of a series of tornadoes that hit the Midwest Sunday afternoon.

The majority of the damage took place in central Illinois, where six people were killed, and nearly 400 homes were destroyed late Sunday when an estimated 30 tornadoes ripped through the area with top winds near 200 miles per hour. At least two were EF4s, the second-most damaging category on the Fujita scale.

“A November tornado outbreak like this is fairly rare” in the Midwest, says Jim Keeney, the central regional weather program manager for the National Weather Service (NWS). “This is a significantly strong storm in any month of the year, but especially for the month of November.” 

The numbers are historic: 194 tornado warnings have been issued in Illinois in the month of November since 1986; 101 of those warnings were issued Sunday.

How many tornadoes hit ground Sunday is unclear. The NWS says it received 68 reports of tornadoes across Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio. Several teams are on site currently conducting storm surveys that will establish an exact number, which Mr. Keeney says will likely be far less than 68 because some of the reports were probably sighting the same tornado from different locations.

In speaking to reporters Monday in Chicago, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) compared the destruction to a tornado that hit Harrisburg, Ill., in February 2012, killing eight people and destroying 200 homes. He called Sunday’s tornadoes some of the “deadliest ... we ever had in November in Illinois history.”

“We are beginning the whole process of recovery,” he said.

Because the tornadoes struck late in the day, only a few hours before sunset, Monday will be the first full day for emergency workers to carry out searches, says Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

“This is the beginning of a long process of doing a long assessment. It generated an incredible amount of debris,” he says, adding that the event was “unprecedented.”

“We don’t have 100 percent accountability.… In some instances, we found people who were far-flung from where they started from,” Mr. Monken says.

The majority of injuries are in Washington, Ill., a town of 15,000 people where the tornadoes hit hardest, cutting a path about one-eighth of a mile wide. There, 120 people were injured and treated at area hospitals. The town is under a curfew Monday with checkpoints at all main entrances.

“The devastation is just unbelievable. I can’t imagine people walked away from these places,” Washington Mayor Gary Manier told WGN television.

An EF2 tornado also touched down in Coal City, Ill., about 50 miles southwest of Chicago, according to the NWS. Hundreds of homes were damaged.

Governor Quinn said that he expects a phone call from either President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden Monday. He declared seven counties – Champaign, Grundy, LaSalle, Massac, Tazewell, Washington, and Woodford – state disaster areas. He urged residents to start creating records of “everything they’ve lost” in order to help the state create an accurate damage assessment, which will be needed when it applies for federal disaster declaration funding.

The lone fatality not in Illinois occurred when a man in Jackson County, Mich., was killed when a tree fell on his vehicle Sunday night.

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