WASHINGTON - Dozens of tornadoes and intense thunderstorms swept across the U.S. Midwest on Sunday, killing at least six people, causing extensive damage in several Illinois communities and darkening downtown Chicago.
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home, said coroner Mark Styninger. Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency confirmed three other deaths but did not provide details. The agency confirmed another death.
With communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people were killed or hurt by the unusually strong late-season tornadoes.
"The whole neighbourhood's gone. The wall of my fireplace is all that is left of my house," said Michael Perdun, speaking by phone from the hard-hit town of Washington.
Local official Tyler Gee told WLS-TV that as he walked through neighbourhoods immediately after the tornado struck, he "couldn't even tell what street I was on."
"Just completely flattened — some of the neighbourhoods here in town, hundreds of homes."
State Police Trooper Dustin Pierce said the tornado cut a path from one end of the rural community of 16,000 to the other, knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and rupturing gas lines.
At OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, spokeswoman Amy Paul said 37 patients had been treated, eight with injuries ranging from broken bones to head injuries that were serious enough to be admitted. Another hospital, Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, treated more than a dozen people, but officials there said none were seriously injured.
As the rain and high winds slammed into the Chicago area, officials cleared a professional sports stadium and cleared teams off the field for a couple of hours.
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. According to the National Weather Service's website, a total of 65 tornadoes struck, most of them in Illinois. But meteorologist Matt Friedlein said the total might fall because emergency workers, tornado spotters and others often report the same tornado.
The storm system was pushing into the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states Sunday evening.
Matt Friedlein, a weather service meteorologist, said that such strong storms are rare this late in the year because there usually isn't enough heat from the sun to sustain the thunderstorms. But he said temperatures Sunday were expected to reach into the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit (from 16 to 26 degrees Celsius), which he said is warm enough to help produce severe weather when it is coupled with winds, which are typically stronger this time of year than in the summer.
Babwin reported from Chicago. Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.