UPDATED 06/22/11 6:00 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A ferocious, fast-moving storm created hurricane-force winds and several funnel clouds on Tuesday night, causing widespread damage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
As the storm blew into Chicago around 9 p.m., a tornado warning was called for several area counties – including Cook, the National Weather Service reports. No sirens were heard in the city proper, but funnel clouds were spotted in several other areas – including Naperville, Grayslake, Sugar Grove and Peru.
At O’Hare International Airport, winds gusted to 71 mph, and in Wheeling, gusts of 80 mph were reported. CBS 2 Meteorologist Megan Glaros says any wind speed greater than 74 mph is considered hurricane force.
But funnel clouds or not, blasting winds were seen everywhere in the area and left tall, stately trees lying on their sides.
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Trees Down, Neighbors Frightened
In Wheeling, fallen trees and power lines were everywhere. Twisted trees and dangerous wires were seen in the backyard of a home near 2nd Street and East Strong Avenue, and power was out on Milwaukee Avenue between Dundee and Lake Cook roads after the trees took down power lines and knocked out a transformer down the street.
The residential street was impassable, and residents had to be creative getting in and out.
As daylight came Wednesday, Wheeling residents sawed apart the fallen trees that were blocking the road, one by one. CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports.
“We had to make a path in the woods here just to get out,” said Mike Kraus, who was driving a pickup truck. “I literally had to run over a wooden fence just to get in and out.
The storms not only brought a massive tree crashing down on the house, but were so strong that a tree was uprooted the tree, leaving a piece of the ground almost vertically-oriented.
Lilia Diaconeo, who lives in the house, said she came out and her husband said not to be scared. But she still seemed to be shocked several hours later.
“Wow! When I saw it, I said, ‘I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!’” she said.
Diaconeo said she was hiding in the basement with her grandchildren, and in spite of the damaged roof, she is just thankful no one got hurt.
The downed trees also littered the yards and streets not far away in Des Plaines. Chris McGahan said she hadn’t seen it the condition quite this bad in all the time she has lived in the northwest suburb.
“We’ve been here for almost 15 years, and even a few years ago when we had the really big storm, I don’t think it was as bad as it was last night,” McGahan said.
McGahan and her 11-year-old son said the powerful winds kept them awake at night, although she wasn’t as worried as her neighbors. McGahan had actually cut some of the trees on her property down after another storm.
“We took them down a few years ago because of that very fact – we were afraid they’d fall on the house,” she said. “They were very big and very old trees.”
Next-door neighbor Ray Sulik and his 94-year-old mother were not so lucky. An enormous tree crashed just a few feet away from their front door.
“It’s terrible. It’s terrible,” Sulik said. “It’s lucky it didn’t hit the roof or the garage.”
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The storms also caused serious damage just in Elk Grove Village, where solid brick was no match for high winds. The storm tore the roof and part of the side off a building there.
In Morton Grove, the storm scattered plenty of debris around. Leaves, branches and limbs were strewn pretty much everywhere.
In west suburban Elmhurst, the high winds also uprooted trees and downed power lines. Residents said the sky was ablaze with lightning as the storm blew in, and they ran for cover when air raid sirens sounded.
When they came up from their basements, they found downed tree limbs, but thankfully no major damage.
“It was very scary. We were all downstairs. We could hear the rain and the thunder, just like, it was shaking,” one Elmhurst woman said.
Another woman described the sky as “dark gray, green – something I’ve never seen or experienced before, and just a ton of lightning.”
In Mount Prospect, a man had to run for cover with his family in the basement, as the storms uprooted a tree right from the ground.
“It got dark. It got windy. But within 30 seconds, there was almost like an explosion,” he said.
Mount Prospect was hit particularly hard by power outages. Mayor Irvana Wilks says her home has no power, and ComEd says it could be days before the power is back on.
Wilks was presiding over a village board meeting as the storm approached.
“My office is a corner office where I can see the storm in all directions, so I just didn’t even go outside. I just hunkered down,” she said.
By the time she did leave, there were tree branches littering the roads and traffic lights out.
Mount Prospect village officials say there is widespread damage around the area, with more than 10,000 residents without power. The village says power likely will not be restored for 2 to 3 days.
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The city was also affected.
At Addison Street and Panama Avenue on the city’s Far Northwest Side, lightning hit a transformer and plunged the entire neighborhood into darkness. The Chicago Fire Department closed off some streets after downed power lines sparked a small fire.
Metra Train Stuck On Tracks All Night
But it wasn’t just people safe at home who ran into problems with the storm. It also caused quite an ordeal for about 50 commuters trying to get home right in the middle of it all.
