Rare winter tornadoes sweep the Midwest

Tuesday, January 8th 2008, 11:46 am
By: News 9

Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK -- A tornado was reported blowing across eastern Arkansas Tuesday, a day after a freak cluster of January twisters sprung up in the unseasonably warm Midwest and demolished houses, knocked a railroad locomotive off its tracks and shuttered a courthouse.

The twister swept through Pope County, the National Weather Service said. One person was killed, said Tommy Jackson, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. Others were injured, said Jim Campbell, Assistant Director for Pope County 911.

"We've got some homes damaged, trees and roads and stuff like that," he said.

The tornadoes came as record high winter temperatures were reported across wide areas of the country. Tornadoes were reported or suspected Monday in southwest Missouri, southeastern Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois and Oklahoma. Two people were killed in Missouri.

Bill Lischka was drinking coffee at a restaurant in Caledonia, Ill., when he heard something he didn't expect in January: a tornado siren.

"Next thing you know ... a tornado just popped right out of the clouds," Lischka said.

Al Ost said he "prayed like a sissy" as he fled to the basement of his house in Boone County, Ill. The storm damaged a barn on his property, he told the Rockford Register Star.

Hardest hit was a subdivision in Wheatland, about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee, where at least 55 homes were damaged, Kenosha County sheriff's Lt. Paul Falduto said Tuesday morning.

"With the light of day it always looks worse than at night," Falduto said.

Thirteen people were injured in the county, none seriously.

"I have never seen damage like this in the summertime when we have potential for tornadoes," Sheriff David Beth said. "To see something like this in January is mind-boggling to me."

The only other recorded January tornado in Wisconsin was in 1967 and it was Illinois' first since 1950, the National Weather Service said. However, tornadoes are not unknown elsewhere, with 141 twisters in January 1999 in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, according to weather service records.

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder, presiding over opening testimony in a murder trial, said he couldn't believe it when a deputy said the courtroom had to be evacuated because of a tornado warning.

"It's a first," he said while waiting with 300 people in the basement. "I've actually had ... warnings occur during jury trials before and frankly I just ignored them. But not in January."

About six homes were destroyed in the small town of Poplar Grove, Ill., where three people suffered minor injuries, Boone County Sheriff's Lt. Perry Gay said.

About 15 miles away in Harvard, Ill., a suspected tornado derailed one locomotive and 12 freight cars. A tank car containing shock absorber fluid leaked for hours before it was contained, and another derailed car contained ethylene oxide, a flammable material used to sterilize medical supplies, but did not leak, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

Meteorologists said the unusual weather was the result of warm, moist air moving from the south. It brought temperatures near 70 degrees on Sunday and Monday. Temperatures hit record highs at 138 cities across the Plains and Midwest, the weather service said.

"It's very unseasonable for this time of year," said meteorologist Benjamin Sipprell. "The atmosphere is just right."

As far north as Buffalo, N.Y., thermometers hit 62 degrees Monday, 8 degrees above the old record, and in the first hours of Tuesday the reading was already 61, besting the previous 59-degree record. The temperature dipped, then returned to 61 by midmorning.

Other records Monday, according to the National Climatic Data Center, included 64 at Chicago; 72 at Hot Springs, Ark.; and 82 at Bakersfield, Texas.