Editor’s note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Rose Marie Arce traveled to Harrisburg, Illinois, Wednesday night to survey damage from the devastating EF4 tornado that killed six people there. Here is what they saw:
We headed into the disaster area, driving northeast from St. Louis, where you could feel the pockets of hot and cold air buffeting each other. Early reports are that six people died in Harrisburg, Illinois, so that’s where we are headed.
The storm hit Harrisburg, with winds as high as 170 miles per hour, cutting a swath through the city. The mayor described the path as “three or four football fields wide.”
The greatest damage was in southern Harrisburg, in the southern part of the state. About 200 to 300 homes are estimated to be damaged or destroyed, and the Harrisburg Medical Center was also hit. The tornado tore through a wall and left several patients’ room open to the elements.
Tornado winds are incredibly powerful and affect every part of the globe. But the United States has historically experienced the worst of them. The rains that come with these storms make the ground fertile and rich, which means they tend to hit the breadbasket of any country - and the United States is no exception. The great irony is they tend to hit at the most beautiful time of year.
In Harrisburg the first sign of the severe damage is the flashing lights from police cars. Along Commercial Street we see a mini-mall, a medium sized strip mall that’s collapsed in a tangle of metal and concrete. A massive yellow “Cash Store” sign has collapsed and leans backward into the rubble. Steel supporting beams are the only structures left standing.
Ringed in a semi-circle is a half dozen reporters, along with satellite trucks. The shopping mall has become a center of sorts. We meet the town’s mayor, Eric Gregg, in the parking lot, along with the sheriff.
We make our way along the backside of the mall, along a residential road. A lone police car with a flashing light blocks the way into a small street. It’s quaint cream-colored duplex apartments have been shattered by the strength of the tornado. Some apartments are standing, their windows intact. But others look like they’ve exploded, crushed cars still in the garages.
At the heart of the worst damage, where five people died on this street, there is nothing left of their homes. The foundations are empty, not even walls remain. Under curfew the street is dark and empty. Only the brisk wind blows down the road.
Danny Morse owns this housing development. Of the 10 identical homes, about half of them were built in 2005, but the rest were newly built in November. Many of those who died lived in these new homes. He points to the rubble of the farthest house.
“A girl lived there. She was young, 22,” Morse said. “She had just moved in in November.”
He is a large man, wearing a button-down work shirt and boots. He looks around anxiously, but he’s calm: “I just cant believe it.”