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Feb. 28-March 1 storm was similar to 2012 storm

updated: 3/2/2017 12:42 PM

SALINE COUNTY -- Standing in the doorway early Wednesday morning, Tracy Felty couldn't help but have a sense of deja vu -- and it wasn't pleasant.

It was 5:03 a.m.and hail was hitting from a severe thunderstorm making its way through Carrier Mills toward Harrisburg.

Five years ago, on Feb. 29, 2012, the so-called Leap Day Tornado killed eight in Harrisburg before passing on to Ridgway, where it did additional significant damage. Wednesday's severe thunderstorm took nearly the same path at nearly the same time, Felty said.

"Synoptically -- that's a weather term -- it was very, very similar to the situation we had five years ago," Felty, Saline County's 911 Coordinator and a meterologist, said. "We had temperatures in the 70s at 10:00 at night. It probably wasn't quite as warm as it was in 2012, but it was just a few degrees from it. We did not have that first band like we had last night, which I think took a lot of energy out of it."

A series of dangerous storms roared across southern Illinois Tuesday night, cutting a swath that did the most damage in northern Jackson County, western Franklin County and White County, where a man's death is being attributed to the storm.

Thomas McCord, 71, died after the outbuilding he was in was directly hit by the passing tornado, White County Coroner Chris Marsh said. McCord's wife was injured in their home.

The similarity to the weather of five years past was not lost on others involved in dealing with the 2012 storm's devastation.

Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, is the state representative for the 118th District. Tuesday morning, he was at a memorial service held in Harrisburg honoring the lives lost in 2012's tornado.

"I can tell you, it was an eerie feeling that I had when it kept getting warmer," Phelps said of the day's temperatures.

Phelps represents one of the largest legislative districts in terms of sheer geography, comprised of 11 counties. To say he was busy Wednesday was an understatement.

"I had a meeting in Springfield I was invited to, but I knew my place was here with the people I represent," Phelps said. "We're still in communication with the different sheriff's departments in my district to see what kind of damage we had, but I've been told this storm passed through mostly farmland. That means there was a lot of damage to agricultural buildings and equipment and not as much to homes."

Eric Gregg of Harrisburg was mayor in 2012. He, too, was at the city's memorial service Tuesday morning, and he said as the evening's weather pattern began to emerge, he was attentive.

"I was glued to the television," Gregg said. "It was the same kind of setup we had in 2012. We had a cold air system coming in on top of very warm air. As we all know, it's a recipe for disaster."

He said he felt fortunate for Saline County that little to no damage was reported. His heart went out to storm-caused deaths in other locales, though, he said.

"It's heartbreaking to think of the loss of life in Crossville and Perryville, Missouri," he said.

Despite severe weather throughout the region, Saline County escaped heavy storm damage late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, the county's emergency services coordinator said.

"We had hardly any reports at all of damage," Allan Ninness, Saline County Emergency Services Coordinator, said Wednesday morning.

"When I checked with the highway department, they had very few calls to remove limbs from roadways, which is often a good indicator of storm damage," he said. "And, the sheriff's department didn't have much either."

He said a storm that came through about 5 a.m. Wednesday in the very southeastern part of the county may have caused damaged that had not been reported yet.

"There was imbedded hail in the southern portion of the county, in the area close to Garden of the Gods, so there may have been some damage there," he said.

Neighboring counties saw significant damage during the outbreak, but on the five-year anniversary of the 2012 Leap Day Tornado that tore through Harrisburg and Ridgway in Gallatin County, Saline County appeared to miss most of the storm.

"We've been spared so far," Ninness said.

In Missouri, Perry County Clerk Jared Kutz confirmed one person was killed and eight to 10 homes near the town of Perryville were badly damaged when the storm hit around 8:30 p.m. Perryville is about 80 miles south of St. Louis. Several cars and trucks were blown off I-55.

Search and rescue crews were going door-to-door in Perryville, and were searching for anyone who may have been injured on the interstate.

Franklin County hit

Ernie Meadows hunkered down in his workshop off of Yellow Banks Road in Mulkeytown as the storm approached. When he emerged unhurt, the storm had torn the western wall from his home, as well as much of the roof.

Also destroyed were several other structures on his property, including a house to the east occupied by his son, daughter-in-law and 18-month-old grandson, who were uninjured but had to be dug out from the rubble. Christopher Fire Chief Gene Payne's volunteer team of firefighters, with an assist from Royalton and Coello, freed the family of three.

