Fast Moving Storm System Headed This Way

By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A fast-moving storm system spawned multiple tornadoes in Illinois and Indiana, threatening some 53 million people across 10 Midwestern states on Sunday, U.S. weather officials said.

The storm was headed toward Chicago with high winds and heavy rain, prompting authorities to halt air traffic and urge fans at an NFL game in the third-largest U.S. city to seek shelter during the storm.

The city of Washington, Illinois, was hard-hit by what the National Weather Service called a “large and extremely dangerous” tornado, with photos showing buildings reduced to rubble and homes torn in half in the city of 15,000 people some 145 miles southwest of Chicago.

The weather service also confirmed tornadoes touched down near Bone Gap and Miller City, Illinois, in Mount Carmel, Indiana, near the Ohio border, in Vincennes, Indiana, and in Paducah, Kentucky.

It canceled tornado watches for the Chicago metropolitan area.

“We have reports of homes being flattened, roofs being torn off,” Sara Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the health department of Tazewell County, Illinois, where Washington is located, said in a telephone interview. “We have actual whole neighborhoods being demolished by the storm.”

“Fortunately,” she added, “we are only hearing of minor injuries at this time.”

Sparkman added that the storm had caused damage in Washington and Pekin, south of Peoria.

The Washington tornado came out of a fast-moving storm system that was headed toward Chicago and threatened a large swath of the Midwest with dangerous winds, thunderstorms and hail, U.S. weather officials said.

The weather service warned residents of areas threatened by the storm “you are in a life-threatening situation …. take cover now.”

The Chicago Department of Aviation, which manages O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport, said that as of 1:15 p.m. Central Time (1915 GMT) both facilities were at a ground stop, meaning flights were neither arriving nor departing.

“We obviously have a very dangerous situation on our hands,” Laura Furgione, deputy director of the National Weather Service (NWS), told reporters on a conference call.

“It does appear that the hardest-hit part of the state was down south,” Mike Masters, head of homeland security in Cook County, which includes Chicago, told Chicago’s ABC-7 TV, cautioning that it was still “very, very early.”

At Chicago’s Soldier Field, NFL officials allowed fans to return to their seats as the NFL’s Bears prepared to resume their game against the Baltimore Ravens, after officials had earlier suspended play and told fans to seek shelter due to hazardous weather conditions.

Tornado warnings were in effect for parts of Indiana and Kentucky. Weather officials urged residents of areas with tornado warnings in place to take cover in interior, low-floor rooms of study buildings.

The NWS’s Storm Prediction Center said the storm was moving dangerously fast, tracking eastward at 60 miles an hour, meaning that just looking out at the storm will not be enough to let people know when to take cover.

“These storms will be moving very fast, approximately 60 miles an hour,” said Russell Schneider of the Storm Prediction Center. “They will be at your location and on to the next location in a matter of minutes. As a result, people cannot wait for visual confirmation of the threat.”

This storm system has some similarities to the fast-moving derecho that knocked out power to more than 4.2 million people and killed 22 in June 2012, according to Bill Bunting, forecast branch chief at the Storm Prediction Center.

“The line of storms today, we believe, when it’s fully mature, will actually be larger than the areas that were affected by the derecho in June of 2012,” Bunting said. “However, this will also be accompanied by a worse tornado threat in the areas that we’ve highlighted and large hail in Illinois and Wisconsin.”

(Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko and Jonathan Allen; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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