FORT WAYNE — In minutes, northeast Indiana’s atmosphere went from sweltering to dangerously violent.
Friday afternoon’s thunderstorm moved at 55 mph, roaring across the region with winds of up to 91 mph, dropping hail and felling trees and utility poles everywhere it went.
Indiana Michigan Power reported that 80,000 customers in the Fort Wayne area lost power. The utility company issued a statement advising customers without electricity to “prepare for the possibility of a prolonged restoration process.”
At 9:30 p.m., nearly 66,900 customers in Allen County were without power, according to the utility’s website.
Josie Dellinger, 40, was one of them. But the possibility of spoiled food was not her biggest worry.
A 40-foot-tall oak with a trunk 2 1/2 feet wide landed on her house on Blackhawk Lane, near Trier and Lahmeyer roads, in northeast Fort Wayne. The tree obliterated her chimney, caused her bedroom ceiling to cave in and put an unwanted skylight in her den.
“You can look up and see the leaves,” she said.
Dellinger’s sons, ages 17 and 12, were home alone when the tree came down, but they were not hurt. “It’s a blessing,” she said.
As the storm was over Fort Wayne, it stretched from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Anderson, and just after the line moved east, meteorologists spotted strong rotation on radar, indicating a possible tornado in southeast Allen County, heading toward Paulding and Van Wert counties.
The wind was measured at 84 mph in the town of Paulding, Ohio, while Fort Wayne International Airport reported a gust of 91 mph.
National Weather Service meteorologist Nick Greenawalt said the extremely hot, moist air over the region fueled a violent clash with cool, dry air in the upper atmosphere. Before the storm, the air temperature was in the lower 90s, he said. After the front passed through, it was in the upper 60s.
“The more moisture and more heat that’s in the air, it just adds fuel to the storm,” Greenawalt said. “It makes a very unstable atmosphere.”
Despite the sheets of rain that came with the storm, fires were numerous across the region, from live wires down, transformers exploding and lightning strikes.
In and around the city, downed trees, utility poles and wires blocked roads. Disabled traffic signals made getting home a headache during rush hour. The Indiana Department of Transportation said nearly all its crews were working to remove trees down on Indiana, U.S. and interstate roads in numerous counties.
Complicating matters was that many forms of communication failed – cellphone networks reported being busy or unable to respond, and the National Weather Service at one point reported that the weather radio station in Fort Wayne was not broadcasting.
In Whitley County, the top 40 feet of a 100-foot radio tower was blown down, as were the top two sections of a 160-foot tower.
About 2:40 p.m., when strong winds, rain and hail were making it difficult to see in Kosciusko County, a 58-year-old woman accidentally drove into Backwaters Lake near North Webster. She managed to roll down the window, crawl out and swim to shore, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
In Headwaters Park, just north of downtown Fort Wayne, high winds damaged or destroyed up to 30 trees, and some of the downed trees tore up sidewalks and damaged fences in the park, according to a statement from Geoff Paddock, executive director of the Headwaters Park Alliance.
Paddock said the cleanup could take days or weeks but that scheduled activities like the Three Rivers Festival should not be affected.
The VA Medical Center at Lake Avenue and Randallia Drive was operating with limited power and asked that veterans with medical emergencies go to St. Joseph or Parkview hospitals. Veterans outside Fort Wayne should go to the nearest community hospital for treatment, the medical center said.
The city of Fort Wayne took more than 3,000 calls about the storm and its aftermath. While no injuries were reported, police officers helped some residents out of damaged homes, city spokesman Frank Suarez said.
This weekend, crews will be assessing damage and clearing streets, he said.
More storms were possible today. The weather service said the rain is not expected to greatly reduce drought conditions in the region.
Anne Gregory contributed to this story.