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Published: Tuesday, 11/19/2013

Forecasts, warnings helped save lives from Midwestern weather

Better forecasts, more warnings and church services spared lives in rare late-season tornadoes

BLADE NEWS SERVICES
This aerial photo taken Monday shows a home that was destroyed by an EF-4 tornado that hit the town of Washington, Ill. This aerial photo taken Monday shows a home that was destroyed by an EF-4 tornado that hit the town of Washington, Ill.
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WASHINGTON, Ill. — When a cluster of violent thunderstorms began marching across the Midwest, forecasters were able to draw a bright line on a map showing where the worst of the weather would go.

Their uncannily accurate predictions — combined with television and radio warnings, text-message alerts, and storm sirens — almost certainly saved lives as rare late-season tornadoes dropped out of a dark autumn sky. Although the storms howled through 12 states and flattened entire neighborhoods within a matter of minutes, the number of dead stood at just eight.

By Monday, another, more prosaic reason for the relatively low death toll also came to light: In the hardest-hit town, many families were in church.

“I have to believe that 90 percent of those people who survived were probably in their basement, taking cover, or at church,” said Gary Manier, mayor of Washington, Ill., a community of 16,000 people about 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of Washington to the other and damaged or destroyed some 500 homes. The heavy weather also battered parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and western New York.

The storm also knocked power to thousands of customers in mostly northern and central Ohio after the system rolled through the state, from Cincinnati to Toledo.

At least two people were killed in Michigan, where strong winds knocked down trees and power lines across the state, leaving about 620,000 homes and businesses without power, officials said.

In Jackson County, Sheriff Steven Rand said Ryan A. Rickman, 21, of Leslie, died when his vehicle was crushed by a fallen tree Sunday evening.

The Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office said Philip D. Smith, 59, of Perry was found dead and entangled in high-voltage power wires after he went outside late Sunday to investigate a noise.

About 469,000 power customers remained blacked out Monday afternoon, and the American Red Cross opened five emergency shelters in southwestern Michigan.

High winds at the Mackinac Bridge on Monday prompted officials to close the span to semitrucks and trailers.

DTE Energy Co. reported Monday afternoon about 232,000 southeast Michigan customers remained without power. 

The utility said restoration is expected to take several days, and crews are working 16-hour shifts.

CMS Energy Corp.’s Consumers Energy unit reported about 206,000 customers without service.

Back in Washington, Daniel Bennett was officiating Sunday services before 600 to 700 people when he heard an electronic warning tone.

Then another. And another.

“I’d say probably two dozen phones started going off in the service, and everybody started looking down,” he said.

What they saw was a text message from the National Weather Service cautioning that a twister was in the area. Mr. Bennett stopped the service and ushered everyone to a safe place until the threat passed.

A day later, many townspeople said those messages helped minimize deaths and injuries.

“That’s got to be connected,” Mr. Bennett said. “The ability to get instant information.”

“We thank God that our community listened and took heed,” Mayor Manier said, standing in a destroyed section of Washington.

A day later, many townspeople said those messages helped minimize deaths and injuries.



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