Massive windstorms with gusts reaching up to 81 mph wreaked havoc across the Midwest early Tuesday but largely mellowed by late evening and, despite early warnings predicting more of the same, are not expected to return as powerfully Wednesday.
Four tornado touchdowns were reported in the Northwest Illinois/Indiana region, leaving downed tree limbs and power lines, damaging roofs and tossing debris onto roadways. High winds delayed and canceled flights at O'Hare International Airport and closed schools. Meteorologists said the storm system had a barometric pressure similar to a Category 3 hurricane, with the force of a blizzard minus the snow.
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Forecasters initially warned wind gusts could reach 60 mph into Wednesday morning, but now expect it to peak at 40 mph with no rain or tornadoes expected, according to the National Weather Service.
More than 500 flights were canceled at O'Hare, with minor cancellations at Midway Airport. Airlines reported delays averaging between 45 and 60 minutes, said Karen Pride, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
John Marra of Toronto was among the passengers grounded by the storm.
"They couldn't land us," said Marra who had a scheduled layover in Chicago before heading to his final destination of Shanghai, China. "We tried twice to land here and then they decided to land in Milwaukee. They flew us here four hours later."
Philippe Garnier, a United Express pilot, said 60 mph gusts made landing tough, but not unbearable.
"It was just the winds really," Garnier said. "There was no rain, just really high winds it was a bit more tricky than usual, but nothing impossible."
The initial storm that blew through the Chicago area between 6 and 8 a.m. Tuesday caused damage throughout Cook, Lake, DuPage and Kane counties.
Bill Nelson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville, said most areas recorded only a half-inch of rain during the early morning downpour. However, he said some places in Lake County experienced twice that amount.
Two tornadoes in Will County damaged a home near Peotone, he added.
The National Weather Service later reported a tornado touched down two miles northwest of Elburn, destroying two barns and a grain bin while blowing debris more than a quarter-mile away. The EF 1-rated twister's path stretch about three-quarters of a mile long and 50 yards wide as it also snapped a farmstead's pole at the base and damaged two farmsteads nearby.
ComEd officials said late Tuesday that power has been restored to 144,000 customers since the storms began. Yet, 52,000 customers in northern Illinois, including 11,000 in Chicago's western suburbs, remained without electricity, spokeswoman Krissy Posey said.
Officials said about 340 crews were in the field trying to restore power and assess damage.
The storm also caused delays on area roadways and the Metra lines into and out of the city, officials said.
Downed power lines and tree damage were reported primarily in Lake and Kane counties. Buffalo Grove and Schaumburg also were hit hard by the storms.
The storm is being blamed for a gruesome injury to a 41-year-old woman who was impaled by a tree branch, said Lindenhurst Police Cmdr. Kevin Klahs.
Helen Miller was heading east on Grand Avenue in a yellow Smart Car when a 65-foot oak tree fell across Grand Avenue at 7:38 a.m., Klahs said.
A branch from the tree went through the windshield and impaled the woman through the abdomen, he said. She was taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville where she was undergoing surgery, Klahs said.
Grand Avenue was shut down for about 45 minutes while the tree was removed.
High winds shut down both campuses of Elgin Community College for the day after power was knocked out in the area just after 10 a.m. Tuesday. Heidi Healy, a spokeswoman for ECC, said the closures affect all classes, including evening sessions, programs, activities, rehearsals and community rentals at the main campus on Spartan Drive and the Fountain Square campus in downtown Elgin.
Three Elgin Area School District U-46 schools were without power Tuesday morning at the height of the wind storms.
Three private airplanes were heavily damaged by high winds Tuesday morning at DuPage County Airport in West Chicago. Each single-engine aircraft was tied down, then came loose during the morning storm. Once loose, the planes began crashing into each other, airport spokesman Mark Doles said.
Although damage estimates for the planes were not available Tuesday, Doles said he suspected they "might be totaled."
No other storm-related damage was reported at the airport and no one was injured.
The Chicago Park District closed two nature conservatories due to safety concerns with their glass roofs.
To make things more difficult for meteorologists, the central Illinois' National Weather Service office was without its radar while the storm moved through.
Meteorologist Kurt Huettl said lightning struck a radar in Lincoln Sunday night, and the necessary replacement parts hadn't come in before Tuesday's storms.
The weather service was relying on radars in Chicago and Indianapolis to cover central Illinois.
• Daily Herald staff writers Paul Biasco, Joel Ebert, Tony Gordon and The Associated Press contributed to this report.