Midwest Storm Chaser: Severe Weather Delivered 'Most Intense 15 Minutes of my Life'

By Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
November 20, 2013; 6:23 AM
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Across three states, the National Weather Service received more than 60 preliminary tornado reports and more than 400 wind damage reports on Sunday. (Photo/Steven Drews)

"My hands were shaking; I knew that I had seen something historic here," Storm Chaser and Meteorologist Steven Drews said of the tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest Sunday.

Drews set out from his home in the western suburbs of Chicago around 7 a.m. CST.

"My first chase target I had decided was Peoria; Peoria was the place I thought that the ingredients were prime for the development of supercells," he said.

He drove through Streator and Tonica, Ill., watching the sky and looking for rotation.

A line of storms was developing and a small hook was present; rotation was brewing. Drews continued on east of the line to escape the heavy rain and hail.

Radar then showed formation near Peoria. He headed toward Benson, where he though the storm would pass him to the southwest.

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"I'm filming this thing and I'm seeing it kind of moving on the horizon, then it kind of paused," he said.

Drews estimates that he was buffeted by winds between 70 and 90 miles per hour as he filmed the event from a distance of one to two miles.

Fearing that the "pause" was actually the storm turning toward him, Drews drove to the south and to the west and got onto the back side of the storm.

"I was able to see it pulling away," he said.

Because of the speed of the storms, which were moving between 60 and 80 mph, and the direction they were heading, Drews decided to abandon the chase and see if anyone was in need of help in the surrounding area.

In total, the National Weather Service received more than 60 preliminary tornado reports and more than 400 wind damage reports across three states.

While the survey teams are still investigating the classification of the tornadoes across the state, a New Minden, Ill., tornado was preliminarily declared an EF4 by the National Weather Service. Twisters with this classification are capable of gusts up to 200 mph and strong enough to level homes.

"The other storms that I've chased they've been rope tornadoes, they've been equivalent F0 and F1," Drews said.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has confirmed that six people were killed by the severe weather across the state. As many as 200 may be injured. (Photo/Steven Drews)

When the situation calmed, Drews joined two locals and together they combed through a nearby house, looking for those trapped and in need of help.

The severe weather had shattered the windows of the home, bent the door and toppled over a giant oak tree.

Their search for residents came up empty.

"About 15 minutes after I got there, that's about when the local EMS and law enforcement showed up and they did another combing of the grounds. They didn't find anyone either, thankfully," he said.

"After that, I decided the officials have it under control. I don't want to become a casualty of the situation. I'm just going to leave the area."

As Drews began his drive home, he encountered another round of severe weather in Benson.

Blinding downpours, hail and powerful winds made driving dangerous. Temporarily, he hunkered down and waited out the storm.

"I don't want to become another statistic. You kind of think about these things after the fact. I was a little too close for my own comfort."

Twenty-four hours later, the storm footage is enough to send chills down Drews' spine and now makes up what he considers the "most intense 15 minutes" of his life.

"Mainly because remembering how intense it was in that moment, barely being able to hold open my car door, for instance. Seeing the corn stalks flying by, and the stones hitting the bottom of my legs because [they were] being sucked into the circulation, it definitely sends a few chills."

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