"I was delayed in getting to the scene because of some debris that was on the road," Payne said, "and by the time I got there, our people had already got the man, woman and child out of the home. And thankfully, none of the family members required any medical attention. I couldn't be prouder. I'm so glad we were able to help."

Payne, a 40-year volunteer who has been chief the last year or so, has seen more than his share of heartache in his time. He did not want to add to it Tuesday night.

"The walls to this pole barn-type structure had caved in," he said. "Fortunately, the family was not injured from the walls and was able to get to a part of the house where it could be rescued."

Meadows has lived almost all of his 56 years in his family home in Mulkeytown and said his family has lived on the farm for about a century. He definitely plans to rebuild. He said Tuesday's tornado was not the first he has seen from his rural home, but it was certainly the closest.

"I've rode a bunch of them out," Meadows said. " I've watched them go north of us and south of us, but this one went right through the middle."

Meadows' wife, Ruth, was visiting church friends in New Orleans but immediately drove home after receiving news of the storm, arriving back in Mulkeytown around 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Ruth said she was thankful her family was OK, and everything else on the property is simply "stuff."

"We are very fortunate," she said. "God had his hands on us."

Ruth said the family has received several offers of places to stay. She added that State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, visited them earlier in the morning.

Jackson County saw worst damage

Debbie Sullivan and her family were huddled down in the basement bathroom of their Vergennes home Tuesday night when the roar began. Instinctively, she covered the dog.

That's where she and several others were when, suddenly, the shower collapsed on top of them. Then, they became aware that the whole house above them was moving. The tornado lifted the house clean off the foundation and dropped it in the middle of Route 127.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency reported that 46 residences had sustained significant damage, with 12 being total losses. A number of other structures also sustained serious damage, including the Powerade baseball complex in Elkville. Four Jackson County residents were treated for minor injuries resulting from flying debris.

According to Ameren Illinois, the most power outages in southern Illinois were concentrated in northern Jackson County west of Route 51 and in Massac, Alexander and Pulaski counties. About 150 people in Tamaroa were reported to be without power earlier Wednesday.

In Vergennes, the swath the storm cut through town was easily evident by the debris. Pieces of siding from the Sullivan house were wrapped around trees. What's left of their home had been dragged off the road.

Debbie Sullivan stood outside, looking at the hole that once was her house filled with debris. Her thoughts went back to the previous night.

"I don't know if it lasted forever or if it lasted a split second," she said.

Across the highway from the Sullivans, a small army of family and friends were at work Wednesday morning at the farm of Tama and Lester Weil, where nine buildings were destroyed. One of them was Lester's new "man cave," an out building he only recently finished.

The house and barn, built by Lester's great-grandfather, miraculously survived. The couple were in the house when it hit. Tama, hobbled by recent surgery, donned the bicycle helmet her daughter gave her after the surgery to protect her head in case she fell. Huddled with them was their labrador, Amos.

The Perry County Emergency Management Agency reported an observed tornado around 8:30 p.m., with the path of the storm headed straight for Du Quoin. The storm ultimately shifted its course, although the city was hit with high winds and golf ball-sized hail.

In aftermath, preparedness remains key

Ryan Buckingham, director of Emergency Management in Franklin County, said there were a total of three homes between Mulkeytown and Royalton, and also on Yellow Banks Road, that were "virtually destroyed."

Buckingham said the good news was that there were no fatalities or major injuries reported in Franklin County.

"Thank God, the tornado only touched the ground briefly and didn't stay on the ground," he said. "Because this one had the potential for a major disaster."

Buckingham said what made the tornadic event even scarier was that it was at night.

"When you can't see it, that always makes it more difficult for everyone," he said. "Plus, there were people who were already asleep. I'm just very thankful it wasn't worse."

Buckingham said Tuesday night's tornado is the perfect example of why it's important residents should own weather radios, especially when storms are brewing in the area.

"Preparedness is the key," he said.

On Wednesday, EMA workers were out and about in the county assessing the damage.

Buckingham said Perry County EMA provided mutual aid.

The National Weather Service reports that wind speed from Tuesday night's tornado exceeded 100 mph at times and stretched from just west of Perryville, Mo., to southern Indiana.

Staff writers Geoff Ritter, John Homan, Holly Kee and Shea Lazansky contributed to this story.