Residents throughout the metro-east sheltered in basements and businesses as a storm with potential tornadoes pummeled the region.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning Thursday evening for Madison County after a funnel cloud was spotted in Black Jack, Mo., at 5:30 p.m. The warning was then expanded to include northern St. Clair County and lasted for at least an hour.
High winds whipped around the water of the Belleville city fountain in the Main Street circle. St. Clair Square mall went into lockdown, keeping shoppers in the interior of the mall.
In Granite City, streets flooded quickly, with cars up to their hubcaps in flowing water. Traffic lights were out in several places, and trees were down on Madison Avenue. Some possible roof damage was seen on the steelworkers union hall.
Ameren Illinois reported more than 45,000 customers without power in Madison and St. Clair counties — 82,000 across Illinois.
In Highland, trees and power lines fell, making several streets impassable. The city of Highland alerted electric and city crews to clear the roads and restore power. Likewise, the Belleville Fire Department received many calls reporting downed trees and wires, as well as accidents.
"Avoid traveling and be aware of your surroundings," the department warned in a social media post.
News reports indicated nearly 1,400 lightning strikes within a 15-minute period at one point in the evening.
Randy Randolph with the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency reported that 911 centers were “inundated with calls” reporting trees and power lines downed throughout the area.
“We’ve got reports of trees catching fire due to making contact with power lines,” Randolph said, warning residents not to approach any downed power lines.
Emergency Management Director Herb Simmons said a Fairview Heights apartment complex lost part of its roof. No one was injured, and the American Red Cross was called in to assist the residents.
“This came a little bit out of nowhere as to the severity of it," Randolph said. "But as we say in the Midwest, you never know what’s going to happen, so preparedness is key.”
Randolph said Ameren has opened its emergency response center, but it may take some time to clear roadways due to the number of downed lines. Residents are warned to exercise caution when removing debris, and to treat any downed lines as if they are live wires.
“If the lines are live, we have to wait for the power company to disconnect the power before any cleanup can take place,” Randolph said. He said people may need to find alternative routes until the blocked roads can be cleared, but they can’t put workers in harm’s way.
St. Clair County Emergency Management tracked 378 calls to 911 in less than two hours, and the agency itself tracked a new event every 20 seconds.
By 6:30 p.m., MetroLink trains were stopped in place due to the severe weather and were out of power between the 5th and Missouri and Fairview Heights stations. At 8 p.m., MetroLink resumed operation but still predicted delays of 20-40 minutes.
The entire area was under a severe thunderstorm watch for much of the evening, and weather spotters reported a funnel cloud near Black Jack, Mo., moving southeast at about 40 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Hail less than an inch in diameter had also been reported.
A flash flood warning was issued for Clinton, Monroe, Washington and St. Clair counties until 11:15 p.m. Thursday, while residents reported significant flooding in Madison County. The National Weather Service reported 2-3 inches of rain fell in just more than an hour, with street and flash flooding throughout the area.
Areas warned about possible flash floods included Belleville, East St. Louis, Dupo, Washington Park, Scott Air Force Base and Interstate 64 in several places in St. Clair County.
Anyone in the path of the storm was advised to take cover by moving to a basement or interior room on the lowest floor, and avoiding windows. Those outside or in a mobile home or vehicle were instructed to move to the closest shelter and protect themselves from flying debris.