COAL CITY – Morris Community High School Superintendent Pat Halloran, along with his family and his neighbors the Rices, bunkered in the basement of Grundy Area Vocational Center Director Lance Copes’ home late Monday night.
As the tornado whipped through West Daisy Place, two blocks south of Coal City High School, Halloran heard what sounded like a train rumbling through the neighborhood for 15 to 30 seconds.
“But the pressure is what got you,” Halloran said.
The group huddled in the basement with the home above them creaking, Copes said, their ears popping as if they were on an airplane. They felt a release of pressure in their ears when the tornado passed.
The tornado that ripped through portions of Coal City, Carbon Hill and Braidwood came through just minutes shy of 10 p.m. Monday, and moved southeast toward other neighborhoods before ending its path of destruction on Berta Road, where it damaged Coal City Fire Protection District Station 2.
Five people were taken to local hospitals with minor injuries. Lt. Nick Doerfler of the fire district said the second search was completed Tuesday with no new people found.
“Search and rescue operations area complete, mutual aid has all returned home,” Doerfler said Tuesday evening.
The Coal City tornado was a “high-end” EF3 tornado – with winds up to 160 miles an hour, the National Weather Service confirmed late Tuesday afternoon. At least four tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down in the region as the storm took its course Monday night, according to the National Weather Service.
NWS officials expected all along the tornado that ripped through Coal City caused more damage than the storms that passed through a section of the city and neighboring Diamond in November 2013. That was categorized as an EF2, said Ricky Castro, a meteorologist for the NWS.
“We suspected already but [further surveying] confirms that is was [an EF3],” he said.
A second tornado was confirmed in Lee County, categorized as a preliminary EF2. The NWS also confirmed an EF1 tornado in Mendota, a “high-end” EF2 with winds up to 130 miles per hour in Sublette, and an EF1 in Harmon.
State disaster declaration given
Gov. Bruce Rauner, in town to see the damage firsthand, declared during a news conference around noon held at Coal City High School that Grundy County was a state disaster area. The governor offered state resources – mostly personnel – to affected communities.
He said federal aid is unlikely, but state officials won’t know until the damage is assessed over the next several days.
“Here in Coal City, the devastation has been widespread,” Rauner said. “We want to say thank you to the many volunteers, the state police have been terrific as always, thank you to the mayor here in Coal City. … This is what Illinois is all about: the community coming together and helping each other.”
Thankful to be alive
Halloran and Copes rose above ground to assess the damage in the dark of night with sheets of rain still falling. They smelled natural gas coming from a house across the street, and parts of that house had caved in.
The group walked and checked on neighbors. They were thankful to be alive, but amazed by the devastation, Halloran said.
“It wasn’t until we walked a few houses down and across the street, to the Rices’ home, that I looked back and realized our bedroom wall was gone,” Halloran said.
When Halloran was able to see the inside wall of the bedroom, he noticed a crucifix and rosary were somehow still on the other wall.
“It’s one of those freaky things,” Halloran said.
Past tornadoes and severe weather haven’t affected the neighborhood, he said. But as a precautionary measure in severe weather events, homeowners on West Daisy Place head for a house with a basement.
“We typically get a call or text a little while before the warnings come,” Copes said.
Such was the case late Monday night, as the Halloran home, and many others in the neighborhood, became unlivable for the immediate future. Some will have to be completely rebuilt.
The Hallorans spent the night at a friend’s house and planned to stay Tuesday night at their camper at the Coal City Area Club.
When they returned home Tuesday morning, and saw the house in daylight, the reality of what happened hit Halloran.
“I was pretty upset,” he said.
In the coming days, Halloran and Copes will have professionals inspect their homes to find exactly what needs to be done. Halloran was on the phone Tuesday with home and car insurance representatives as Servpro employees boarded up his bedroom wall.
Three of the family’s cars were damaged. His son’s car parked a block over at a friend’s house was totaled.
Although it’s a relatively new neighborhood – Halloran said his family was one of the first four homeowners on the block 18 years ago – it’s one that sticks together.
Copes, Halloran and Coal City High School Principal Mitch Hamann were relieved no large objects were uplifted and thrown into homes. There are no above-ground electrical poles in the neighborhood, nor any uprooted decades-old trees as there were in older Coal City neighborhoods.
When Hamann walked through Coal City High School about 1 a.m., he found a band trailer had blown over and punctured a two-foot hole into an east wall of the building. A hole in the gymnasium roof left rain on the gym floor, and there was window damage around the building, he said.
Copes, Halloran and Hamann said the first responders were phenomenal, going door to door to make sure everyone was all right. Homes in the neighborhood were spray-painted “OK” to signify that all occupants were safe and accounted for.
Estimating the damage
Coal City Mayor Terry Halliday said officials won’t know the storm’s exact path until a full assessment has been completed. Teams from the Grundy County Emergency Management will be in the area this week to survey damage.
He said relief efforts started Monday night, while between 15 and 20 people sought shelter during the early morning hours.
Officials did not Tuesday have a total number of houses damaged or an estimated cost. Halliday said at a news conference Tuesday the next step will be to assess the damage in the city and put together a relief plan.
The storm also left thousands of Illinois residents without power. Coal City, Sterling and Sublette were the hardest-hit areas when it came to power outages. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 55,000 residential and commercial customers had lost power, according to ComEd.
Of those, 31,000 had been restored. Based on past storms of a similar magnitude, ComEd officials estimated that most remaining customers would have service restored by late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, with some exceptions in the hardest-hit areas.