A train along the Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line was stopped at the Irving Park station Tuesday night, after high winds toppled trees and lines onto the tracks. More than 400 people were onboard at the time.
Some found another way home, while others stuck it out and waited for about five hours.
The engineer was finally told to return downtown.
“Meanwhile, all the passengers had to wait on the train, and we ran out of drinking water, we ran out of toilet paper, and finally we ended up sitting there for over five hours until 2:15 a.m.,” said the engineer, Dennis Savage. “They told us to bring the train back, and by that time, most of the 400 people had abandoned the train, and we came back with 50 people at the most.”
On Wednesday morning, new delays were reported on the Metra system. The Milwaukee District-North Line reported delays at Western Avenue, and delays were also reported on the North Central Service, the Union Pacific Northwest Line, the Milwaukee District-West Line, and the Union Pacific-West Line.
“We’re having switch problems with one of our main interlockers, and that explains the delays this morning,” said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis, who did not know whether the weather was responsible for the problem.
The CTA Yellow Line was also halted, as was the Purple Line from Davis to Linden, due to ComEd issues. Both were running again by midday.
Hundreds Of Thousands Lose Power
The storm also knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of ComEd customers. ComEd representatives said as of 1 p.m, 227,000 customers were without power. Most of them, 164,000, were in the northern suburbs, while the city of Chicago had 3,500, the southern suburbs 20,000, the near western suburbs 37,500, and the far western suburbs 1,000.
As of 1 p.m., 193,000 customers had had their power restored, and more than 400 crews were out working.
But it won’t be an easy task.
“This could turn out to be a multiple-day effort due to the extent of the damage,” ComEd spokesman Antonio Hernandez said.
ComEd spokesman Bennie Curry warned customers that their power might not be restored by the end of the day.
“We do want customers to be prepared that it won’t be right away,” he said. “It will take time.”
The Maybrook Courthouse in Maywood was among the facilities that lost electrical power, and thus was closed Wednesday. The entire court docket has been postponed – civil cases to June 29, criminal cases for Cook County Jail inmates to Thursday, and criminal cases for defendants on bond to Monday.
Forty-two buildings on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University also lost power due to the storms. Some buildings have backup generators, and ComEd is working to restore service to all of them, according to the university.
Traffic Snarled At O’Hare
The storms also snarled traffic at O’Hare, grounding hundreds of flights. High winds blew the roof off the Federal Express building at the airport, and damaged the parking garage.
It caused a scary situation for those whose flights did make it in. Sarah Batista, a reporter for CBS affiliate WBTV-TV in Charlotte, N.C., was on a plane at O’Hare when the storms hit.
“The next thing we know, the plane is rocking back and forth; it’s lightning,” Batista said. “The pilot came on and said in his 40 years of working, the air traffic control had evacuated the tower, which was something he’d never seen before.”
Everyone was hustled down to the lower level baggage claim due to the storm, CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reported. Even Vice President Joe Biden had to wait out the storm at the airport, as he prepared to return from an epilepsy fundraiser at Navy Pier.
At O’Hare, 350 cancellations and delays of at least 1 hour were reported during the storms. At Midway International Airport, 30 cancellations and delays of two hours were reported.
At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, O’Hare reported some airlines were still experiencing 15 minutes delays, and 360 flights had been canceled. No problems were reported at Midway.
Also at O’Hare, a United Airlines plane was dragged 40 feet by the intense winds. Dan Podosedly said CBS 2 a photograph showing the plane with its door off.
United confirms that a plane was moved from the gate, and sustained minor damage. The airline says no passengers were onboard.
In Wheeling at Chicago Executive Field – formerly Chicago Palwaukee Airport – hangars were damaged, and an aircraft was upended on the side of its nose.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Kris Habermehl reports
One hangar lost about a quarter of its roof, which was lying in the parking lot. Another hangar on the southwest side of the airport near Wolf and Palatine roads also lost part of its roof.
Problems On Roads, Intersections
CBS 2’s Derrick Young says the storms also knocked out traffic lights and ripped down power lines in several locations.
In Buffalo Grove, traffic lights were out on busy Milwaukee Avenue at Lake Cook Road, Riverwalk Drive and Deerfield Road.
In Downers Grove, downed power lines prompted police to close 63rd Street between Dunham Road and Springside Avenue.
CBS 2’s Kris Habermehl reports the campus of Downers Grove South High School, 1436 Norfolk St., sustained major damage. Portable toilets and some grandstands were overturned, and pieces of benches and athletic equipment were strewn around the sports fields.
Fences were also flattened and twisted around on the school’s tennis courts.
Traffic lights were also out in Naperville, Arlington Heights, Wheeling, Northfield and North Chicago.