Midwest Tornadoes Send Residents Scrambling

The cleanup continues across the Midwest, where dozens of tornadoes struck on Sunday. The Illinois town of Washington appears to have been hardest hit. The mayor says as many as 500 homes were damaged or destroyed by a tornado that cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of the town to the other.

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Of all the tornado destruction in the Midwest this week, the most concentrated is in the town we're going next. Washington, Illinois has a giant slash across it, clearly visible from the air. That path of destruction is made up of many personal stories of loss, as we're going to hear next.

Here's NPR's David Schaper.

(SOUNDBITE OD RUBBLE AND DEBRIS)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The Devonshire subdivision in this suburb of Peoria is smashed and shattered into pieces big and small.

LORELEI COX: I mean, I don't even recognize my neighborhood.

SCHAPER: Lorelei Cox is standing on the rubble of what used to be her home, looking out over a wide path of destruction, block after block after block of nothing but mounds of shredded debris.

COX: We didn't even recognize our own home when we came back, but my Volkswagen is there.

SCHAPER: Tossed or rolled by the tornado into the backyard, only the distinctive hood of the crushed VW beetle is recognizable as a car.

COX: We just today found my husband's car. It was over two neighbors down.

SCHAPER: A car.

COX: A car.

SCHAPER: Tossed around like it was...

COX: Like it's nothing.

SCHAPER: The National Weather Service rates the tornado that ripped through Washington, Illinois as an EF-4, the second-most sever category of tornado, with top wind speeds of 190 miles an hour.

The mayor says 500 homes and businesses in this town of 15,000 may have been damaged or destroyed, yet authorities confirm just one fatality here, amazing considering the level of devastation.

Officials credit earlier and more accurate storm predictions, and that most residents heeded tornado warning sirens and alerts that went out over TV, radio, and by text message, even to the cellphones of those sitting in church pews Sunday morning. Many took refuge in basements and storm shelters.

Powerful twisters also touched down in the nearby towns of Pekin and East Peoria, and half a dozen other small Illinois towns, including Gifford, New Minden, and in Brookport, where Debbie Brannum says she and her family ran to a neighbor's house to take cover.

DEBBIE BRANNUM: A lot of our friends and family were hit and lost their homes. And people we knew lost their life.

SCHAPER: Authorities confirm three fatalities in the tiny southern Illinois town, but Brannum says people there are pulling together.

BRANNUM: And we're here for everybody, so it'll take a while for it to get back to normal and clean up the mess and stuff. But we're Brookport and we're strong, and we'll make it through it.

SCHAPER: There are reports of more than 80 tornadoes across the Midwest Sunday, as a storm system fueled by warmer and more humid air than normal for this time of year collided with cold air from the north.

The American Red Cross has opened shelters for displaced residents of the affected areas, but authorities estimate thousands of homes were destroyed or left uninhabitable by the storm, producing a great need for longer-term housing.

Here's Washington, Illinois, Mayor Gary Manier.

MAYOR GARY MANIER: Unfortunate thing is this thing hit in November. November is not the construction season that we build homes in this part of our state and part of our country. So it's going to be a longer process than if it happened in March, or April. It's going to take a lot longer.

SCHAPER: Among those vowing to rebuild is Lorilei Cox, who nonetheless is a little distraught as she searches through the rubble and debris for the few items she holds most dear. Until...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Mom, I found the safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Merle's got the safe.

COX: Yeah. Is it open?

SCHAPER: Cox's son and nephew find what she'd thought might be gone forever.

COX: That safe was in my Mom's house, and I have some jewelry in there and some stuff that's maybe monetarily not valuable, like stuff that belonged to my Dad. And so I can't believe it. It's awesome.

SCHAPER: So after a long, difficult and tragic two days in central, Illinois, finally, some tears of joy.

David Schaper, NPR News, in Washington, Illinois.

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