Massive windstorm wreaks havoc roaring across Midwest
Tornadoes, gusts cause woes from Dakotas to Ohio
CHICAGO — A giant storm with wind gusts up to 81 miles per hour howled across the nation’s midsection yesterday, snapping trees and power lines, ripping off roofs, delaying flights, and soaking commuters hunched under crumpled umbrellas.
Spanning from the Dakotas to the eastern Great Lakes, the unusual system mesmerized meteorologists because of its size and because it had barometric pressure similar to a Category 3 hurricane, but with much less destructive power.
Scientists said the storm had the force of a blizzard minus the snow.
“If it were colder, we’d have a blizzard with this system,’’ said David Imy, operations chief at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. But temperatures were in the 50s and 60s, instead of the 20s.
The National Weather Service said the system’s pressure reading yesterday was the lowest ever in a nontropical storm in the mainland United States. If confirmed, that would be worse than the pressure that produced the Blizzard of 1978, the March 1993 “Storm of the Century,’’ or the November 1975 storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter, memorialized in a song by Gordon Lightfoot.
The storm blew in from the Pacific Northwest on the strength of a jet stream that is about one-third stronger than normal for this time of year, Imy said. As the system moved into the nation’s heartland, it drew in warm air needed to fuel thunderstorms. Then the winds intensified and tornados formed.
Add to that the fact the storm was moving fast, 50 to 60 miles per hour, and the winds became even stronger, Imy said.
By yesterday morning, sustained winds were about 35 to 40 miles per hour. A gust of 81 miles per hour was recorded in Butlerville, Ohio, and 80 miles per hour in Greenfield, Ind., according to NOAA.
At one point, more than 145,000 homes and businesses were without power in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and the St. Louis area.
The storms were headed toward the East Coast by late yesterday afternoon. Weather service meteorologist Charles Mott said the winds might weaken, but a squall line was moving ahead of the storm, causing more tornado warnings.
A tornado touched down in Racine County, Wis., where two people were injured when a section of roof was torn off a tractor factory, and in Van Wert County, Ohio, near the Indiana border, where a barn was flattened and flipped over a tractor-trailer and camper. A tornado also touched down in Peotone, Ill., where three people were injured when a home’s roof came off, and twisters were suspected in several other states.
Sheryl Uthemann, 49, was working first shift at the Case New Holland plant in Mount Pleasant, Wis., when the storm blew through about 8 a.m. and started to lift the roof.
“It was just a regular workday and all of a sudden that noise just came and [co-workers] said ‘Run! Run! Run!’ You didn’t have time to think,’’ she said. “I looked up where the noise was coming from and saw pieces of the roof sucked up. I’ve never been more scared, ever.’’
In the Indiana town of Wanatah, about 60 miles southeast of Chicago, a pole barn at a hydraulics company was destroyed, and two homes were severely damaged, though no injuries were reported.
Firefighter John Sullivan said he saw a funnel cloud, but it did not touch down.
In the Chicago suburb of Lindenhurst, a woman was injured when a branch fell about 65 feet from a large tree, crashed into her car and impaled her abdomen. She was taken to a hospital in fair condition, authorities said.
Meteorologists said the storm’s barometric pressure readings were comparable to those of a Category 3 hurricane but with much weaker winds. The wind gusts were only as strong as a tropical storm. Category 3 hurricanes have winds from 111 to 130 miles per hour.
Storm pressure works like this: The lower the pressure, the greater the winds. The higher the pressure, the calmer and balmier the weather is. If yesterday’s low-pressure system had been over water — where winds get higher — it would have created a major hurricane, Imy said.
Tom Skilling, a meteorologist with WGN-TV in Chicago, said the size of the storm — 31 states were under some sort of whether advisory, from blizzards to thunderstorms to tornadoes — also was unusual.