‘Kicked in the teeth’: Devastation mounts from Midwest storm

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The impact of a wind storm that tore through the Midwest continued to grow Wednesday, as widespread power outages kept businesses closed, limited communication, spoiled food and caused long lines at gas stations.

The rare storm known as a derecho hit Monday, devastating parts of the power grid, flattening valuable corn fields and killing at least two people. It produced winds of up to 112 mph near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and toppled trees, snapped poles, downed power lines and tore off roofs from eastern Nebraska to Indiana.

“It feels like we got kicked in the teeth pretty good,” said Dale Todd, a member of Cedar Rapids’ city council. “Recovery will be methodical, and slow. But right now, everybody is working to ensure the critical services are restored.”

Todd said the city’s response has been complicated by the challenge of communicating with people who have no power, which means they have limited access to internet, TV and phone service.

Across the city of 133,000 people, residents emptied their refrigerators and freezers as their food spoiled, waited at gas stations for an hour or longer to fill up their cars and gas cans, and worked to clear up fallen trees.

Cedar Rapids spokesman Greg Buelow said several patients reported to hospitals with chainsaw injuries acquired while removing tree debris. Scores of others who are on oxygen tanks and need nebulizer treatments have gone to hospitals for help, he said.

In addition, firefighters responded to two fires Wednesday morning that were started by power generators that were too close to homes, he said.

Crews throughout the region have been working around the clock to restore electricity, but they’ve been hindered by downed trees blocking roads or on top of power lines. Those trees must be removed before power can be restored.

The derecho produced seven tornadoes in the Chicago metropolitan area, including an EF-1 tornado with 110 mph winds that hit the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s north side before moving onto Lake Michigan as a waterspout, the National Weather Service said.

That storm left damage along a 3-mile-long (4.8-kilometer-long) path and was the first tornado of at least EF-1 strength to strike Chicago since May 1983, the weather service said.

Another EF-1 tornado knocked over the iconic white steeple atop College Church in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. A crew used a crane to remove the steeple Tuesday and on Wednesday workers started repairs to the 1935 church building’s roof.

The weather service also confirmed two tornadoes in southern Wisconsin and two in northern Indiana, including an EF-1 that swept the rural community of Wakarusa, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of South Bend.

Alliant Energy said about 176,000 of its customers are without power, and half of those are in the Cedar Rapids area. MidAmerican Energy said about 139,000 of its Iowa and Illinois customers remain without power, half them in the Des Moines area.

As of late Wednesday morning, ComEd reported that about 200,000 of its Chicago-area customers remained without power. Northern Indiana Public Service Co. reported about 18,500 of its Indiana customers were still in the dark.

Mediacom said Wednesday that it has restored internet service to about half of the 340,000 customers that were offline a day earlier in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. But many others may be without service until their power is restored, a process that could still take days.

Some fuel terminals were also knocked offline and many gas stations have been closed due to power outages. Meanwhile, demand for gas to fuel generators, chainsaws and vehicles has spiked, leading to long lines at stores that sell gas.

The storm caused extensive crop damage in the nation’s No. 1 corn-producing state as it tore across Iowa’s center from west to east.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said Tuesday that about 10 million acres of Iowa’s nearly 31 million acres of agricultural land sustained damage. About 24 million acres of that is typically planted primarily with corn and soybeans.

In addition, tens of millions of bushels of grain that were stored at co-ops and on farms were damaged or destroyed when bins blew away.

The only known death in Iowa was a 63-year-old bicyclist who was hit by one of several large trees that fell on a bike path outside Cedar Rapids. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the storm killed a 73-year-old woman who was found clutching a young boy in her storm-battered mobile home.

Many businesses, including banks, restaurants and a major corn processing plant in Cedar Rapids, remained closed Wednesday due to power outages.

The Cedar Rapids school district said it was considering pushing back this month’s start date after over 20 of its buildings suffered roof and other structural damage.

State Sen. Liz Mathis said she took cover in the basement of her suburban Cedar Rapids home Monday as the storm battered her neighborhood for 45 minutes. She said pictures fell off the wall, water seeped in through windows and she worried the glass would blow in and injure her.

Mathis said the devastation is widespread across her district, and the “tree damage is unreal.” A local utility official told Mathis on Wednesday that it could be a week before everyone has power restored.

“The cities are going to look much different without the trees and it’s going to take a while to recover from this,” she said.