By Mary Wisniewski
WASHINGTON, Illinois (Reuters) - Police were turning residents away from Washington, Illinois, on Monday morning, the day after a series of tornadoes pounded the Midwestern United States, killing six people across the state and flattening the city of 15,000 people.
Bits of American flags and insulation from destroyed homes clung to trees that had been stripped of their remaining leaves and most of their branches by the Washington twister. Spawned by a fast-moving storm system, the tornado had winds of up to 200 miles per hour.
The storm, which killed one person in Washington, destroyed 250 to 500 houses in that city, said Mayor Gary Manier. He said authorities were keeping evacuated residents away from the area out of concern that the remaining structures were dangerously unstable.
"I know it's frustrating for people," Manier said amid piles of rubble left by the storm. "I'd be frustrated. I'd want to be looking for pictures."
The storm killed three people in Massac Country, two in Washington County and one in the city of Washington, in Tazewell County, said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. It produced about 80 tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.
The tornadoes leveled scores of homes and demolished entire neighborhoods. The National Weather Service confirmed preliminary EF-4 tornado damage in Washington County in southern Illinois, with winds of 166 to 200 miles per hour.
The unusual late-season storms moved dangerously fast, tracking east at 60 miles per hour, with the bulk of the damage spanning about five hours, Thompson said. Remnants of the storm brought rain and wind to the northeastern United States on Monday morning.
Utility companies reported that about 43,000 homes and businesses in Illinois and 7,000 in Missouri were without power on Monday morning.
Little was left standing in Washington on Monday morning.
"There isn't even debris; it looks like someone vacuumed up the neighborhood," said U.S. Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican whose district includes Washington.
"The good news is the tornado warning system worked, so there wasn't a lot of loss of life," Schock said. "These people knew what was coming, and they were smart and took cover."
Manier said that besides the one death, about 60 people had been injured in Washington. One factor that worked to the town's advantage was that many residents had been in churches when the storms hit, he said.
Two people, an 80-year-old man and his 78-year-old sister, were killed in Washington County, Illinois, about 200 miles south of Peoria, county Coroner Mark Styninger said.
Three others were killed in Massac County, Illinois, on the Kentucky border, where a tornado devastated several neighborhoods, emergency officials said.
The American Red Cross worked with emergency management officials to set up shelters and provide assistance.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)