By Michelle Manchir and Andy Grimm
9:26 PM CST, November 18, 2013
The scale of Sunday's deadly storms became clearer today: Six people dead in Illinois, hundreds of homes flattened and splintered, more than 80 tornadoes reported through the Midwest, 358 reports of damaging winds, 40 reports of large hail.
Since 1986, there have been 194 tornado warnings issued in the month of November in Illinois: More than half of them, 101, were issued Sunday, according to the Chicago Weather Center.
As crews fanned out from the National Weather Service to assess the storm's impact, WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling said it may go down as one of the most powerful to hit the region in decades.
"It appears the storm may have produced the most powerful Illinois November tornado on record outside of St. Louis (and possibly elsewhere) and may be one of the four most intense Great Lakes storms of the past five decades," he said.
Hardest hit was Washington, a town of 15,000 people east of Peoria hit by an EF-4 tornado packing winds of 170 to 190 mph. Whole blocks were leveled, prompting the Illinois National Guard to send a 10-person firefighting and search and rescue team. Officials were still trying to determine the extent of injuries Sunday evening, but at least one death was reported and nearly 80 people injured.
"The devastation is just unbelievable," said Mayor Gary Manier, estimating as many as 500 homes may have been damaged in his town. "I can't imagine people walked away from these places."
The one person who died was identified by the Tazewell County coroner as Steve Neubauer, 51, of Washington, who was found near his home on School Street in Washington. He was remembered by a neighbor as a person you could call up if you needed a repair to your lawnmower or tractor.
A mechanic and heavy equipment operator by trade, Neubauer was home when the tornado struck his house and did not make it to his home's basement, though his wife did, said neighbor Lori Anne Hagey.
"He would do anything for everybody," Hagey said. "He was here to help you."
Hagey said she was stunned her nearby house is still standing since neighbors' homes were blown away. She said a 12-stall horse barn in her yard was destroyed, but two horses on her property survived.
"It's been an ordeal," she said.
Farther south, an EF-4 tornado with winds of 166-200 mph ravaged Washington County, obliterating farms and livestock and killing Joseph Hoy, 80, and his sister Frances Hoy, 78, according to Coroner Mark Styninger.
Joseph Hoy's body was found in a field about 100 yards east of his farmhouse. His sister's body was found inside the home beneath debris, he said. "(Joseph Hoy's) house was blown away by a tornado," said Styninger, who knew the siblings personally. "They were just very nice people."
Joseph Hoy's frend, Estelle Wernle, said she had known Hoy for more than 40 years because of their shared interest in birds. She said Hoy had been the hard-working and dedicated president of the Midwest Bird and Animal Breeders Association since 1990.
"He cared for all the animals, small and large," said Wernle.
Wernle said officials told friends that Joseph died on his property in the countryside from a head injury after the storm. His sister, who is handicapped and who he cared for, was found "under a heap of rubble," Wernle said.
Wernle said Hoy kept animals on his property, mostly birds of all sizes like quail, pigeons and sometimes ostriches. But the barns and the farmhouse in which they all lived vanished after the storm, Wernle said. "It's like barren land," she said.
Wernle said Hoy was a kind friend, remembering the names of all 200 members of their bird club. "I couldn't believe it. I was devastated," she said about his death.
Three other deaths were reported in Massac County at the southern tip of the state, where an EF-3 tornado struck with of 145 mph. The tornado tore a path 225 yards wide across the county.
The small town of Brookport was hit hard, with hundreds of homes damaged, officials said. Buildings were smashed into piles of rubble. Power lines were strewn through the town. A curfew has been issued from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"We opened the door and started looking around. My friend had come over and a tree had landed on top of his car, broke out a couple windows. The house next to us, a tree fell through their roof," one man said.
Killed were Scholitta Burrus, 63, Kathy George, 58 and Robert Harmon, 56, according to Massac County sheriff’s officials. Harmon and George lived in rural Brookport while Burrus lived in the town of Brookport, according to a spokeswoman. All three were found in separate locations.
Closer to Chicago, in Grundy County, an EF-2 tornado touched down in the Coal City area near Joliet with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, the National Weather Service said. Hundreds of homes were damaged, and a subdivision in the community of Diamond was ordered evacuated.
Matt McCullough watched the funnel cloud take shape over the fields behind his house in Diamond Estates before herding his 4-year-old son and 96-year-old grandmother into the basement.
"The air just got, I don't know, lighter. Then it got quiet," he said. "Then you could just hear everything getting torn apart."
When they came up from the basement a few minutes later, the roof and an exterior wall had been torn away by the storm.
"I don't know where to start or what to do," he said as he stood this afternoon in his bedroom, a bright blue sky over head. "I'm not sleeping; I'm just on pure adrenaline now."
The Red Cross set up a shelter in the Coal City High School gym and at a local church Sunday night, but had no visitors overnight, Dorfler said.
"Hopefully that means everyone was able to find someplace to go," he said.
Power outages were still widespread in the area, and fire department was operating on generator power, Dorfler said.
"The tornado actually came right across the back of our firehouse," he said. "Fortunately, it didn't do any damage."
A state trooper checkpoint greeted anyone who tried to enter Diamond Monday. Behind the trooper's squad car along Johnson Road lay telltale signs of the tornado that touched down around noon the day before: power lines drooping from telephone poles set askew or snapped off by the storm and roadways clogged with work crews.
In the Diamond Estate subdivision, where Gov. Pat Quinn made his first stop on a tour of storm damage, the sounds of tarps fluttering in the wind and the popping of roofers' hammers hung in the chilly air. The rooftops of every home in the subdivision looked chewed up, with large patches of missing shingles.
Large trees were split and broken. Smaller ones were festooned with bits of pink insulation pulled from the roofs of demolished homes. In the farm fields surrounding the small grouping of two-story and split-level homes, huge chunks of debris and tree limbs lay among stubble in the cornfields.
Gov. Patrick Quinn has declared seven counties disaster areas: Champaign, Grundy, LaSalle, Massac, Tazewell, Washington and Woodford counties.
Quinn plans to visit the communities of Washington, Diamond, Gifford, Brookport and New Minden, according to a statement from his office.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency is coordinating efforts with other state agencies to help affected areas, according to Quinn's office.
About 10,600 customers still lacked electricity following the storm at abourt 4:30 p.m. Monday, according to ComEd. Only 600 of those customers are in Chicago. The rest are mostly in the utility's southern region – 6,300 – with about 350 down in the north region and 3,400 in the west region.
Andy Grimm contributed.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC