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Snow causes 100-vehicle pileup, shutdown on Illinois highway amid sprawling storm

The same storm also unleashed widespread strong winds, flooding and tornadoes in the central and eastern U.S.

A transit rider waits for a bus as a winter storm descends upon Chicago on Feb. 17. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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More than 100 vehicles crashed during a snowstorm Thursday in Illinois, forcing authorities to shut down a 30-mile stretch of an interstate overnight as drivers battled the inclement weather.

“I-39 from Normal to Minonk will be closed for approx. 12 hours due to multiple crashes involving over 100 vehicles,” Illinois State Police tweeted late Thursday. “Together, with our local partners, we are diligently working to ensure motorists are safely escorted from the area to warming centers.”

The snow-related accident occurred amid a sprawling storm system that also unleashed strong winds, flooding and tornadoes in parts of the central and eastern U.S., leading to power outages and pockets of damage. More than 100,000 homes were still without power across the Northeast states on Friday morning, amid howling winds of 40 to 65 mph.

The massive Illinois pileup took place on Interstate 39, about 124 miles south of Chicago, near the city of El Paso, state police said, issuing a travel warning and establishing diversions.

“We’re asking everyone to avoid the area,” state troopers said in a video online. “Please do not travel unless it’s an emergency.”

Multiple accidents involving more than 100 cars and trucks shut down 30 miles of highway on Feb. 17, in El Paso, Ill. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Illinois Department of Transportation tweeted early Friday that I-39 remained closed “in both directions with no access between Normal and Minonk because of multiple crashes involving 100+ plus vehicles.” It added that it was “not expected to reopen until roughly midday” on Friday.

The multiple crashes took place around 3:13 p.m. local time on Thursday, local outlet ABC7 reported, adding that authorities have yet to report any injuries.

Cellphone video footage from one driver, David Troesser, shows dozens of cars and large trucks skidded off the road, lights flashing and some in snow-covered ditches. Troesser is heard telling people to stay off the road, as the snow pelts down. “Oh my God, there’s more. They’re just piling up,” he narrates. “It’s getting bad, y’all.”

High rates of snowfall and blizzardlike conditions were set to cause poor visibility and hazardous travel conditions throughout Illinois, state police had warned earlier Thursday.

The National Weather Service in Lincoln, Ill., said the snow was “winding down” late Thursday across central Illinois but “bitterly cold temperatures” would set in overnight. The weather body said early Friday that parts of the region could see “patchy blowing snow” in the afternoon but predicted warmer temperatures would break through over the weekend.

“Several roads were snow and ice covered and hazardous over central IL early this morning, especially untreated roads,” it tweeted Friday. “Sunshine along with temperatures rising into the low to mid 30s this afternoon, should help with the melting process.”

Earlier this year snow and cold weather snarled traffic on the East Coast’s busiest highway, halting travel toward the nation’s capital along Interstate 95 and making national headlines as hundreds of drivers were trapped and frustrated with emergency state responses amid the extreme weather.

Additional extreme weather from sprawling storm

Illinois was far from the only state that contended with hazardous weather Thursday into Friday. The strong storm system, with frigid air on its northwest flank and springlike warmth out ahead of it, brought severe thunderstorms and flooding, in addition to snow.

A tornado in Leeds, Ala., sliced a mobile home in two before potentially crossing over Interstate 20. Both occupants of the structure survived. It was one of four or more tornadoes that probably touched down across Alabama on Thursday. The Weather Service also received 64 reports of damage from severe thunderstorm winds.

Parts of the South, Tennessee and Ohio valleys and interior Northeast endured heavy rain that inundated low-lying areas and caused rivers to overflow. Floodwaters engulfed roads and entered homes in Mayfield, Ky., which was devastated by a violent tornado in December.

High winds were the most prevalent hazard, prompting advisories and warnings for over 100 million Americans; as of Friday morning, gusts over 50 mph were walloping parts of the northern Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Severe storms

Leading up to Thursday, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center opted to hoist a level 3 out of 5 “enhanced risk” for severe weather across parts of the Deep South, including western Tennessee, parts of Alabama and much of Mississippi. While instability, the energy needed to fuel thunderstorms, was largely lacking, shear, or spin, was extreme.

One rotating supercell thunderstorm in Jefferson County, Ala., was forced, or generated, almost entirely from changing winds with height; lukewarm surface temperatures played a minimal role in its genesis.

That type of setup often results in erratic, quick-forming and brief tornadoes that can appear with little to no warning. That was the case on Thursday.

Radar confirmed one tornado southeast of Berry in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., around 4:27 p.m. Central time, with the radar beam striking and detecting tornadic debris. The National Weather Service in Birmingham referred to the vortex as “large and extremely dangerous.”

Other tornado reports were received from Shelby and Fayette counties, as well as Jefferson County. That’s where a tornado touched down and caused damage in the town of Leeds.

Strong winds

Despite the meager instability, any low-topped downpours and thunderstorms that did form were able to tap into momentum from a roaring low-level jet stream aloft. That allowed strong wind gusts to mix down to the surface. The winds were becoming increasingly widespread on Friday morning, with wind advisories and high wind warnings at one point spanning 1,750 miles from the Gulf Coast to Maine.

The alerts were trimmed back to the Northeast and northern Mid-Atlantic as the storm system pulled offshore, but winds were ramping up from the nation’s capital to Boston.

Newark International Airport in Union County, N.J., had gusts to 67 mph, BWI Marshall Airport near Baltimore to 64 mph, and Charles Town, W.Va., to 65 mph. Power flashes from damaged utility lines were reported there.

Updated forecast: Plummeting temperatures and high winds Friday in D.C. area

Philadelphia International Airport had gusts to 56 mph, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a large severe thunderstorm warning for parts of extreme eastern Pennsylvania and much of New Jersey. A similar warning was issued in New York City. While the storms weren’t tall enough to garner charge separation and contain thunder and lightning, their structure was otherwise similar to a thunderstorm squall line.

Otis Air National Guard Base in Bourne, Mass., had gusts to 65 mph as well, and Fairhaven, Mass., saw gusts to 60 mph. A 65 mph gust was reported in Dennis on outer Cape Cod.

The strong winds over much of the eastern U.S. precipitated a sudden drop in temperatures. Many locations in the Mid-Atlantic saw temperatures plunge 20 to 30 degrees in just a few hours Friday morning.

Heavy snow

The heavy snow on the storm’s back side stretched from Kansas to Michigan.

Kansas City, Mo., picked up 7 inches of snow on Thursday, breaking a daily record set all the way back in 1893. Interstate 35 north of the city was closed for a time due to snow-caked roads and low visibilities. Thundersnow was even reported in Kansas City, along with pellets of ice.

Lanexa, Kans., in the southwestern suburbs of Kansas City, tallied 11 inches of snow, with 10 inches in places like Bonner Springs, Williamstown, Eudora and Lawrence.

Hannibal, Mo., just across the river from Quincy, Ill., got 10 inches of snow. Similar amounts fell in central Illinois and northwest Indiana. About half a foot fell in the suburbs of Detroit.

Frigid air was building east in the wake of the storm. Morning lows dipped into the negative double digits in parts of the Upper Midwest, with a morning low of minus-10 in Minneapolis.

A new storm system was entering the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest Friday, prompting blizzard warnings in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota through the evening due to a combination of snow and winds up to 65 mph. While just 1 or 2 inches of snow are forecast, the Weather Service warning of “near zero visibility” at times. The system is forecast to sweep across the Great Lakes Friday night and cut across northern New England on Saturday producing a brief burst of snow.