A tornado outbreak in February? In the Great Lakes? Storms leave a trail of destruction

Severe storms that appear to have spawned a rare February tornado outbreak sent sleeping Midwesterners scrambling for safety and left a trail of damage and power outages across four Great Lakes states, including the Chicago suburbs, ending a spell of summerlike, sometimes record temperatures.

At least eight suspected or confirmed tornadoes in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio littered roads with fallen trees and branches, shredded homes and barns, and scattered debris across city and countryside alike. No injuries were reported, despite the storm’s timing at night.

In Michigan’s Grand Blanc Township, near Flint, a confirmed tornado — only the second on record for February in that part of the state — damaged subdivisions, uprooted trees and broke gas lines in Wednesday’s wee hours. Its strength was rated at EF-2, with peak winds of 115 mph.

Police and firefighters moved residents in an area of gas leaks to a firehouse, and they were allowed to return when a utility made repairs, authorities said.

“There are still numerous reports of wires down in the area,” police said. “While there is significant damage to houses in the area, no one was hurt.”

More than 100 miles to the southwest, a confirmed tornado damaged homes and barns and knocked down trees and power lines in Calhoun County, near the city of Marshall, sheriff’s and weather authorities said.

Warning sirens jolted residents of central Ohio awake as a possible tornado hit near Columbus.

Carole Essex’s family — husband Andy, their infant and a 2-year-old — were asleep at their home in Columbus as the storm approached. When they became aware of the threat, they ran for cover.

“We woke up and went down to the basement. We grabbed the kids and went down,” Essex, 29, told The Columbus Dispatch. “It sounded like our house collapsed. I looked at Andy and said, ‘Oh, my god, we were hit by a tornado.'”

Storms destroyed a hangar and damaged planes at a small airport in Madison County, between Dayton and Columbus. Toppled trees closed roads in the area until the debris could be cleared.

At least four other storms in Ohio were confirmed as tornadoes — in Montgomery and Greene counties in southwestern Ohio; east of Columbus in Franklin and Licking counties; in Hilliard in Franklin County; and near Springfield in Clark County, the National Weather Service said. The latter was rated at EF-2 strength.

At one point, more than 50,000 customers in Ohio and Michigan lacked power Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.us.

In Geneva, one of Chicago’s western suburbs, storms uprooted trees and left some homes with broken windows and shorn-off doors Tuesday evening, Fire Chief Mike Antenore said.

Geneva resident Rebecca Harrington said the storm “cycloned” into her home and collapsed its foyer area.

“The back of my house is sort of hanging off,” Harrington told WGN-TV, which reported no injuries.

The storms followed unusual warmth across much of the region in recent days. They were followed Wednesday by a return to winter weather, with snow and temperatures in the 20s in some areas.

Weather service teams throughout the region were trying to confirm tornado reports. One suspected tornado traveled across Chicago’s southern suburbs — from Calumet City, Illinois, into East Chicago and Gary in northwestern Indiana — before heading out over Lake Michigan as a waterspout, weather service meteorologist Kevin Doom said.

The Grand Blanc Township tornado is only the second February tornado for the section of Michigan covered by Detroit’s National Weather Service office since recordkeeping began in 1950, following one in Wayne County on Feb. 28, 1974, the service said.

The warm weather and severe storms, including hail up to an inch in diameter, on Tuesday and Wednesday are unusual for the area this time of the year, said meteorologist Dave Kook of the weather service’s Detroit office.

“This is not typical of late February by any means,” he said. “Basically, it’s kind of a month ahead of schedule for southeast Michigan.”

Robert Trapp, professor and director of the School of Earth, Society & Environment at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, agreed that February tornadoes in the state are “rare, but not unprecedented.”

According to records dating back to 1955, four EF1 tornadoes touched down in the state on Feb. 28, 2017, while an EF2 tornado was recorded on Feb. 28, 1974, Trapp said. March tornadoes are also uncommon, occurring only in 1956, 1961, 1976 and 1983.

The weather service office that covers southwestern and central Ohio has recorded winter tornadoes almost every year since 2012.

As for the nocturnal timing of the storms, Erica Grow Cei, a meteorologist and public affairs specialist with the National Weather Service, said that in winter, nighttime tornadoes are not less common than those that occur during the day.

“In the spring and summer, when most tornadoes happen in the U.S., the majority of tornado warnings and tornado reports are from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” Cei said via email.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today