CHICAGO — A massive storm making its way through a big chunk of the nation brought a bit of everything: strong winds, rain, tornadoes and now even some snow for parts of the Midwest.
The storm packed wind gusts of up to 81 mph Tuesday as it howled across the Midwest and South, snapping trees and power lines, ripping off roofs and delaying flights. The storm continued its trek early Wednesday, with snow falling in the Dakotas and Minnesota. More strong winds were in the forecast in several other states.
National Weather Service reports indicate as much as 8 inches of snow fell in North Dakota. Linnea Reeves, a Walmart employee in Bismarck, N.D., said the snow has already made roads hazardous in her neighborhood.
“The weather is not very nice out here. The winds are picking up and it's very snowy very slick,” Reeves said. “I've got my snow shovel in my car in case I get stuck.”
A blizzard warning was in effect Wednesday for North Dakota, where up to 10 inches was expected in some areas. Lighter snow was expected in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.
The unusual system mesmerized meteorologists because of its size and because it had barometric pressure that was similar to a Category 3 hurricane, but with much less destructive power.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the system's pressure reading Tuesday was among the lowest ever in a non-tropical storm in the mainland U.S. Spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said the storm was within the top five in terms of low pressure, which brings greater winds.
The fast-moving 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, said David Imy, operations chief at the NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. 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.
By Tuesday morning, sustained winds were about 35 to 40 mph and gusting much higher. A gust of 81 mph was recorded in Butlerville, Ohio, and 80 mph in Greenfield, Ind., according to NOAA.
Tornadoes whirled through Racine County, Wis., where two people were injured when a section of roof was torn off a tractor factory, and in Van Wert County, Ohio, near the Indiana border, where a barn was flattened and flipped over a tractor-trailer and camper. In Lincoln County, N.C., 11 people were injured and eight homes damaged when a possible tornado touched down, emergency management officials said. An apparent tornado on the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, Tenn., caused an accident that led to the closure of the highway and injured several people. A tornado also touched down in Peotone, Ill., where three people were injured when a home's roof came off, and twisters were suspected in several other states.
The National Weather Service confirmed that eight tornadoes struck in Indiana Tuesday, but that no serious damage or injuries were reported. It said Ohio saw three twisters.
Sheryl Uthemann, 49, was working first shift at the Case New Holland plant in Mount Pleasant, Wis., when the storm blew through and started to lift the roof.
“It was just a regular workday and all of a sudden that noise just came and (co-workers) said 'Run! Run! Run!' You didn't have time to think,” she said. “I looked up where the noise was coming from and saw pieces of the roof sucked up. I've never been more scared, ever.”
With rain falling in western Wisconsin, Xcel Energy was watching for the potential failure of a hydroelectric dam near Ladysmith after a small sinkhole developed in an earthen embankment. No evacuations were ordered. The dam is in a rural area on the Flambeau River.
In the Indiana town of Wanatah, about 60 miles southeast of Chicago, a pole barn at a hydraulics company was destroyed, and two homes were severely damaged, though no injuries were reported.
In suburban Chicago, Helen Miller, 41, was injured when a branch fell about 65 feet from a large tree, crashed into her car and impaled her abdomen. Doctors removed the branch and Miller's husband said she asked him to hang on to it.
“She wants to save it for an art project or something,” Todd Miller told the Chicago Sun-Times. “She's a bit of a free spirit, so I ran with it.”
Meteorologists said the storm's barometric pressure readings were comparable to those of a Category 3 hurricane but with much weaker winds. The wind gusts were only as strong as a tropical storm. Category 3 hurricanes have winds from 111 to 130 mph. If Tuesday's low-pressure system had been over water — where winds get higher — it would have created a major hurricane, Imy said.
About 500 flights were canceled and others delayed at O'Hare Airport, a major hub for American and United airlines. The storms also disrupted flights at the Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Minneapolis airports.
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.
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