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(NECN: Justin Michaels/AP) - Search and recovery teams spent the night going through rubble across 12 states after a deadly storm system created dozens of tornadoes and leveled towns from the Deep South to Michigan, killing six people.
There is concern that number could rise.
Survivor Cheryl Brooks said, “The wind was just right over the top of us. We looked out the storm cellar and we seen the basketball goal get lifted up and slung and after that it was just pressure and loud noise.”
Entire blocks in Washington were leveled. Other area towns were heavily damaged, too, and officials at Chicago's Soldier Field evacuated the stands and delayed the Bears-Baltimore Ravens game.
The wave of thunderstorms that brought the damaging winds and tornadoes affected 12 states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York.
Bill Bunting, forecast operations chief of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the storms were part of the same system and would be "moving rapidly to the east and continue east overnight and into the morning."
Illinois was struck the hardest by the unusually powerful late-season tornadoes. At least six were killed and dozens more injured, though with communications difficult and many roads impassable, it remained unclear how many people might be hurt or whether the death toll would continue to climb.
An elderly man and his sister were killed when a tornado hit their home in the rural southern Illinois community of New Minden, coroner Mark Styninger said. A third person died in Washington, while three others perished in Massac County in the far southern part of the state, said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. She did not provide details.
Washington, a town of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, appeared to have the most severe damage. The tornado cut a path about an eighth of a mile wide from one side of town to the other, State Trooper Dustin Pierce said.
The Illinois National Guard said it had dispatched 10 firefighters and three vehicles to Washington to assist with immediate search and recovery operations.
As law enforcement officers continued to search for victims and sized up the cleanup and rebuilding job ahead, they kept everyone but residents and emergency workers out. With power off and lines down in many areas, natural gas lines leaking and trees and other debris blocking many streets, an overnight curfew kept all but emergency vehicles off pitch-black roads. The only lights visible across most of Washington on Sunday night were red and blue flashes from police and fire truck lights.
Still, by nightfall Trooper Pierce said there were reports of looting around town.
Across Washington, an auto parts store with several people inside was reduced to a pile of bricks, metal and rebar; a battered car, its windshield impaled by a piece of lumber, was flung alongside it.
"The employees were climbing out of this," Pierce said, gesturing to the rubble behind him. None of them was seriously injured, he said.
At OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in nearby Peoria, spokeswoman Amy Paul said 37 patients had been treated, eight with injuries ranging from broken bones to head injuries. Another hospital, Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, treated more than a dozen, but officials there said none of them were seriously injured.
About 90 minutes after the tornado destroyed homes in Washington, the stormy weather darkened downtown Chicago. As the rain and high winds slammed into the area, officials at Soldier Field evacuated the stands and ordered the Bears and Baltimore Ravens off the field. Fans were allowed back to their seats shortly after 2 p.m., and the game resumed after about a two-hour delay.
Earlier, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications had issued a warning to fans, urging them "to take extra precautions and ... appropriate measures to ensure their personal safety."
Just how many tornadoes hit was unclear. Although about 80 reports of tornadoes had come in as of Sunday night, the National Weather Service's Bunting said the actual number will likely be in the 30 to 40 range. He said that's because the same tornado often gets reported multiple times.
The White House issued a statement saying President Barack Obama had been briefed about the damage and was in touch with federal, state and local officials.
Weather service meteorologist Matt Friedlein said that such strong storms are rare this late in the year because there usually isn't enough heat from the sun to sustain the thunderstorms. But he said temperatures Sunday were expected to reach into the 60s and 70s, which he said is warm enough to help produce severe weather when it is coupled with winds, which are typically stronger this time of year than in the summer.
"You don't need temperatures in the 80s and 90s to produce severe weather (because) the strong winds compensate for the lack of heating," Friedlein said. "That sets the stage for what we call wind shear, which may produce tornadoes."
FEMA teams are on the ground across the region and the White House has said the president continues to receive updates on the situation.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.