Forecasts, warnings spared lives from tornadoes - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

Forecasts, warnings spared lives from tornadoes

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WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - When a cluster of violent thunderstorms began marching across the Midwest, forecasters were able to draw a bright line on a map showing where the worst of the weather would go.

Their uncannily accurate predictions - combined with television and radio warnings, text-message alerts and storm sirens - almost certainly saved lives as rare late-season tornadoes dropped out of a dark autumn sky. Although the storms howled through 12 states and flattened entire neighborhoods within a matter of minutes, the number of dead stood at just eight.

By Monday, another reason for the relatively low death toll also came to light: In the hardest-hit town, many families were in church.

"I don't think we had one church damaged," said Gary Manier, mayor of Washington, Ill., a community of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of Washington to the other and damaged or destroyed as many as 500 homes. The heavy weather also battered parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.

Back in Washington, Daniel Bennett was officiating Sunday services before 600 to 700 people when he heard an electronic warning tone. Then another. And another.

"I'd say probably two dozen phones started going off in the service, and everybody started looking down," he said.

What they saw was a text message from the National Weather Service cautioning that a twister was in the area. Bennett stopped the service and ushered everyone to a safe place until the threat passed.

A day later, many townspeople said those messages helped minimize deaths and injuries.

"That's got to be connected," Bennett said. "The ability to get instant information."

In Indiana, Taylor Glenna heard emergency sirens go off and received an alert on his cellphone. A friend also called to warn him the storm was nearly upon him.

Glenna went outside, saw hail and heard a loud boom. He ran to his basement just in time.

On Monday, he was surveying the damage on crutches after suffering a leg injury when the wind knocked his home off its foundation.

"I would say we had pretty good warning," Glenna said. "We just didn't listen to it."

Forecasting has steadily improved with the arrival of faster, more powerful computers. Scientists are now better able to replicate atmospheric processes into mathematical equations.

In the last decade alone, forecasters have doubled the number of days in advance that weather experts can anticipate major storms, said Bill Bunting of the National Weather Service.

But Bunting, forecast operations chief of the service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. said it was not until Saturday that the atmospheric instability that turns smaller storm system into larger, more menacing ones came into focus.

That's when information from weather stations, weather balloons, satellite imagery and radar suggested there was plenty of moisture - fuel for storms - making its way northeast from the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite Sunday's destruction, 2013 has been a relatively mild year for twisters in the U.S., with the number of tornadoes running at or near record lows.

So far this year, there have been 886 preliminary reports of tornadoes, compared with about 1,400 preliminary reports usually sent to the weather service by mid-November.

Similar slow years were 1987 and 1989.

An outbreak like the one that developed Sunday usually happens about once every seven to 10 years, according to tornado experts at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

There were similar November outbreaks in 1992 and 2002, with the 1992 one being even bigger than this year's, said top tornado researcher Harold Brooks at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, also in Norman.

The storms erupted because of unusually warm moist air from Louisiana to Michigan that was then hit by an upper-level cold front. That crash of hot and cold, dry and wet, is what triggers twisters.

Like most November storms, this one was high in wind shear and lower in moist energy. Wind shear is the difference between winds at high altitude and wind near the surface.

Because it was high in wind shear, the storm system moved fast, like a speeding car, Brooks said. That meant the system hit more places before it petered out, affecting more people. But in places where it hit, the system may have been slightly less damaging because it was moving so fast, he said.

About 90 minutes after the tornado plowed through Washington, rain and high winds slammed into downtown Chicago, prompting officials at Soldier Field to evacuate the stands and order 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.

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WASHINGTON, Ill. (AP) - As a powerful tornado bore down on their Illinois farmhouse, Curt Zehr's wife and adult son didn't have time to do anything but scramble into their basement.

Uninjured, the pair looked out moments later to find the house gone. Their home on the outskirts of Washington, Ill., was destroyed Sunday by one of the dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms that swept across the Midwest in a swift-moving line of violent weather that killed at least eight people and unleashed powerful winds that flattened entire neighborhoods, flipped over cars and uprooted trees.

"They saw (the tornado) right there and got in the basement," said a stunned Zehr, pointing to the farm field near the rubble that had been his home.

Washington Mayor Gary Manier estimated that 250 to 500 homes had been damaged or destroyed. It wasn't clear when residents would be allowed to return.

"Everybody's without power, but some people are without everything," Manier told reporters in the parking lot of a destroyed auto parts store and near a row of flattened homes.

"How people survived is beyond me," he said.

The unusually powerful late-season wave of thunderstorms brought damaging winds and tornadoes to 12 states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.

Illinois was the hardest hit, with at least six people killed and dozens more injured. Authorities said Monday that two other deaths occurred in Michigan.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn promised all the assistance the state could provide to victims of what he said were the deadliest November tornadoes in state history.

"We're all in this together," Quinn said.

The governor and others said the search for anybody trapped in the rubble continued, but officials doubted that the death toll would climb. Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Jonathon Monken said rescuers had just one field left to search in Washington before they can say with confidence that everyone has been accounted for.

The six people who died in Illinois included an 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister who were killed by a twister that hit their farmhouse near the rural community of New Minden. A third person died in Washington, while three others perished in Massac County in the far southern part of the state, authorities said.

One of the Massac County victims was identified as 63-year-old Scholitta Burrus of Brookport, Ill.

"They found her over there buried amid the destruction," McCracken County Deputy Coroner Ryan Johnston said.

Moments before the tornado struck his home in Washington, Jim Svymbersky went into his basement to retrieve his weather radio - a simple act that may have spared his life.

"Saved by a weather radio," he said Monday outside a supply store where he was picking up plywood to board up blown-out windows.

Washington, a town of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, appeared to have suffered the most severe damage. The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of town to the other, state trooper Dustin Pierce said.

Of the roughly 200 people who were injured, 120 of them were in Washington when the tornado struck, officials said.

Across farm fields a little more than a mile from where Zehr's home once stood, several blocks of homes were destroyed.

"The whole neighborhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," said Michael Perdun, speaking by cellphone.

The Illinois National Guard assisted with search-and-recovery operations in Washington.

As the cleanup got underway, authorities kept everyone but residents and emergency workers out of the affected neighborhoods. With power off and lines down in many areas, natural gas lines leaking and trees and other debris blocking many streets, an overnight curfew kept all but emergency vehicles off pitch-black roads. The only lights visible across most of Washington on Sunday night were red and blue flashes from police and fire truck lights.

Pierce said there were reports of looting.

About 75 friends and neighbors helped Zehr to salvage his family's belongings. He said he'd been at church when the tornado hit but that his wife, Sue, and son were at home.

A friend, Keith Noe, said the Zehr family still felt fortunate.

"They both walked out of the basement and that's what counts," Noe said.

Across Washington, 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.

"The employees were climbing out of this," Pierce said, gesturing to the rubble behind him. None of them was seriously injured, he said.

State spokesman Brian Williamson said hospitals reported treating about 60 people in Washington.

About 90 minutes after the tornado hit Washington, the stormy weather 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.

Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. Although about 80 reports of tornadoes had come in as of Sunday night, the National Weather Service's Bunting said the actual number will likely be 30 to 40 range. He said that's because the same tornado often gets reported multiple times.

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