Midwest 'wind machine' heads to Northeast

Image:
A suspected tornado damaged the second story of this home near Muncie, Ind., on Tuesday.Chris Bergin / The Star Press via AP
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

A monster wind and rain storm that left some 220,000 homes and businesses without power and triggered at least 12 suspected twisters across the Midwest was moving into the Northeast overnight.

Stretching as far south as Mississippi, the system was expected to weaken a bit, the Weather Channel reported, but still threaten severe thunderstorms in these population centers:

  • Early evening to late night: Buffalo, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Charleston, W.Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Birmingham, Ala.;
  • Pre-dawn: Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Md.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and New York City.

In the Midwest, 12 possible twisters were reported by late afternoon, most causing just minor damage, while other areas reported gusts in the 70 and 80 mph range. The worst of the storm's rains had passed but continued high winds were likely into Wednesday.

Nearly 220,000 customers across the Midwest lost electricity as fallen trees downed power lines.

Commonwealth Edison said 76,000 customers were without power in the Chicago area at one point. In Indiana, more than 60,000 lost power. Another 60,000 lost power in the Cincinnati area and northern Kentucky, while outages topped 23,000 in Michigan.

Amazingly, no deaths were reported and the most serious injury was a woman impaled by a tree branch that crashed through her car in Lindenhurst, a Chicago suburb. She was taken to a hospital where she was reported in fair condition.

In Kokomo, Ind., a suspected twister damaged homes and the downtown area had lost power.

In Wanatah, Ind., a suspected tornado destroyed a home and barn. A 74-year-old woman living in the home was not injured.

Three people in a home near Peotone, Ill., suffered minor injuries when the roof was ripped off by what could have been a twister.

In Cridersville, Ohio, a suspected twister left three homes uninhabitable.

In Sturtevant, Wis., a twister caused severe damage to several homes and businesses but no injuries.

"It was just a regular work day and all of a sudden that noise just came and (co-workers) said 'Run! Run! Run!' You didn't have time to think," said Sheryl Uthemann, a worker at the Case New Holland plant, describing the possible twister that started to lift up the roof.

"I looked up where the noise was coming from and saw pieces of the roof sucked up. I've never been more scared, ever."

Indianapolis also saw severe winds that forced the brief evacuation of a 48-story office building.

"It was pretty bad up there. The windows were moving back and forth, so it was nasty," office worker Nick Hoetmer was quoted by WRTV as saying.

The massive storm muscled its way across an area that stretched from the Dakotas to the eastern Great Lakes, where waves up to 25 feet were predicted along with some beach erosion.

Severe thunderstorm warnings blanketed much of the Midwest, and tornado watches were issued from Arkansas to Ohio.

More than 500 flights were canceled at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, a major hub for American and United airlines. O'Hare as well as Midway also reported delays.

Indianapolis International Airport also reported some flight delays, and the high winds closed two of three runways at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"We have a huge wind machine," the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore reported from Minneapolis, Minn. "You have the potential to gust to hurricane force, easily."

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.

Both Wisconsin and Minnesota set record lows for barometric pressure, Cantore reported.

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 Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. But temperatures were in the 50s and 60s, instead of the 20s.

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 Tuesday's low-pressure system had been over water — where winds get higher — it would have created a major hurricane, Imy said.

The National Weather Service said the system's pressure reading Tuesday was among the lowest ever in a non-tropical storm in the mainland U.S.

Agency spokeswoman Susan Buchanan says the storm is within the top 5 strongest storms in terms of low pressure, but may not be the strongest on record.

Such low pressure 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.

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.

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 tornadoes formed.

Add to that the fact the storm was moving fast, 50 to 60 mph, and the winds became even stronger, Imy said.

By Tuesday morning, sustained winds were about 35 to 40 mph. A gust of 81 mph was recorded in Butlerville, Ohio, and 80 mph in Greenfield, Ind., according to NOAA.

Morning commuters in the Chicago area faced blustery, wind-driven rain as they waited for trains to take them downtown before dawn. Some huddled underneath train overpasses to stay out of the gusts, dashing to the platform at the last minute.

In the city's downtown Loop, construction workers wore heavy slickers and held onto their hard-hats, heavy metal streets signs rattled against their posts and umbrellas provided relief only for as long as they could last.

"The wind was almost blowing horizontally. The rain was slapping me in the face," said Anthony Quit, a 24-year-old jewelry store worker in Chicago. "My umbrella shot off ... It was pretty dangerous."

He said the wind was so strong that his car "was starting to veer off the road."

Another commuter described a frightening pre-dawn drive to the train station.

"It was raining really, really hard. Coming down the street I was kind of getting really nervous; even with the bright lights you couldn't see in front of you," said Delphine Thompson, 53, a telecom manager in Chicago.

The weather service said gusts that topped 50 miles per hour slammed into the Chicago suburb of Lombard early Tuesday.

Chicago's 110-story Willis Tower, the nation's tallest building, closed the Skydeck observatory and retracted "The Ledge" attraction — four glass boxes that jut out from the building's 103rd floor.

In St. Louis, pre-dawn strong winds were blamed for a partial building collapse that sent bricks, mortar, roofing and some window air-conditioning units raining down onto a sidewalk. No one was injured, and inspectors were going through the 1920s-era building.

Eleven states were under a high wind warning: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio and parts of Kentucky.

The weather service said the winds would subside Tuesday evening but could pick up again on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, much of North Dakota was under a blizzard warning. The weather service said up to 10 inches of snow could fall in some areas into early Wednesday across North Dakota and into northern South Dakota. Wind gusts of more than 50 mph in many areas would make travel treacherous.