Count of homes damaged in Ill. expected to grow

CHAMPAIGN – At least 900 homes in Illinois were either destroyed or badly damaged by Sunday's tornadoes, a figure that state officials say is likely to grow.

Residents of the damaged areas, meanwhile, continue to dig out and piece their lives back together.

Federal Emergency Management Agency workers on Thursday are expected to begin the initial damage assessments that are required to determine eligibility for federal help. FEMA assessors should start work Thursday in, among other places, Gifford, said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson.

IEMA doesn't have anything close to a full count of the homes affected in Washington, the central Illinois town hardest hit by the storms, and is missing information from other areas, she said.

"I'd say there's the possibility that we'll get several hundred more the next few days," she said.

Farmer Curt Zehr's home just northeast of Washington was leveled by a powerful EF4 tornado, and the winds that topped out at 190 mph spread debris over hundreds of yards – and farther.

"We had one guy call us from 40, 50 miles away with a couple of my checkbooks and said he'd send them to us," the 54-year-old Zehr said Wednesday.

Zehr, his wife and their adult son have rented a home in nearby Eureka and taken care of one of his biggest concerns – salvaging the roughly $250,000 worth of soybeans that were in a grain bin near his home. Their next step is to, with the help of friends, family and others, clear his fields of the near-endless trail of debris so they can be farmed in the spring.

"A guy just showed up in my field yesterday from Rockford, and I don't know him from Adam," Zehr said of the man who lives more than 100 miles away. "He's been here for two days. Pretty humbling."

In all, the National Weather Service says, at least 15 tornadoes hit Illinois on Sunday. The tornado that cut through Washington was on the ground for more than 40 miles, first raking parts of Pekin and East Peoria. The death toll still stands at six, and just one in Washington, Thompson said.

The power was expected to be back on in by late Wednesday in every affected community served by Ameren, the St. Louis-based utility that provides electricity to most areas south of Interstate 80. By late afternoon, about 3,000 customers were still without power, down from more than 148,000 on Sunday.

But while some things crept toward normal, others still reflected the chaos of a major disaster.

Some residents of Washington heard rumors Wednesday that their damaged homes would be demolished Thursday, state spokesman Brian Williamson said.

"All I can say is that people that have heard that rumor, it's completely false," he said.


Associated Press writer Ashley Heher in Chicago contributed to this report.

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