Devastating tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and high winds pummeled the Midwest Sunday, leading to the destruction of hundreds of homes and the deaths of six people in Illinois and two others in Michigan.
The Weather Channel indicated that at least 12 states reported damage associated with the deadly storm that cut its way through the Ohio Valley and reached as far as western New York. Meteorologists from the Weather Channel said there were approximately 500 reports of wind damage, high winds, tornadoes and hail associated with a storm system being touted as one of the largest November tornado outbreaks in the United States in eight years.
Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York all reported damage associated with the storm.
One of the hardest hit areas was Washington, Ill., a town of about 16,000 residents some 140 miles west of Chicago near Peoria in the central part of the state. A National Weather Service team confirmed Monday that Washington was battered by an EF4 tornado packing wind speeds of 166-200 mph as it churned a path of destruction. It was one of strongest November tornadoes in the state since at least 1950.
Timing of the tornado
Sunday’s tornado struck in Washington around 11 a.m. while many of the town’s residents were attending church services.
The Rev. Susan Krummel, executive presbyter of Great Rivers Presbytery, was at a worship service at First Federated Church in Peoria where her husband Forrest is the senior pastor. Knowing severe weather was in the forecast for the area, he had outlined what to do if weather alerts regarding tornado warnings were made. With about 10 minutes remaining in the service, the alerts started, and those in the sanctuary followed the guidelines given to shelter in place once they moved to the designated location.
“There was hail, heavy rain and high winds,” Krummel said. “The winds were so strong; we could not even open the doors. It certainly was a good thing that people were gathered with their faith communities. That was a good place to be during a situation like that.”
Krummel said those people at the church remained in place for some 20 minutes until the brunt of the storm passed. She later learned from many other pastors that their congregations followed a similar protocol.
The Rev. Rebecca Weltmann said worship services at Washington Presbyterian Church in Washington had just ended and Sunday school was set to begin when the storm raged outside the suburban church building. Even with a heavy rain falling, several people had left the church. One member received a weather alert, and those people remaining at the church moved to the basement.
A little while later, with Sunday school taking place by candlelight due to a power outage, two members returned and shared the dreadful news: a good portion of Washington’s west side had been wiped out by the tornado.
“Splintered homes, gas station canopies on highways, deflated basketballs and other debris in fields … you just saw things that didn’t belong where they were,” Weltmann said, noting that much of the damage was not visible from the east side of town where the church is located. “You could not distinguish where you were when you got closer to that side of town. Some of our street signs were found an hour and a half from Washington.”
Coming together in a time of need
Despite the raging storm, there was no damage to Washington Presbyterian Church other than the loss of power, which was restored Monday. Estimates showed that some 250-300 homes in the town, located 10 miles east of Peoria, were destroyed. Two families from the congregation lost their homes to the tornado but were taken in by fellow church members.
“We are very blessed here in Washington,” Weltmann said. “In this community of faith, everybody is willing to help out, and that is so important, especially in times like these. It’s a blessing to see how many people come out of the woodwork to help. It’s wonderful to see how God works through churches to assist.”
Weltmann said denominational lines were of no concern when it came to meeting the needs of people impacted by such a severe storm, whether it be providing shelter, helping with recovery and cleanup efforts or praying for each other.
“There are no Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians. We’re all children of God who are pulling together to help each other,” she said. “In a small town with a lot of churches, you often feel you are in competition for members, but it’s humbling to see those (denominational) lines disappear in the name of helping each other. To see the Body of Christ pull together as one reminds me how much I am part of something so much bigger. It’s not just me and this 128-member church. It’s so much more, and we ask that people continue to pray for everyone affected by this.”
In making that plea, Weltmann also acknowledged how God is working to triumph over the tragedy.
“God will see His people through this,” Weltmann continued. “This is not a sign He has abandoned us in any way. He is still with us. If anything it shows how He is working among us by bringing us together. We will need His comfort and strength to get through this recovery process. He’s still with us, watching over us and pulling us through. We’ll always be able to rely on God, even in the midst of a natural disaster like this.”
A destructive force
More than 80 tornadoes were reported throughout the Midwest, including an EF2 twister that touched down in Coal City, Ill., near Joliet. Confirmed tornadoes were reported in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
“You see pictures of storms, but you really don’t know the impact until you see it with your own eyes,” said Weltmann, who has viewed the damage first-hand. “To see it in a picture is one thing, but then when you see it … it is so surreal. The hand of nature is just so powerful. It is so frightening to see the devastation, and it makes you feel so blessed about what you have.”
Krummel said hundreds of homes in Tazewell County were destroyed, and she said many others in nearby Pekin and East Peoria also suffered heavy damage. Seeing the damage, Krummel notified Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) of the situation on Sunday and was in contact with officials of the organization and from the Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters in Louisville, Ky., again Monday.
PDA officials will arrive later this week to assess the damage and needs in the community.
Despite the ferocity of the storm, Krummel said none of the 99 churches in the presbytery suffered damage.
Dozens of people in the storm’s path were injured, and hundreds of thousands were without power, or worse, without their homes altogether as a result of the powerful tornadoes and high winds that swept across a dozen states. Many homes, especially in Washington, were leveled by the devastating storm.
The high winds and heavy rain even led to a delay in Sunday’s NFL game between the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago when it reached that area around 90 minutes after striking Washington. Fans evacuated the stands and sheltered in the concourse area of the stadium until the storm passed and the game resumed after some two hours.