Rescuers fan across six Midwestern states in a search for victims on Monday, a day after a series of deadly tornadoes and powerful storms killed six people, destroyed homes and left hundreds of thousands without power.
ST. LOUIS – Nestled among the quiet fields of corn and beans that dominate the southwest Illinois landscape, Joe Hoy's llamas, ducks, rabbits and goats provided a cherished soundtrack for his neighbors and were a source of fascination for area children who would stop by to see them.
The farm was gone in a flash Sunday, as one of several powerful tornadoes that touched down in Illinois and elsewhere in the Midwest raked the 80-year-old Hoy's property near New Minden, killing him, his sister and their menagerie and destroying their house and fields.
"Joe Hoy had a heart as big as all of the outdoors," said Judy Harmening, whose own farm a quarter-mile away was left untouched. "We could sit on our porch and listen to the sounds that came up from that farm. We didn't know what bird or animal it was, but I'll miss that."
Sunday's tornadoes, which were notable for how destructive they were and how late in the year they struck, killed at least six people in Illinois and two others in Michigan and injured hundreds of others. The six deaths were the most from tornadoes on any November day in Illinois' state history, the National Weather Service confirmed Monday.
In addition to the deaths of Hoy and his 78-year-old sister, Frances Hoy, three people were killed in Brookport, a town in Massac County, in Illinois' southern tip. Another person was killed in Washington, a central Illinois city of about 16,000 residents where Mayor Garry Manier said hundreds of homes had been damaged or destroyed.
The National Weather Service said the Washington tornado, like the one that flattened Hoy's farm, had a preliminary rating of EF-4, meaning it had wind speeds of 170 to 190 mph.
The state's Emergency Management Agency said 150 to 200 people were injured in Illinois, and Gov. Pat Quinn declared portions of Champaign, Grundy, LaSalle, Massac, Tazewell, Washington and Woodford counties to be disaster areas. He updated President Barack Obama about the damage and relief efforts in Obama's home state during a phone call Monday, said Quinn's spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.
Many residents of affected areas said they knew what was coming, having seen weather alerts on their television screens. But they still raced for shelter, with Harmening barely able to get her father, who uses a walker, into the house as the wind became fierce and the sky turned ominously gray. They didn't quite make it to the basement.
"There was no rain with it. We're lucky we had 10 or 12 drops of rain," Harmening said. Just seconds later, "the sun was shining, and there was a rainbow off to the east. It was the weirdest storm I've ever witnessed."
The coroner said Hoy's body was found about 100 yards from where his house stood. Frances Hoy, who Harmening said was developmentally disabled and cared for by her brother, died later at a hospital.
In tiny New Minden, the storm toppled a church steeple and cemetery headstones and tore the roof off a convenience store, said the town's president, Candi Cross. But she said the village dodged the storm's brunt when the twister she saw coming across a field suddenly turned away from town as she ran for cover to her mom's neighboring home, her Chihuahua clutched to her chest.
"The leaves were twirling around me, higher than I am tall," she said. "It took everything I could to stand up straight and run. I no more got to my mom's house, and it was all over with. It just took seconds.
"If that tornado would have taken the path it was coming, we probably would have been leveled."
In Brookport, with about 1,000 residents, Alderman Larry Call said dozens of homes, mostly trailer homes, on the outskirts of town were destroyed. The three people killed there ranged in age from 56 to 63 years old, the Illinois State Police said.
The weather service said those who have surveyed the damage in Brookport believe that the tornado that struck there reached EF3 strength at times, meaning it was packing 140-mph winds and averaging 250 yards wide.
Brookport Alderman Larry Call said that as the twister approached the town on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., several people hunkered down with him at the First Christian Church, where he is the pastor.
Call said he heard "an extremely loud pop," and later found that the noise came from a plank that was sent flying through his pickup truck's windshield.
The damage around Brookport "almost looks like a number of dashes across a page," said 64-year-old Call, whose church ultimately served as the town's command center. "The tornado set down on the western edge of town, then did a hop, skip and a jump. By the time it got to the eastern side, it sat down in earnest again. It just seemed to skip over the central portion of town."
Some 32,000 homes and business still were without power Monday afternoon, down from the outage peak of nearly 220,000.