ST. LOUIS (AP) — A spring-like storm system spawned tornadoes that destroyed more than 100 homes and killed three people in the central U.S. before it rumbled eastward Wednesday, putting about 95 million people in its path, forecasters said.
The compact but strong storms, known as supercells, moved into the region on Tuesday and raked parts of Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri before moving into Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Forecasters with the Storm Prediction Center said the storm system appeared headed toward the mid-Atlantic states and southern New England, and that New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., could be affected.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, received about two dozen reports of possible tornadoes late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Warning coordination meteorologist Patrick Marsh said crews are still determining if damage was from tornadoes or straight-line winds, and how many twisters touched down.
Marsh said a strong storm system moved from the Mountain West and collided with warm and humid air in the central U.S., which has enjoyed an unusually warm winter and where temperatures Tuesday were well into the 70s in many places.
“That’s why we saw storms more representative of late March and April,” Marsh said. “The atmosphere doesn’t care what the calendar says.”
In Illinois, an uprooted tree killed 76-year-old man, Wayne Tuntland, in Ottawa, which is 70 miles southwest of Chicago. More than a dozen people in the area were injured during the storm. In the small community of Naplate, next to Ottawa, about a quarter of the roughly 200 homes were damaged, Fire Chief John Nevins said. Gov. Bruce Rauner toured the area Wednesday.
Debbie Loughridge, 61, of Naplate, rode out the storm with her son in the bathtub of their rented house. Firefighters helped them out of the home, which lost much of its roof.
“He heard the freight train sound and said ‘Here it comes,’” Loughridge said. “All I heard was the wind and the breaking glass. Like an explosion of glass.”
About 225 miles south of Ottawa, near Crossville, Illinois, an apparent tornado struck a building near a house, killing a 71-year-old man and injuring his wife, White County Coroner Chris Marsh said.
In Missouri, several vehicles were blown off of Interstate 55 near Perryville, 65 miles southeast of St. Louis. A 24-year-old man from Perryville was ejected and died, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Juston Wheetley said. The wind was so strong that it lifted crumpled cars from a nearby salvage yard and tossed them along the highway.
Nearly 110 homes in the Perryville area were damaged or destroyed and 12 people in Perry County suffered minor injuries, Perryville Fire Chief Jeremy Triller said.
“I feel we’re very blessed and fortunate we didn’t have a higher fatality number with this terrible disaster,” Triller said.
Meteorologist Rick Shanklin of the National Weather Service said the tornado began in Missouri and extended into Illinois. Shanklin characterized it as a “strong tornado,” but the actual wind speed has not been estimated.
In Arkansas, emergency managers said 10 to 15 people were injured in White County, about 45 miles northeast of Little Rock, and minor injuries were reported at a prison in the northeastern part of the state. At Bald Knob High School, hundreds of people took shelter, including schoolchildren, as a storm damaged about 40 homes.
Tornadoes may have touched down Wednesday in and near Nashville, Tennessee. Weather service meteorologist Sam Herron cited numerous reports of scattered damage across central Tennessee and a possible tornado near the Cool Springs mall south of Nashville. The city’s Emergency Operations Center tweeted that damage to power lines and trees indicated that another tornado may have touched down in the city.
A tornado is suspected after several homes and a church building were damaged in Ireland, Indiana. No injuries were reported but one woman had to be rescued from a partially collapsed home.
Strong winds elsewhere in the Plains spread wildfires in Texas. Four homes were destroyed near Tulia, about 50 miles south of Amarillo, before firefighters beat back the flames. Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Phillip Truitt said the fire prompted the evacuation of almost 1,200 homes.
Associated Press reporters Bob Eller, Herb McCann and Sophia Tareen in Chicago; Teresa Crawford in Naplate, Illinois; Kelly Kissel, Tafi Mukunyadzi and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas; and David Runk in Detroit contributed to this report.