Tornado touches down in Sublette; Sterling mall loses its roof

STERLING – At least five people were injured when a tornado touched down at a private campground in Sublette, knocking down trees and trapping some residents in their homes, the Lee County sheriff reported early Tuesday.

A trained weather spotter sighted a tornado touching down at 8:07 p.m. at Woodhaven Lakes in Sublette, in Lee County, the National Weather Service said.

At 10 p.m., Lee County Sheriff's deputies, Sheriff John Simonton, area firefighters, and other emergency workers from 10 agencies were in Woodhaven, searching for any injured.

Of the five injured, only one was taken to an area hospital for treatment, Sheriff John Simonton said in a text around 12:30 this morning. The others were treated at the scene and released. The search for more injured was continuing.

Woodhaven is a private camping resort at 507 La Moille Road, 3 miles west of U.S. Route 52, with hundreds of lots.

Around 10:45 p.m., the Woodhaven Association posted on its Facebook page that the Weather Service had not determined the strength of the twister. It asked people to refrain from calling or coming out to the campground to help, "to allow emergency workers full access to phones and roads."

"Thanks for your understanding and patience. We will try to keep you as informed as possible as we continue to assess damages."

Workers were scrambling to remove the downed trees, to find the injured and make way for ambulances, and also were going door to door, checking on residents.

More flooding was reported in the area. "Basically, everything south of [U.S. Route] 30 got hit," Simonton said.

The Weather Service also had a report of a barn in Sublette being blown to the ground.

The storm, which billowed in from Morrison, toppled trees and broke branches all along its path.

In Sterling, winds ripped part of the roof off Northland Mall, 2900 E. Lincolnway, over the new Dunham's Sports store, open only since October. A back wall crumbled.

No one was hurt, but among other precautions, police officers secured the store's firearms.

Because of the damage, the mall will be closed until further notice, and people are advised to steer clear – the Sterling police and Whiteside County Sheriff's Department Mounted Patrol will be on site, arresting trespassers, Sterling PD said in a late-night news release.

At the time the storm hit, there were six people left in Dunham's – four employees, including 19-year-old Drew Sauer, of Rock Falls, and two customers. They went to the golf simulator room in the southwest corner of the store to stay safe, Sauer said.

They could hear the rain pounding, and the hail, then came that telltale sound – like a freight train barrelling down.

All of a sudden, "the roof started to lift up, the lights started to swing, and tons of water came pouring in," Sauer said.

After everyone had been evacuated, he ran back in to the break room at the back of the store, to retrieve keys — his and his coworkers’.

“That’s when I actually was able to take everything in and see all the damage that had been done,” Sauer said in a text.

“Coolers were floating down the walkways. I saw burst pipes with water pouring out of them flooding the store. The water was up to my ankles at that point. I was also worried because I saw wires hanging from the ceiling, merchandise everywhere … but then I looked toward the back [where the exercise equipment was sold] and saw that the wall was gone, and I could see the lightning and trees.”

Dominick Coronado, 36, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sonrisa, were shopping at Dunham's for football equipment for his son. When the storm warnings hit, everyone inside was told to take cover, "and people were starting to freak out," Sonrisa said. "I was afraid."

The Coronados and some other mall shoppers fled to the bathrooms for safety, but Dominick and a few other people decided to poke their heads outside the mall to see what was going on. He saw the storm cell coming, and at that moment, he, too, heard the freight train.

In an instant, the roof was gone, and the building was filling with water and that awful electrical smell, he said. Wires were sparking. Worried for Sonrisa's safety, he waited about 15 minutes for the worst to pass, then they took off for their car.

"It was crazy," he said.

The storm the headed for Dixon, where nearly 3 inches of rain drenched the town in 30 minutes, the National Weather Service in Chicago reported.

At 8:19, the service reported zero visibility and 60 mph gusts on state Route 251 on the Lee-LaSalle County Line.

During the heaviest rainfall in Sterling, around 7:30 p.m., West LeFevre Road was under water, as was Lynn Boulevard in front of Thomas Park on Lynn Boulevard. The recently pumped pond, drained so that dredge work could be done, was overflowing its banks. Ditches became ponds, cornfields small lakes.

Winds were clocked at around 70 mph at state Route 40 and U.S. Route 30 in Rock Falls around 7:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, rain fell hard. Rock Falls was doused with 3.4 inches from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Sterling 3.1 inches over the same period.

Another roof, this one on a building in Harmon, also was blown away, the Weather Service reported.

Power was out to about 10,000 ComEd customers in the Sterling-Dixon area; the company said it plans to work through the night and estimates power will be restored by around 6 p.m.

More of the same might be in the offing.

Although today's forecast calls for sunny skies and highs in the low 80s, there's a 60 percent chance of more rain and thunderstorms Wednesday, with a high around 80.

More likely, storms will develop Wednesday night into Thursday morning, though, the Weather Service says, adding that some could become severe. The big hazard is apt to be heavy rainfall and flash floods.

The precipitation percentage diminishes to 30 on Thursday, and stays in that range through the weekend, with highs in the low 80s or so.

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