WASHINGTON, Illinois (Reuters) - Residents of a central Illinois city hit by a powerful tornado worked feverishly on Tuesday to salvage belongings from the rubble of their homes, as an over-burdened police force tried to stop looting.
Authorities doubled to 1,000 their estimate of homes damaged or destroyed in the fast-moving storm that hit Washington, a town of 15,000 located 145 miles southwest of Chicago, on Sunday. Winds reached up to 200 miles per hour (322 km per hour), and many houses were reduced to piles of sticks.
The storm system triggered multiple tornadoes on Sunday in the Midwestern United States, killing at least six people in Illinois and two in Michigan. The cost of damage is estimated at $1 billion.
Roads in and out of Washington were clogged on Tuesday with pickup trucks, which residents filled with whatever they could find that was salvageable. The sound of chainsaws cutting through fallen trees could be heard everywhere. Incidents of looting, and the threat of rain on Wednesday, added urgency to the task.
Homeowner Ken Dunston said a truck had pulled up outside his home and made off with a pile of his furniture.
“They’re stealing everything they can,” said Dunston. “The next time they come through here I’ll grab hold of them and call the police.”
Washington police department commander Greg Gordon said looters are posing a huge challenge for the local force, which has been augmented by officers from nearby Peoria and state police.
Diana Wara, 50, a professional cook, was trying to get her recipes off the hard drive of her crushed computer. All that remained of her two-story home was its foundation. Her family’s four cars were destroyed, she said.
“My whole life is on that computer,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “We’re all just lucky to be alive and we’re going to rebuild.”
She has already talked to a builder, but in the meantime, her insurance company has put up her family in an apartment, she said.
Mike Bochart, 40, was in church when the storm hit, so he and his family stayed safe, while half of his home was destroyed. He was removing what he could on Tuesday.
“Everyone has been pitching in to help, this is a good town,” Bochart said. “It’s going to be a long road, but we will rebuild.”
Early estimates suggest that the property damage caused by the storm could reach $1 billion, with the greatest toll in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, according to Risk Management Solutions, a Newark, California-based company that specializes in assessing the toll of storms and other disasters.
November tornado outbreaks are relatively rare this far north - they are seen only about once every 10 years in this part of the Midwest, according to Greg Carbin, meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.
Rebuilding from a November storm, as opposed to a spring storm, poses different challenges, according to Terry Ruhland, spokesman for the Homebuilders Association of Greater Peoria.
One problem is that foundations that are solid now may suffer damage from winter weather while homeowners wait for construction to begin, so foundations will need to be protected, Ruhland said.
“Do I think people will step up to the plate and make historic efforts? Absolutely,” Ruhland said. “But it will be very challenging due to the devastation, the weather conditions, and the volume of work needing to be done.”
Washington Mayor Gary Manier asked volunteers to stay away for now to let people into their homes. But the town will need help going forward.
“We’re going to be here for quite a while and we’re going to need assistance,” Manier said. “So please don’t forget about us.” He said the town has had offers of help from as far off as Italy and the Philippines, where residents are struggling to recover from their own natural disaster, Typhoon Haiyan, which authorities estimate killed more than 3,900 people after roaring ashore on November 8.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has declared 13 counties disaster areas.
Of the six people killed in Illinois, authorities said one died in Washington and three in Brookport on the Kentucky border, where a tornado with winds up to 145 mph destroyed dozens of mobile homes and damaged dozens of houses, garages, storage buildings, businesses and other structures.
Two men died in Michigan in storm-related incidents.
Tornadoes also caused major damage in Indiana and lesser damage in Ohio, according to the National Weather Service.
Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Kim Palmer in Cleveland; Writing by Mary Wisnieski; Editing by W Simon, Maureen Bavdek, Marguerita Choy and Gunna Dickson